ADHD and my perpetual spending spree – The Curve

ADHD and my perpetual spending spree

The Big Share - by Dee

I’m a 27-year-old gal with absolutely no savings to my name. And when I say none, I mean absolutely zero… in fact I actually owe my parents over $1k. I have no shares outside of KiwiSaver, and I have a grand total of $42 in my spending account which needs to get me through the next 3 days. Hopefully my phone bill doesn’t get debited between now and then... 

Note to self: check when that comes out so I can figure out if I can afford to go to the supermarket later today.

Every time pay day comes around, I will suddenly feel (or at least act) like I can afford anything. Extravagant gifts, Uber Eats, donations to Give a Little pages (often for causes less needy than my electricity bill), and an array of other things that I deem absolutely necessary. My economist Dad would argue otherwise.

By the end of the first week after pay day, my entire salary without fail will be nearly wiped out.

I always wondered why I was consistently the person who struggled to manage my finances. Be it paying flat bills on time, or topping up my bus card before it runs out. It always baffled me how difficult financial admin was. I wrote it off as being a student and didn’t think too much of it. My privileged upbringing also masked my spending issues because my basic needs were always met - any income earned from my lucrative nannying gigs was purely spending money.

A telltale sign that something wasn’t quite right should have been when my school friends started a financial support group for me but I was 16 and thought it was funny, not an actual problem. A year ago I was diagnosed with ADHD and upon discovering that my brain works differently, everything started to make a whole lot more sense. I discovered that my primary traits of impulsivity, time blindness, distractibility, and issues with prioritisation are the invisible villains of my economic woes. (There are 3 types of ADHD: predominantly hyperactive-impulsive, predominantly inattentive, and a combination of both).

It is really important to highlight that not everyone with ADHD struggles with their finances, however there are certain ADHD traits that can significantly affect spending behaviours and patterns.

Having ADHD is also expensive in itself.

In an ADHD brain, executive function which controls decision making, prioritisation, time management, and emotional regulation - is ‘impaired’ (although I detest that word). In short, it affects the way our brains process information, impacting our behaviour. 

It’s estimated that approximately 4-6% of the adult population have ADHD; it’s not as rare as you may think. Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder needs a serious re-brand because, contrary to popular belief, people with ADHD have an abundance of attention. Unfortunately it's just that we struggle to channel it into things like paying our bills on time.

ADHD is incredibly stigmatised and misunderstood. This neuro-developmental condition (let’s agree not to call it a disorder), is significantly underdiagnosed particularly in women and girls. Not surprisingly there has been far more research done into boys and men with the condition so a lot of women (like myself or Soph from The Curve) fall through the cracks and often don’t get diagnosed until later in life. Millions of women globally will never receive a formal diagnosis which is so tragic as it’s often referred to as one of the few diagnoses you actually want to get.

Although ADHD can bring so many wonderful strengths - including empathy, creativity, resilience, an ability to connect deeply, and an eagerness to learn - undiagnosed ADHD can be hugely debilitating and even dangerous. On average, ADHD reduces life expectancy by 13 years - yes you read that correctly. It’s worse than the top five killers in the US combined. 75% of people with ADHD also have a secondary condition (e.g. dyslexia, anxiety, depression, alcoholism, autism, OCD).

Devastatingly, people with ADHD are 5 times as likely to attempt suicide, which is a statistic we all must work to turn around.

ADHD is thought to be associated with low levels of dopamine (especially in women). Basically, this means that we’re instant gratification girlies who seek quick rewards. This can look like spending impulsively and making reckless financial decisions. An analogy that really resonates with me (from an incredible book called ‘ADHD 2.0’ – run don’t walk to get your hands on it) is that ADHD is like having a car with a Ferrari engine, but with bicycle brakes. It’s no wonder people with ADHD are often highly energetic, motivated, and passionate (and for me, a tad chaotic!).

