In the first instalment of a new series on overcoming addictions, we talk to Karen Keng who was once addicted to shopping online. She shares how God’s saving grace delivered her from her addiction.
Getting into credit card debt is not as hard as most people imagine it to be. One moment you’re thinking, “I can pay my bills tomorrow”, and the next, you’re using one credit card to repay another. Before you know it, you find yourself buried under a pile of credit card bills.
That was the situation Karen Keng, a technical director in CityTV, found herself in. “It really started when I kept telling myself there’s always a tomorrow, or a next month to pay my bills,” she shared. “Technically, I only have to repay the minimum amount for the bill so that the bank wouldn’t chase for payment. But it came to a point when there was no more tomorrow or next month.”
That breaking point happened in 2012. In the two years leading up to that, Karen lived a lifestyle of lavish gadgets. “I’m someone who likes gadgets. Whenever there are new phones or new tablets, I’d keep buying a new model. And then I’d get other accessories for it. There was even a point where I changed phones every day.”
Shopping online was Karen’s favourite pastime. “When I got bored, I would search the Internet to find things to buy and I would convince myself that I needed the item. Other people usually convince themselves why they don’t need the item, but I was the other way around.”
Besides gadgets, Karen also loves Starbucks and good food. She would put all these purchases on her credit cards—she has multiple from different banks—and not think of the bills that were snowballing.
“It felt like the supply of money was endless,” Karen recalled. “Basically, I put everything on my credit cards—I don’t use cash.” Soon, she realised that she could withdraw cash using her credit cards and started doing that too.
Each month, Karen would only pay the minimum sum and would even use one credit card to pay for the other. Her spending was based on the credit limit of her cards instead of how much there was in her bank account. That quickly became a problem.
GOD, LET YOUR WILL BE DONE
In 2012, Karen began to find herself maxing out on her credit cards and it became harder and harder to pay her bills. By 2014, she had come to the end of herself.
“Nothing worked anymore,” she shared. She knew that if she were to continue with her lifestyle, she would have to turn to illegal means to get more money.
“So I had to make a choice: did I want to do the right thing or did I want to continue this lifestyle?” said Karen openly. “But I know that if I continued this way, the next phone call could not be from the bank. It would be from the loan shark.”
Thankfully, she decided to do the right thing. She sought help from her former cell group leader. She also admitted her problem to her pastor, Aries Zulkarnain and her boss at work Danielle Ho—two mentors she trusted and respected.
“By telling them, I wouldn’t be able to run away from it anymore,” she explained. “Having to be accountable to them helped me stay on track.”
Karen voluntarily went to a counsellor who helped her draw up a repayment plan that she could propose to the banks. She added, “There was a chance the banks could say, ‘No, we want you to pay off your loans now or you have to file for bankruptcy.’” Moreover, Karen could not comply with some of the steps that the counsellor wanted to take—for example, give up her job in church and find a better-paying one.
“I told God, ‘Let it be according to Your will for me—if You think I should file for bankruptcy, I will; if not, please help me through it.’ I was already at the end of myself, and I’m committing everything into God’s hands,” she said.
Thankfully, the banks accepted her proposal to repay her loans a little at a time.
RELEARNING TO BE A STEWARD OF HER MONEY
Karen revealed that initially, she did not think that she had a problem, but the realisation came that she was addicted to spending money.
“I could not stop it myself from doing it,” she said, “Even when I knew that there was no more money left, I would still find ways to buy things.”
As she began the difficult journey of repaying her debts, Karen learned to differentiate between her wants and her needs. “I started to give myself a target—if I wanted to buy something, I would have to earn enough from the extra jobs I took on. Instead of buying on impulse, I would wait for a while before buying the thing I wanted. That gave me a different kind of satisfaction,” she said.
Knowing that totally giving up spending was a sure way to lose the battle, Karen decided to set healthy spending boundaries. “I would give myself a certain amount to spend in a month,” she explained. “So if I decided to spend on Starbucks, I wouldn’t get to spend on other good food that I liked.”
Karen also gave up all her credit cards and learned to live on cash—a habit she keeps even today. “Even if Grab allows us to pay later, I wouldn’t use that scheme. Every time I want to buy something, I make myself look into my wallet and see how much I have.”
The journey taught Karen so much that she would not have it another way now. “I don’t wish that someone would pass me $10,000 to repay my debts,” she said, “because I know that if that happened, I won’t have learnt my lesson. I needed to go through this to learn how to differentiate between a need and a want, and to understand that I have to be a good steward of what God has given me.”
GOD SHOWED UP TIME AND AGAIN
Slowly but surely, Karen repaid every bank that she owed. In that process, God showed up multiple times to remind her that she was not alone in this.
“There were times that God would just show up,” she marvelled. “Once I had to do an MRI, which cost over $1,000, I later realised that I could use my Medisave to pay almost the full bill. Other times, I would have zero cash left in my wallet but I’d realise that I had value in my EZlink card so I could still travel. Or sometimes, I had value in my GrabPay so I could still use that. In all these moments, it was like God nudging me to remind me that He is there and He has not forgotten about me.”
Even when life got tough and her goals to repay her debts were sidetracked, God remained faithful. In April 2019, Karen was devastated by the passing of a colleague. Not long after, she received news that another very close friend might have breast cancer.
“My world immediately crashed,” she recalled. “It happened during a peak period at work, so I used work to distract myself. But even then, I found myself having to escape to the toilet to give myself space to breathe. I could barely function at all.”
