Let’s talk about adult ADHD and money (and of course ADHD and debt too.) If you have ADHD, you’re definitely familiar with the problems associated with trying to deal with a massively detail-oriented, time-sensitive world.
If your significant other has ADHD and you don’t, please understand that it is an actual, real disorder that makes certain every day tasks very difficult.
Everyone forgets things, gets sidetracked, buys and does things on impulse, gets excited and talks a lot, interrupts people, fidgets, runs late, loses track of time, takes longer to finish a project than they imagined, and has trouble paying attention to the things they should be paying attention to every now and then.
However, when you have ADHD those kinds of things happen ALL. THE. TIME. Many many times per day, every single day, no matter how hard you try. It’s both frustrating and costly for everyone involved.
I know, because I have ADHD. My husband knows too, because he lives with me ;)
Help with ADHD and money
If you have ADHD, know this: no matter how many times you feel stupid about forgetting your work keycard for the 3rd time this morning, losing a bill (or money!) somewhere, making a payment late, overspending, etc, you are not stupid. You’re probably not even bad with money, although your finances are likely suffering.
You just interact with the world differently than people without ADHD do. And that’s ok! But since you still have to interact with the “normal” world and manage your money, it’s time to accept the things you cannot change and deal with them differently instead.
That means using coping strategies that will make your life easier and move you closer toward your money goals.
Also, consider talking with a doctor who specializes in adult ADHD about medication. (Especially if you’re self-medicating with tons of caffeine right now or get into lots of car accidents.) I can’t recommend taking the appropriate medication highly enough. It’s like night and day, especially when combined with the ADHD and money coping strategies I go over below.
Coping strategies for ADHD and money problems
I’m just going to run through the coping strategies here that have helped me manage my money so much better. Ones that have helped me eliminate late fees, dramatically reduce impulse spending due to ADHD, and deal with the problems that contributed to our debt.
There are a lot of strategies to help with money management when you’ve got ADHD, so I encourage you to read through them all first. THEN go back and click on the links at the end so you can implement the ones that resonate with you.
Here are the topics we’ll cover:
- Preventing late fees on monthly bills
- Avoiding late fees on infrequent bills
- Filing taxes on time
- Depositing money
- Building savings
- Budgeting with ADHD
- Impulsiveness, ADHD, and debt
- Job difficulties
Preventing late fees on monthly bills
If you have ADHD, chances are you’ve had more late fees than you’d care to admit. (Even if you already have the money just sitting in your account, patiently waiting for you to pay your bills.) That’s because it’s HARD to remember to pay things before their due date. Or where you put the bill. Or even that you got a bill in the first place.
My life changed once I quit trying to remember and automated my bills instead. Basically, the biggest things I did to solve the late fees issue were to:
- accept that I’m just not going to remember, and
- automate my regular monthly bills
Here’s how it works:
The vast majority of my bills are automatically paid in full with my credit card each month prior to their due date. Then my credit card is automatically paid in full each month from my checking account.
All I have to “remember” now is to never let my checking account drop below the amount my credit card will take from checking. And really, I don’t have to remember it. Most banks will allow you to set up automatic notifications too if your balance drops below a certain amount. Set that notification amount higher than you actually need, and then don’t spend below it.
A caveat with automating bills
Notice that I typically have the bills go through a credit card first, not my checking account or a debit card. This is because with rare exceptions (such as utilities) I don’t want a bunch of companies having access to my checking account. And I would definitely NEVER give debt collectors access.
I prefer that extra layer of protection because I had a bad experience with a debit card that apparently scarred me for life. If automate your bills up the same way, I suggest only using the credit card for those monthly bills. (Don’t carry the credit card with you & charge other things too. No need to tempt your ADHD and money brain.)
How to start automating
To automate a bill so it gets charged to your credit card, contact the company that bills you or search their website for terms like “automatic payments” or “autopay”. Then just follow their instructions. You may still have to make one more manual payment before the autopay system kicks in.