Financial planning and management can often be more challenging for people with ADHD. For me personally, impulsivity results in a lack of savings and regular cash flow issues. That’s not to say I’m not incredibly rich with spontaneous adventures and fun stories, but keeping my finances in check is much harder than the average ‘neurotypical’ person. When I say cash flow issues, I mean: I recently had to call my parents in a parking lot and ask for an immediate loan. I literally couldn't afford to pay the fee to drive my car out… My dad is a wise economist who did everything to help me understand money and finances, but despite his best efforts, the apple clearly fell far from the tree.

On average, people with ADHD are approximately four times more likely than those without to spend impulsively and rack up huge debt on credit cards. On the bright side, even though I never knew I had ADHD I never allowed myself to get a credit card and will try to avoid it at all costs (pun intended). In the last couple of months alone, I’ve had to pay additional court fines after paying a speeding ticket late and I’ve been charged multiple late payment fees (people with ADHD are nearly three times more likely to miss a bill payment). Over time this stacks up and can negatively affect credit scores, as well as contribute to the fact that people with ADHD pay higher interest rates.

Studies from the US and Germany found that people with ADHD spent on average $2590 each year. Deloitte calculated the social and economic costs of ADHD in Australia in 2019, which was a whopping $25,071 per person and $20 billion overall (wild right?). This includes income losses due to reduced productivity and a myriad of other facets of the ‘ADHD tax’ - a term for the extra resources, effort, and time that people with ADHD expend throughout their lives. The ADHD tax can be an actual cost or it can refer to an emotional cost, like lower self-esteem, shame, and heightened stress. 

I used to (and sometimes still do) get waves of panic and anxiety hearing about comparable friends’ savings, or looking through my wads of bank statements. I decided to call the bank in 2017 to turn them off. I used to beat myself up so much and the thought of dating was terrifying as I was convinced that when the right guy came along, he wouldn’t want to date me because of my financial status. It turns out I’m not alone in this thinking; a UK survey found that twice as many people with ADHD experience financial anxiety, compared to the general population. 

No matter how hard I try to budget, I have never once stuck to one.

For most of my twenties I haven’t tracked or categorised my spending, so I haven’t known where my money was going.  It’s common for those of us with ADHD to have a harder time knowing, or estimating how much we’ve spent, but the Westpac CashNav app (not sponsored) has enabled me for the first time to understand my spending. Boy did my heart palpitate looking at those numbers but it has been so helpful and has led me to cut some unnecessary spending. 

ADHD brains have been described by psychiatrists as like a popcorn machine, with kernels constantly popping with thoughts and ideas. It can be difficult to see one idea through before the next kernel pops and I’m off on another tangent. Of course, there are ways to reduce the speed at which these kernels pop, allowing for deep focus, but it takes a lot of effort and attention (and often medication). ADHD popcorn brains never sleep, they incessantly add ideas which almost always have a price tag (Jessie J is now on replay in my head – sorry if it’s now in yours). 

The challenge at the heart of everything is curbing the constant need to ‘do it all’. I oscillate between wanting to create memories by living it up in my twenties, and desperately wanting to save for the future. It’s also worth saying that I know this is something everyone experiences, not just those who are neurodiverse… 

And on that note - I want to address the neurotypical people who are reading this. No doubt there will be a few of you, either consciously or subconsciously, who are thinking I haven’t tried very hard. That I need to learn some self control or be more disciplined. I don’t have the energy (or word count) to continue to convince you otherwise, but trust me when I say that I have tried very hard to change my habits. I hope, for the sake of all the wonderful people who are suffering with ADHD, that people can let go of this ‘lazy/stupid’ narrative. It’s causing more damage than you know. 

And to my fellow neurodiverse, diagnosis or not, I hope we can all be less harsh on ourselves. 

ADHD-ers are often colourful, passionate, creative, generous and beautiful people. If you are lucky enough to have those qualities, but struggle with things like your finances and personal admin… remember you can’t have it all and I know I wouldn’t trade those qualities for anything.


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