During this difficult time, repaying her debts became the last thing on Karen’s mind. Miraculously, she received a letter from the bank two months later, informing her that she had cleared her loans. After some calculation, Karen realised that she was actually able to repay all her loans within a month.
“I called up all the banks to verify the figures and realise that God had outdone what I could by myself,” she shared. “One of the banks told me that not only had I cleared my loan, but there was an extra $1,300 in the bank account that I set up for the repayment. Apparently, the account had been earning interest.”
At another bank, she had only $80 left in her debt. A third bank told her that they would give her a discount if she were to repay all her loans within that month. Before June was over, Karen had repaid every single one of her loans and was officially debt-free three months ahead of schedule.
“In that moment, I realised that God remembered what I had forgotten. When I truly surrendered myself to Him, He did wonders on my behalf,” she said.
To anyone facing the same overspending issue she dealt with all those years ago, Karen has this to say, “Do you want to stop? Because if you don’t, no one can help you. When you have made that decision to stop, surrender yourself to God and force yourself to be accountable to one or two people you can trust.”
Pastor Audrey Ng who heads CHC’s Liberty Ministry gives a spiritual perspective to addictions and how Christians can overcome habits like overspending.
FIRST STEPS: We must understand that one of the greatest weapons that Satan uses against mankind today is the power of addiction. Addiction is a powerful force that takes hold of the mind, then the body and ultimately the soul of those that are caught up in it. We are all sinners and are addicted to sin and to the ways of this world and we cannot break free without the divine intervention from our Lord Jesus Christ.
So firstly, we need to admit that we have a problem and are powerless over our addiction. Romans 3:23-24 says “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:” We confess our sins before the Lord and then acknowledge the need to have help and the power of Jesus to deliver us.
Then we make a decision and turn our will and life over to Jesus and speak out the power of His death on the cross and His resurrection power over our lives.
So we admit to God first, then to other Christian friends and counsellors (James 5:16, “Confess your trespasses to one another, that you may be healed. The effective fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.”)
Finally, make a decision to remove all sins from our hearts and seek healing and deliverance. We also need to renounce the old life that we were living and give it all to Jesus in repentance. We must have a revelation that we are a new creation in Christ and we are walking in the newness of life. (Ephesians 4:22-24, “that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, 23 and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.)
In my opinion, the first most important yet the toughest step is acknowledging that one has a problem, be it spending or any other sorts or addiction. This is followed by making a decision to change. When one is struggling with addiction, one will usually feel torn and uncertain about the ability of having what it takes to quit. Hitting bottom can be a distressing feeling, yet it can also be a sobering and empowering situation to be in. Thus, do not be afraid to admit that you have a “problem” – an essential first-step one must take to break free from the addiction.
MANAGING TRIGGERS: When an individual goes through a traumatic event, the brain often instills sensory stimuli into memory. When the individual encounters the same stimuli in another experience, they associate the triggers with the trauma. Much often, these triggers can translate the emotion attached to the first traumatic event that took place.
Thus, identifying triggers is an imperative to prevent relapses. Once the individual is able to identify the potential triggers, they will be in a better position to cope and remain calm should they find themselves in similar adverse situations.
In Karen’s case, she was having a financial problem that could have led her to be in a place where she felt overwhelmed. This overwhelming feeling could be a trigger for her when she learned of her close friend’s passing and her friend’s discovery of breast cancer. The feeling of loss and helplessness could cause her much distress and thus affecting her ability to remain present in the moment. That was why she would drown herself in work and going to toilet breaks. Triggers often lead to specific thought patterns such as running away or distracting oneself to keep safe. It influences one’s behaviour. To manage triggers, she will need to identify what triggers her, give herself some space and reprogram negative beliefs. She can also always keep an open mind to advices and keep in communication with someone that can journey through with her.
AVOIDING A RELAPSE: In order not to fall back to her old behaviour, Karen needs to be mindful of her spending habits and be content with what she has. It is also normal to acknowledge the urge to buy things that she may not need. But when she finds herself in this situation, she must make a conscious decision not to succumb to the temptation of impulsive spending. Steps like addressing the root cause of her spending addiction can be one of the steps to safeguard herself from a relapse.
Identifying and managing her spending triggers and taking time to figure out what she truly values in life can be helpful too. Sometimes spending compulsively can be used as a way to escape negative feelings, such as anxiety, depression, anger, self-critical thoughts or boredom. While spending addiction might sound harmless, the feelings of regret, anxiety, guilt can take a toll on one’s finances and mental well-being. Overspending can lead to debt and it can then in turn affect one’s personal life, relationships or career.
Certain thoughts, feelings and events may sometimes increase one’s chances of relapse. It’s important to identify what are some risk factors that cause relapses. People usually experience these factors in the days, weeks or months leading up to the actual act of relapse. These are often manifested in difficult feelings leading to challenging their ability to cope with their addictions. In the event if Karen ever should relapse, she must always first remember that no relapse is too big to recover from. It is important that she must reach out for help. Seeking support from people that she trusts and surrounding herself with people who are positive influences can be her safe space where she can receive guidance and help. That was why I mentioned earlier on that she must work on the root of her addiction and then avoiding triggers can be a good step to relapse again and again. If there is a need, never be afraid to seek professional help if she finds herself struggling and unable to manage her spending addiction.