Avoiding late fees on infrequent bills
For annual, semi-annual, or quarterly bills, I put recurring tasks into Google Calendar ahead of time so that they repeat indefinitely every year, 6 months, or 3 months. This works for me because I use Google Calendar in Schedule view as a daily to-do list every single day without fail. I’ve made it a habit, and I mark tasks off with an X at the beginning as soon as they are complete. Making it a habit is key, because I’m never going to remember otherwise.
Those tasks look something like this “Pay XYZ bill online today” and are set to happen about 5 days before the due date each month. (I used to include the due date, but that backfired because I didn’t feel the appropriate sense of urgency.) The key here is to act on the task on that day, no matter what else is going on in your life.
You can also set up recurring reminders in Google Calendar that say similar things. Here’s how. (I don’t personally know how reliable those reminders are, but maybe someone who uses them will chime in.)
I pay infrequent or irregular bills annually if possible, just to reduce the number of times I might be late. (Plus, you often get discounts by paying annually.) These are mainly for things like car registrations, insurance, property taxes, and a few annual subscriptions for my business.
For one-off bills, it’s even simpler. I pay in full ahead of time. No bill equals nothing to (fail to) remember.
Speaking of bills, let’s talk about a big one that happens at least once a year: taxes. It deserves its own section, because not filing on time or having enough withheld can be very costly.
Filing taxes on time
A lot of potentially tax-related paperwork arrives throughout the year. When paperwork comes, I put it in folders labeled specifically for that year. Then when I go to do the taxes for the prior year, I have all the paperwork ready to go.
I use the recurring annual task method (from above) to make sure I file federal and state taxes on time too, but there are a few more tasks involved.
I set the annual tasks to show up in January for annual filing. The first task tells me to order TurboTax (here is my referral link for that) and be on the lookout for 1099s & other tax documents. The next tasks tell me to start working on Federal taxes at the beginning of February, to order fresh printer ink, and to buy paper. (Because I still print my copy in addition to saving a pdf.) Then I add weekly tasks to actually work on the federal taxes until they are done, another task to do state taxes (which don’t take long), and a final task to make sure I either sign and file them all & pay (or file an extension & pay) a few days before the deadline.
I also have quarterly tasks in there for estimated taxes. I don’t normally file estimated taxes, but I do need to make sure we’re still having enough withheld from my husband’s job that I don’t need to file quarterly for my business.
If someone else does your taxes
If you have a CPA or tax preparer do your taxes, you may not need as many tasks, but you’ll still need reminders to gather paperwork, make an appointment, sign and file, etc.
The point is, don’t let taxes sneak up on you. Especially because there can be a lot of associated paperwork to find. If you get in the habit of dumping everything in a folder labeled for that tax year, you’ll be in good shape.
Let’s switch gears a little now and talk about the income side of things, starting with depositing money.
If you’re like me, any checks and cash you receive are likely to be mislaid or forgotten. While I don’t forget that I got a check, I sometimes forget that I didn’t deposit it. It’s bad when you think you have money in your account that you don’t…
Options for remedying that:
- Direct deposit
When I had a job, I had my paycheck automatically deposited with direct deposit. You can usually have your money direct deposited into more than one account too if you like, which is great if you want part to go into savings and part into checking, or part into an individual checking account and part into a joint checking account. I highly recommend setting up direct deposit if your employer offers it.
- Develop a process for managing checks
Now that I’m self-employed, I still have some payments automatically deposited into my checking account. But many aren’t, including rental income, some affiliate income, & the occasional reimbursements.My current process for checks that I receive are to put them on my desk so they block my computer monitor until I’ve deposited them. This is not a good process… Instead, I’m working to make it a habit to simply to deposit them as soon as I take them out of the envelope. In either case I take advantage of mobile deposit to get the money into my account.
