Managing finances when you have ADHD

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We’ve all made financial decisions we’ve come to regret. Remember the time you bought those shiny new headphones on credit before your paycheque came in because you just couldn’t wait? Or that weekend you subscribed to every newspaper and podcast feed you came across without checking to see if you had enough money to cover the costs each month?

Now, let’s add another wrinkle to this scenario. What if you knew these purchases were impulsive but you made them anyway? What if you knew bills were piling up but you weren’t able to bring yourself to look at them, let alone pay them? What if you weren’t able to talk about your financial difficulties with your family, spouse or partner without getting defensive and taking things personally?

These are some of the major money problems people with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, or ADHD, as it’s commonly known, can have.

The DSM-5, a manual of diagnoses and criteria which psychologists use to diagnose patients, defines ADHD as “a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.”

To break that down, we all have something called executive function: That’s a function of the brain that allows us to review and think about the decisions we are making, and create a strategy for seeing those decisions through. Now, people like me, who have ADHD—we don’t have as much control over that executive function. And what that looks like from the outside is impulsive and erratic behaviour, which can have financial consequences.

According to a study from Ohio State University, people who suffer from ADHD are far more likely to make impulsive purchases, pay late fees on bills, have overdrawn bank accounts and change occupation. The reason for that is something the study calls delay discounting, or the preference amongst ADHD patients for short term rewards over larger long term or delayed rewards.

As someone with ADHD, I have experienced each and every one of these challenges; however, they are not insurmountable. Laura MacNiven, the co-founder and director of services at Springboard Clinic, which specializes in treating patients with ADHD, discusses some of the biggest challenges faced by ADHD patients, and some practical solutions they can take to mitigate them. Even if you don’t have ADHD, some of this advice can be helpful; after all, ADHD patients aren’t the only people who make impulsive purchases, and no one wants to miss bill payments.

Managing impulse spending

According to the study, one of the best ways to manage those impulsive purchases is to learn your temptations. Where do you tend to make the most impulsive purchases? Is it at malls? Arts and crafts stores? Museum gift shops? Knowing your purchasing habits can help you avoid going to these places when it is not essential to do so. However, at some point you are going to have to go shopping, whether for groceries, gifts or pleasure. One thing MacNiven recommends is to create a checklist of questions to ask yourself before every purchase: “When you’re about to buy something, you should ask yourself, ‘Have I thought about this purchase for more than 30 minutes?’” According to MacNiven, that 30 minutes gives the brain time to engage its executive function. She also recommends you make a list and stick to it. Shopping with someone else? Give them the list to help you stay accountable to it.

Ah, you might say, but not all shopping happens at stores. The rise of e-commerce and online shopping has unleashed a torrent of impulsive spending. If you find yourself spending a lot online, MacNiven recommends keeping your credit card information offline as much as possible, and avoiding automatic billing where you can. For example, try to pay for things with money in your bank accountant, you can use PayPal for online purchases with your bank account as well.

Managing credit cards and debt

We all know how intimidating and disheartening that ever growing credit card balance can be. And which number on the statement do you need to pay—is it okay to go with the “minimum payment due?” But underneath that, the “new balance” is listed, too. “Being bombarded with all these different numbers can be a challenging executive function task,” MacNiven says, and they can be difficult to focus on and difficult to understand for people with ADHD.

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