Image: Juliette Fairley
Aspiring Juliette Fairley was addicted to low-paying jobs. She found help at Underearners Anonymous, a group that helps people deal with the symptoms of underearning.
updated 2/15/2011 7:47:34 AM ET 2011-02-15T12:47:34

As an aspiring actress six years ago in New York, Juliette Fairley took the "starving" part of the starving artist axiom a little too seriously. While she wasn't starving, Fairley, who was then 29, was working for free in student and independent films while making next to nothing in temp jobs and relying on her parents and credit cards to fill the gaps.

"I wasn't making any money as an actress," Fairley said. "I knew other actresses who were making money, and I couldn't understand what was wrong with me that I wasn't making any money."

What was wrong, she eventually learned, was that she didn't value her work enough to ask to be paid for it, and didn't have the courage to ask for money. Fairley was addicted to low-paying jobs. Eventually, she found help at Underearners Anonymous, a group that helps people deal with the symptoms of underearning.

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Those symptoms include giving away time, working in isolation, overworking to the point of exhaustion and putting off advancing a career. Just as Debtors Anonymous helps people recover from compulsively accumulating debt, Underearners Anonymous, or UA, helps people recover from compulsive underearning. But UA doesn't just address the problem of not making enough money -- it also focuses on helping members become confident enough to apply for jobs and express their skills.

Like many self-help programs, UA has 12 steps to recovery adapted from those used in Alcoholics Anonymous, with modifications such as "We admitted we were powerless over underearning — that our lives had become unmanageable," and several steps asking God for help. UA members have sponsors, or life coaches, whom they can call for help at any time, as well as various other tools to help them overcome their addiction to low wages, such as 12-step literature for more understanding of compulsive disease and recovery, anda written record of their time. One of the key tools though is the in-person meetings that members can attend in one of 32 cities worldwide, including London, Jerusalem, Miami, Los Angeles and several in New York. UA also has phone meetings every day of the week. In the past year, New York membership doubled to roughly 300.

"I'd probably be homeless"
According to a Wall Street Journal story, the founder of UA (who would not return WalletPop's calls seeking an interview) was inspired to launch the group while sitting in a Debtors Anonymous meeting in New York UA five years ago. A fellow member complained that her recovery from debt and overspending didn't change the fact that she still wasn't making enough money, the Journal reported. The founder could relate: He inexplicably lost interest when he was successful in a new venture even though he was living in a mouse-infested apartment overlooking a dumpster.

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Fairley was the only UA member that WalletPop interviewed that would allow us to use her real name. The rest feared it might hurt their careers to divulge their identities.

Fairley, who has appeared on television shows and is currently performing in an off-Broadway play, has come a long way from working $10-per-hour temp jobs or asking for money from her parents. "If it weren't for my parents, I'd probably be homeless. I don't know where I'd be," she said.

While working in a play six years ago in New York, she gathered her courage and asked the director to be paid for her work. He opened his wallet and gave her five $20 bills, which made her ecstatic.

"I had no concept that I could be earning more money as an artist," said Fairley, who has a master's degree from Columbia University. A friend suggested she try UA, and since then she has started a UA group in Los Angeles.

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Getting out of debt is one goal for UA members, but even after accomplishing that, they can still live in poverty for many years. Fairley's now earning $1,200 to $1,600 a month by acting in her own one-woman play, and while the 35-year-old isn't earning what she'd like to, it's a definite step in the right direction.

Road to recovery
One UA member (who wished to remain anonymous) said he knew he needed help when, for two Christmases, he couldn't afford gifts for his son. The 45-year-old runs a college planning firm in Los Angeles and was undercharging for his services.

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His dad worshipped money and he rebelled against it, he said. "I basically took jobs that didn't pay very well," he said. "I would spend; I never kept it."

He joined UA in May 2010 and learned how to use his ideas to make more money and to use his time more efficiently.

One woman who works in a media firm in Long Island, N.Y., and also didn't want her real name used, told WalletPop that she joined UA in December when she realized that she often acted as if she had more than she actually did.

"I would go on spending binges when I was unemployed, which only made the hole I was in all the worse once I had a job and could start paying bills," she wrote via e-mail. "Suddenly the $3,000 credit card debt I'd had, after paying it down slowly but steadily with the last job, ballooned to $13,000 over the course of six months of unemployment. I always have money for little things — a DVD, going out to a movie, going to the bar on the weekend — but I never do for the big, more important things -- moving out, fixing my car, etc."

At age 29, she's earning $32,000 lives at home with her parents.

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A history of accepting low-paying jobs or good ones then sabotaging herself left her in financial hot water. At one point her debts, including her car loan, climbed as high as $30,000. But after attending UA, she has paid off her car and has made great strides with her credit cards. At age 29, she's earning $32,000 a year and living at home with her parents allowing her to pay off more of her debts.

UA has also helped her confont her fear of applying for jobs that pay well, she said. She used to send out her resume without a cover letter or make other application blunders, feeling that she had no marketable skills and was completely unemployable. She's now giving herself a fair chance to be seen in her hunt for a better job and credits UA with helping her get on the right path.

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