- Mobile deposit
I deposit checks and money orders through my bank’s mobile app. It is SUPER simple, only takes a minute or two, and you can do it from anywhere. Many banks and credit unions offer mobile deposit, so if yours does, by all means consider taking advantage of it. I do keep the check until I can see on my bank statement that the deposit went through as planned. I’ve been doing this for many years, and only once long ago was there any issue with a deposit. (That issue was quickly straightened out.)
Building savings when you have ADHD
Saving up money is a struggle for many people, and it can be especially so when you have ADHD. But it can be easier than you think, as long as you do in theory make enough money to pay all your bills, spend a little on fun stuff, and still have some left over. (If you don’t, doing everything possible to increase your income is likely your best bet.)
In order to make progress with saving money, you need to pay yourself first. It’s that simple. Don’t save what’s leftover, because there probably won’t be anything. It’s too easy to spend “extra” money that’s just sitting in your account. Saving first literally makes savings a priority over unplanned spending, and that’s what you want.
As you might guess, I build savings automatically.
Saving up for infrequent expenses and emergencies
We have multiple savings accounts at Capital One.
For example, I have one savings account for emergencies, one for taxes, and one for homeowner-related expenses. The first two are pretty stable, but we send money to the homeowner one monthly. Automatically. I just logged in to Capital One 360 and set up automatic monthly transfers to it from checking.
Saving up for fun things
For “fun” savings (typically trips), I use Digit. It takes tiny bits of money from my checking account, seemingly at random, and saves it for me. I don’t miss the amounts it takes at all. I highly recommend Digit, and have a detailed review of it here. You could also use it to painlessly build a starter emergency fund. (If you don’t have an emergency fund, make building one an emergency.)
Digit is also especially great because it texts you your checking account balance every day. A daily reminder of that balance makes such a difference, because it keeps it top of mind. Notably, it doesn’t text you your savings account balance unless you ask it to. That’s also great, because I kind of want to forget about that balance. That way I’m not tempted to use it for anything else.
Next, let’s talk about something that requires a little more attention when it comes to ADHD and money.
Budgeting with ADHD
Ask me how I budget, and depending on the day you’ll get different answers.
“I don’t really do a monthly budget,” I might say. (Which sticks in my craw as a personal finance person.)
Or, “I’ve been doing it so long that it’s just kind of automatic.”
Or — if I’m talking to other personal finance nerds or people who want actual information on budgeting — “I use a zero-based budget and it’s awesome.”
The truth is, ALL of that is true. I don’t really do a monthly budget any more BECAUSE I’ve been using a zero-based budget for so long that my budget is finally predicable. It’s leveled off and become a habit.
A habit that I check in with once or twice every month by tracking all of my spending.
Why budgeting & tracking your spending go hand in hand
When I first started budgeting, I tracked and evaluated how I felt about my spending every single day. Why the combo?
Because there’s nothing worse than looking back at the end of the month, wondering where all the money went, and then feeling bad that you didn’t do the things you wanted to do with your money.
(Unless it’s wandering through life with no plan at all for using your money to turn your hopes and dreams into reality.)
So tracking your spending is important.
Here’s the process I use:
- When I buy something I take the receipt and throw it in my purse.
- When I get home, I stick the receipt onto the spindle that’s on my desk, where it sits until I’m ready to input it into Quicken.
- As I input each receipt, I ask if I got enough value from whatever it was I bought, and see how I feel about it. It’s a great way to reflect on whether or not I want to continue making that kind of purchase in the future.
- I categorize the receipts and enter them as actual expenses in my zero-based budget. (I use a spreadsheet version of my budget template that contains only the categories applicable to me.)
When I first started out, I did this every day. Now I do it every couple of weeks, because it’s important to continue to be aware.
If the way I do it seems overwhelming, find a simple way to do so that you can make a habit. For example, signing up to get spending notifications from your bank via text, or logging in to check your account online every day when you get done with work.
The important part in my process is looking at each expenditure and evaluating how I feel about. (Because you can stop spending on the things you don’t get value from, and maybe even spend more on the things you do.)
