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Confessions of an underearner
One man recounts his foray into Underearners Anonymous, where he tries to address his tendency to avoid setting and achieving goals
These are my confessions...
These are my confessions... Thinkstock/iStockphoto

In high school, I bought my own M&M's for marching band fundraisers rather than sell them to my neighbors. Not because I'm a huge fan of M&M's, but because I hated to sell anything.

I've never really negotiated for a raise... I've either waited until my boss gave me one or left for a better job.

I have generated countless ideas that I thought were brilliant at the time I came up with them, only to toss them out a short while later as rubbish.

I can be a world-class procrastinator.

According to Underearners Anonymous, these are all classic symptoms of being an underearner, and the cure is a 12-step recovery process aided by the support group above.

But I wondered if that was really the answer to my money issues.

Fortunately, there was an easy way to find out.

I learned that a cluster of Underearners Anonymous chapters in the New York City area were holding a special storytelling event on Saturday, June 1, which they dubbed Share-A-Day. At the events, members would share how UA works for them. It only cost $10 for four hours, which sounded like a bargain to me, not to mention a great opportunity to check out the organization and see if I belonged to their tribe.

Coming face-to-face with my underearning

The night before Share-A-Day, I feared that I'd be the only person at the event. That I'd be alone in a cold room with metal folding chairs as a man who looked like Chris Farley told me how to pull my life together. Both were discomforting thoughts.

By Saturday afternoon, I was running late to the meeting. (Symptom of Underearning No. 1: Time Indifference — We put off what must be done and do not use our time to support our own vision and further our own goals.) The event was held in a conference room at St. Margaret's House, a senior living facility not too far from Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange.

My entrance to Share-A-Day did not go smoothly. I had paid my $10 admission fee with PayPal. A stern-faced man in the foyer of the conference room didn't have a record of my transaction and was skeptical about whether I had actually paid. I had to email him my receipt from my phone to join the event, already in progress.

Once in, I saw about 80 people listening to the first two speakers seated at the front of the drab linoleum-tiled conference room. I grabbed a metal folding chair in the back, sat down and scanned the audience. It was equal parts men and women, most appeared to be in their 40s and 50s. I leaned in to hear the speakers.

The speakers testified that they had used Underearners Anonymous to successfully transition from jobs that paid the bills — known in the UA vernacular as "B jobs" or "recovery jobs" — to do more of what they loved. They did this by meticulously tracking their time with detailed worksheets, meeting frequently with other underearners for encouragement, writing down their goals and "working the steps and the tools."

How we all got here

Underearners Anonymous started in 2005 as an offshoot of Debtors Anonymous. Some DA members realized that getting out of debt was only part of the solution. They believed that their entire relationship to money and their habitual time-wasting was a major source of their financial problems. Most of the people I met on Share-A-Day participated in other 12-step programs. "I came for the green and stayed for the self-esteem," is how one Share-A-Day speaker put it.

As you can probably glean from the name, Underearners Anonymous is an intensely private organization. Members that I spoke with did not want to go on the record. (UA Tradition No. 11: Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.)

As far as what actually goes on, Underearners Anonymous combines the rigor of a time management class and the fervor of a church service. Money and earning are described in spiritual terms. "UA is about souls coming out of hiding," one member said during the meeting. We ended Share-A-Day holding hands in prayer.

But what had I taken away for my $10 and four hours of my Saturday?

What's God got to do with it?

Not to be callow, but I wondered what all of UA's spirituality had to do with my tendency to earn less than my potential. Everything, according to the UA members I spoke with. (UA Step No. 3. Make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand God.)

But did I really need a 12-step program to fix my money issues? I spoke with Marc Allen, author of numerous self-help books including The Type-Z Guide to Success: A Lazy Person's Manifesto to Wealth and Fulfillment, which was mentioned by one of the Share-A-Day speakers as a good reference for underearners.

"I love 12-step programs," Allen said. "UA helps people clean up their financial integrity." For Allen, financial integrity is about keeping your commitments and paying back people what you owe them. Which sounds like a good way to stay out of debt — and is very twelve-step-y — but the connection to earning still seemed tenuous to me.

Allen also appreciates that UA fosters a strong sense of goal-setting among its members, to help them develop a vision of the career they want. In his book, he advocates that people write a one-page plan for the life they desire. That simple method, he says, helped him go from being a broke musician in Berkley, Calif., to a successful publisher of self-help books in Marin.

What Allen says and UA preaches about goals makes a lot of sense. Being more precise about what I want, identifying the steps I need to reach those ambitions, and following through will help curb my underearning tendencies. (UA Tool No. 6. We set goals for all aspects of our lives, write them down, measure our progress, and reward achievement.)

Spending more than four hours with recovering underearners motivated me to get organized about my career and money. I felt that I needed to be more protective of my time, focus on what was really important and end my massive procrastination habit. Share-A-Day also gave me a strong appreciation for the connection between goals and money. As one UAer said, "A vision without solvency is a hallucination."

Personally, I vowed to make a detailed five-year professional and financial plan. It's something I have been putting off since I moved to Brooklyn from Washington, D.C., last July after my marriage ended. I've been too content to sit back and take things as they happen rather than push for bigger goals. And not having a plan is a plan... a bad one.

But Share-A-Day also made me reconsider whether I actually was an underearner. Some of the people in the meeting were dealing with serious financial issues, such as unemployment and eviction. And while most of the UAers I met wanted to do more work in their true calling, I've never had a hard time earning a living doing something I've genuinely liked. The event made me tremendously grateful for the opportunities I've had. And that alone was worth my 10 bucks.

Does Underearners Anonymous work?

Is UA really effective? I think Charles Duhigg, a New York Times business writer and author of the excellent book The Power of Habit, explains the effectiveness of 12-step programs best when he described Alcoholics Anonymous on National Public Radio: "The reason why AA works is because it essentially is this big machine for changing the habits around alcohol consumption and giving people a new routine, rather than going to a bar or drink." The same concept applies to UA. It breaks bad money habits by giving you better ones.

But my main beef with UA is the time requirement: For an organization at least partially dedicated to time management, it seems to require a lot of hours to become a member and form all those good money habits — hours when presumably you could be earning.

Many UAers suggested newbies go to multiple meetings a week and have daily calls with their sponsors. Meanwhile, I barely have time in my schedule to meet up with friends and family. And maybe having people at UA to support my career development would be nice, but it also seemed rather laborious. Couldn't I just occasionally meet a mentor for coffee?

I don't want to dismiss the positive experiences people I've met have had with UA. Many seem to have greatly benefited from the program and improved their financial lives. Yet I don't think I need it to achieve similar results.

Then again, maybe that's my fear of commitment talking. (UA Symptom No. 11: We do not follow up on opportunities, leads, or jobs that could be profitable. We begin many projects and tasks but often do not complete them.)


More from LearnVest...

* How I squandered my inheritance at age 18

* The dreaded question: What are your salary expectations?

* Confessions of job hoppers

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