Hidden ADHD tax lands women like me in thousands of pounds of debt

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“Why don’t you just save some money so you don’t run out next time?” asks my friend after I politely decline her dinner invitation. Again, I’ve spent my monthly paycheck long before payday and I’m waiting, struggling until it comes back.

My relationship with money has always been tumultuous. When I was little, I spent my pocket money as soon as I had some. As a college student, I was constantly on impulse purchases. When my first student overdraft reached its limit, I got another one. And another.

A form of neurodiversity, ADHD is defined by clinical psychologist Dr. Rachel Woodward as “a neurodevelopmental condition that affects the parts of the brain that control emotion, learning, memory, and self-control.” The National Institute of Mental Health reports that men are almost three times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than women, with only 4.2 percent of women receiving a diagnosis.

Women with suspected ADHD are not treated en masse, which has an impact on their finances. Without a diagnosis, the symptoms often get worse: about 80% of the debt I now incurred before my diagnosis last year at the age of 23. If I had had the resources to navigate my brain sooner, I might have been able to get out of the difficult financial waters I had thrown myself into.

My ADHD complicates my approach to finances in different ways. First, I fight impulses and often make irrational, poorly planned decisions on the spur of the moment. I made apartment offers, booked vacations and even changed countries on impulse. Nothing is considered: if I want to do something, I do it. I’m too passionate to put my head on my heart.

Second, the numbers don’t add up in my brain. Math was never my strong suit in school, and as an adult I find budgeting extremely difficult. No matter how hard I try to figure out incoming and outgoing payments each month, there’s always something tripping me up: a standing order I forgot or a bill I innocently neglected to pay. I am always cash strapped and spend my life living paycheck to paycheck, a sad reality for many as the cost of living skyrockets around the world.

Until I received my diagnosis, I thought I was destined to live in debt for the rest of my life. I couldn’t understand my brain and why I couldn’t learn from the big mistakes I was making. Then I learned that the ADHD tax was a very real and tangible thing and that thousands of neurodivergent women like me were also experiencing it.

It’s defined as “the price you pay for costly mistakes due to ADHD symptoms”, and can include parking tickets, high-interest credit card debt, low credit score, overspending on food high in dopamine and last-minute taxi reservations. For me, the ADHD tax translates into daily impulsive buying of sugary snacks, booking Ubers to make up for my constant lateness and hourly blindness, and last-minute trips to Sainsbury’s as I realize half of the contents of my refrigerator has disappeared.

“ADHD is, at its core, time blindness or, to be exact, it is future myopia. Just as nearsighted people can only read things at their fingertips, people with ADHD can only handle things up close in time,” Professor Russell Barkley explains.

In other words, people with ADHD can only consider what is right in front of them at the time. This explains why I haven’t thought through every financial decision I’ve made in my life. I’m financially impulsive, even irresponsible, because my brain doesn’t think about the future and the consequences of decisions like extending an overdraft or applying for a new credit card. My current self can’t understand, but my future still suffers.

New research commissioned by Monzo finds that ADHD can cost an extra £1,600 a year due to its impact on money management. The results also demonstrate that people with ADHD are almost three times more likely to be in debt than their neurotypical counterparts, at 31% and 11% respectively, and that people with ADHD are four times more prone to impulse spending.

Not only do people with ADHD struggle with impulse control and financial literacy, but – when undiagnosed – their symptoms impact their careers.

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Charlie was diagnosed with ADHD last year. Like me, she has little or no control over her finances and it’s starting to cause her problems. “Money is extremely stressful for me, not only because I can’t save it, but because I can’t find my way around it,” she says.

Like me too, Charlie is in debt in different ways: “I have three overdrafts, all maxed out in the thousands, two credit cards and a loan that I’m paying off. I have no idea how I got approved for all of this. If anything, I wish the bank had refused my requests.

I can’t help but think that financial regulators have a responsibility, even a duty of care, towards their clients. A few minutes of looking at my bank transactions would tell you everything you needed to know: why was I, and why was Charlie continually approved for overdrafts and credit cards that we clearly couldn’t afford?

Money will always be difficult for me. I’m on a trip and I’m starting to get to a place where I can manage my expenses. I’m still making mistakes, but I’m forming a plan to free myself from the debt I incurred before my diagnosis. Now I understand how my brain works and even if it’s not enough to go back in time and erase my financial mistakes, it is a means to my end. It’s a beginning.

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