The relationship between impulsiveness, ADHD, and debt
Impulsiveness can be a huge problem when you have ADHD. Even if you don’t think of yourself as an impulse-spender. The trouble is, you may not always recognize the impact being impulsive has on your finances.
Being impulsive can lead to debt, either directly due to overspending, or indirectly due to poor planning.
ADHD & overspending
For example, I never really thought of myself as an impulse spender, but the truth is that I was (and still am a little.)
I would hear an ad on the radio or see something online — something I hadn’t wanted at all until that very moment — and buy it. Or get bored and take a spur-of-the-moment trip to Disneyland. (It’s just a few hours drive from our house, so why not?) Or get sick of the hot weather, and book a nearby hotel with a lazy river. Go out to eat or wander the mall because I felt like doing something. Or decide not to work while finishing up graduate school.
You get the picture.
There’s nothing wrong with doing any of those things, if I have the money, and if it’s not earmarked for something else. But that wasn’t always the case, and things like that caused some of my debt.
How I reduced impulse spending
For me the biggest help with reducing impulse spending has been a combination of medication and my husband. He knows what my goals are, and gently reminds me of them when I get the urge to spend money on something else instead. Just that simple reminder helps a lot.
If that isn’t possible for you or doesn’t appeal to you (and even if it does), there’s one more thing that made a huge impact.
I came up with four simple rules to combat debt and impulse spending. (They helped us get completely out of debt.) In short, the rules are:
- I need to already have the money in my hot little hands before buying something. (No borrowing.)
- I have to want what I’m considering buying or spending money on more than the other things I can do with that money. It has to be worth it to me.
- When I catch myself wanting something, I ask myself, “Wait, did I want this or even know about it before now?”
- I wait at least 24 hours before spending on anything unplanned.
(You can read more about these 4 simple rules and get your own copy here if you like.)
ADHD & poor planning
Acting on impulse is pretty much the opposite of planning carefully. But it doesn’t just relate to spending. When you assume that life will go as planned or don’t worry about planning for the future, you don’t leave any wiggle room in the budget for emergencies, changes in life situations, or even flat tires. That often leads to debt.
So, you have to just bite the bullet and plan for the unexpected and the future. It doesn’t have to be a complicated plan, but it should cover the basics and involve an emergency fund.
To that end, I got basics like:
- health insurance
- an emergency fund
- investing for retirement (in my IRAs)
- term life insurance
- homeowner’s insurance
- flood insurance (because we live very close to where it has flooded)
- a will and estate plan
A critical change
The biggest thing I did that helped improve my finances in this respect was: whenever I forgot something or realized I screwed up, I started assuming it or something similar could happen again.
I made a huge effort to be prepared going forward. In other words, I stopped chalking things up as somehow not “counting” because they were unusual. I started assuming that something unusual was going to happen pretty often.
I know it can seem overwhelming or hard to know where to start to get those things. So my advice is to just start somewhere. Because it doesn’t really matter where you start. It matters that you keep going, one little step at a time. Maybe your first step could be writing a note on your calendar to look up what’s needed for a will in your state, for example. Or maybe to find a list of fee-only advisors in your area if you’d like investment advice. Just pick something (anything!) and take action.
For me, the biggest problems with work were getting there on time & being able to concentrate on work once I arrived. Here’s what I did to resolve and improve those things.
Getting to work on time
Let’s talk about running late first, because although that may not seem directly related to ADHD and money, it definitely can be. Especially if you work for a company that’s very concerned about when you start and end work. Or if you’ve been written up for being late.
Here’s the thing that helped me back when I worked at an enormous, extremely time-conscious corporation:
You know how it should take you x amount of time to get to work?
You need to stop telling yourself that.
Chances are you’ve chosen the amount of time it “should” take if everything goes perfectly. If you don’t forget your keycard or that you needed to get gas, and if traffic is light and there are no accidents or other delays of any sort.
The amount of time it “should” take is not the amount of time it’s going to take, most of the time.
If you are often late to work, arrive at meetings late, or are late to anything really, do this instead:
- Figure out how many minutes late you typically are
- Add that amount of time + 5 minutes to the amount of time it “should” take
- Set an alarm on your phone or in the house so that you truly leave at that new time
- If you’re STILL late, add more time and adjust until you are consistently getting there at least 3 minutes early. Slightly early IS on time, for a job and many other things.
I KNOW it seems like you would have time to just do one or two things real quick before you leave, but you don’t. Just tell yourself you don’t. Because you don’t. Did I mention that you don’t?
By trying to be efficient or believe that you have extra time, you are costing yourself money and job stability. Ignore the urge.
You will be doing the right thing by leaving at the new, earlier time. If you do happen to arrive super early every now and then because everything somehow went exactly right, you’ll look good to the people who pay your salary, and that’s worthwhile. There is no downside.
Focusing ON work
You know what distracts you at work. For me, the biggest things were people walking by my desk or standing nearby talking. Or people taking a conference call on speaker.
When I had a job, I would just go shut someone’s door if they were on a conference call that needed to be on speaker. (I couldn’t get a thing done otherwise and knew it was ok to do in the company culture.)
I told my supervisor that I had ADHD and wanted to be able to better concentrate on my work, so could I move my desk to a different location? It was no problem.
(Technically I was unofficially asking for an accommodation, and it went well. ADHD can definitely be an actual disability, but it’s up to you whether or not you want to disclose it to your employer, either officially or unofficially.)
Emails were a big distraction too, so I started checking them only a few times a day. At first I worried that I might miss something urgent, but almost nothing was ever urgent. People also called or came over if they needed to know something immediately.
More work-related strategies
I documented the heck out of everything I did for my job — especially things I didn’t need to do very often or had to do on certain days or intervals. That way I could just follow the steps instead of having to remember or look them up again later. My supervisor thought this was a good idea because it made it easy for people to fill in when I was on vacation. (Which is how I presented it to them.)
Calendar tasks and yellow stickies helped make sure I got the appropriate things done each day. I would often wear headphones at work too, even though I wasn’t listening to anything most of the time. (Regular music & podcasts are distracting to me, unless I’m doing something that doesn’t require much thought.)
Now that I work for myself, I do similar things. If my husband is home and I really need to concentrate, I tell him that and ask him not to talk to me for x amount of time.
I DO now listen to special music while I’m working that’s pretty repetitive and designed to help people focus. It’s called focus@will and it helps. I set it for 55 minutes at a time and get out of my chair when it stops for a quick break to just move a little too. Moving helps.
For other ideas, this page is aimed at employers, but if you scroll down to their “Accommodation Ideas” section there’s a whole list of ideas that may be helpful.
Prioritizing and getting things done
If you have a job, chances are your employer gives you your assignments & deadlines, and lets you know which ones are a priority, so this section may not apply so much to work, but it could still apply to your personal life. (If your employer doesn’t let you know which tasks are most important to the business or give a deadline, there’s nothing wrong with asking.)
This part is critical if you’re self-employed. Otherwise it’s WAY too easy to jump from interesting project to interesting project and never complete anything or earn the kind of money you could be earning.
As completing projects and not falling behind goes, my golden “Make Progress” rules are:
- No new projects not on list
- No new tasks on current day
- Do the important things first each day
- Delegate and ask for help
I have them on a whiteboard right next to my desk, and following them has worked wonders.
ADHD and finances
I hope this was helpful. Feel free to chime in the comments if you have other tips that help you!
If you take nothing else away from this article about ADHD and money, these are the 2 most helpful tips:
- Use a daily task list (aka Google Calendar in my case)
- Set alarms as reminders and do not turn them off until you’ve done what they’re set for
- Allow extra time
Just those few things will help immensely. If you’d like to implement some of the strategies I use, click on the links below to jump back to them.