Bipolar Disorder Destroyed My Credit
My kids and I live paycheck-to-paycheck, and I have tens of thousands of dollars in debt—because of my mental illness.
I consider myself a fairly frugal person. I use weekly sales circulars to plan and cook family dinners. I buy clothes on discount, and only on discount. Almost all of my children's garments have come from a thrift store or sales rack. I don't find much joy in shopping or material things. And yet, despite all this, my kids and I live paycheck-to-paycheck. I have tens of thousands of dollars in loans and credit card debt. The reason? I live with a mental illness—bipolar disorder—and it destroyed my finances.
One of the hallmarks of my illness is spontaneity and impulsivity. When I'm manic, things like sense and frugality go out the window. To the outside observer, I seem reckless and impulsive—and in a sense, I am. The symptoms of bipolar mania can range from increased activity, energy, and racing thoughts to distractibility and poor decision-making. Many of us also experience feelings of grandiosity, or an exaggerated sense of self, and this can create a predisposition for poor financial decisions. When several (or all of) these symptoms are combined, the likelihood of money problems amplifies, and that has been the case for me.
I've booked vacations I cannot afford, purchased things which I have no need for—and don't even want—and I've enrolled for collegiate classes I have no intention of finishing. I've signed up to pursue degrees I have no plans to complete. I've upgraded airfare and hotel rooms, traveling like a high roller—which, I should add, I am definitely not. And during my last manic episode, I racked up thousands of dollars in credit card debt in only 48 hours, purchasing Apple Watches and iPhones and gifts for my kids. And while I am not proud of how I learned it, the good news is I have learned: There is help and hope. There are ways to curb spending and be financially stable amidst illness. My disorder doesn't mean I am doomed to have bad credit forever, and I'm already in the process of turning it around.
Here are seven ways to protect your money and your mood when you're struggling with mental illness.
1. Be honest.
While it can be hard to admit you're struggling—particularly when you are in midst of a manic or depressive episode—honesty is important. In fact, finding a way to open up to your partner, parent, loved one, therapist, or psychiatrist is key to your financial, physical, and emotional health. "The first thing you should do is go to therapy and/or the doctor," financial and loan expert Ethan Taub tells Health. "This will take the pressure off you and make sure that you are getting the care that you need."
2. Track your mood.
Tracking your mood can also be integral to your mental and financial health. Why? Because in tracking your mood you can see subtle shifts in your behavior more quickly and (hopefully) treat said shifts before they become unmanageable, overwhelming, and/or too intense. This can be done via daily journaling, using a mood-tracker or mental health app such as Daylio, or (more costly but definitely valuable) meeting weekly or more with a therapist, counselor or coach. As you track your moods, note: Are you drinking more? Sleeping less? If so, you may be on the precipice of a manic period. Reaching out (now) to a trusted loved one or physician can help you better manage your mood—and protect your money before it's too late.
3. Create a budget or spending plan.
Make sure you're getting the help you need first, and are in a (however momentary) place of mental and physical wellness for this step: Create a budget. Work, with a financial professional if you can, to determine what items are essential and which are not. Allocate funds to cover the cost of your needs—leaving leeway or wiggle room for some of your wants and desires—and create a debt payment plan. The former will help you stay on track while the latter will help you recover from any mental and financial lapses.
Not sure where to begin? Contact your bank and lenders directly to discuss repayment options and/or research plans and programs online. You can also enlist the help of a financial advisor, though this will come at an additional cost.
4. Develop a wellness plan.
In addition to creating a spending plan, you should create a wellness plan—or a series of coping strategies and skills you can turn to when you're feeling unstable or insecure. "The best way to manage your mood and money is to build healthy coping mechanisms" Kathryn Lee—a mental health professional in New York City—tells Health. But what does this look like? "If, for example, spending is a way to cope with stress, finding other mechanisms, such as exercise, may be helpful." Reading, walking, hiking, biking, talking to friends, and listening to music are other solid ideas. Some find journaling helpful. However, sticking to a routine is imperative. "If you reward yourself with 'spending sprees,' find activities that can also be rewarding but not costly," Lee advises, "such as going to a museum, or watching a movie."
5. Consider granting someone power of attorney.
If you are particularly worried about spending during a mental health crisis, you can grant someone power of attorney—a.k.a.the ability to represent you and advocate for your best interests when it comes to your money. "Having an individual you trust manage your finances can be an option," Lee explains. Of course, you may not need to take such an extreme approach. "Sometimes it is helpful to simply entrust your physical credit card to another when you become aware of an onset of an episode."
6. Use money management tools.
In addition to creating a budget and wellness plan, using money management tools—like Mint and Greenlight—can really help you get on track. "Fintech (or financial technology) is a great solution for people who are inclined to overspend," Chris Riley, a chartered financial analyst, tells Health. "Take GreenLight for example. Although it is aimed towards teens and young adults, the features can really help stop overspending [for users of any age]. In your budget, you mark how much you wish to spend in a certain location, and if you find yourself on an unplanned, would-be expensive shopping spree, the debit card will be refused."
7. Remove temptation from your home.
And finally, if you find managing your symptoms is particularly difficult and/or if you are still struggling with impulsivity and self-control, you may want to remove temptation from your home. Cut up credit cards, or place them in a plastic container filled with water in your freezer—so you'll have to wait at least a few hours for the ice to melt to access them (and hopefully clear your head by then). Limit access to your bank account; give your debit card and checks to a trusted family member, asking them to hold both for you and grant access when you are mentally well. And set ground rules for how you can access your funds and when. Tell the individual they shouldn't just arbitrarily give you your money or cards when you ask. Instead, tell them your intentions for accessing your finances, and discuss the clear, established spending plan you set up back at Step 3.
Is all of this easy? No. Despite these tips and tricks, I've still struggled—and I've still slipped up. There are still times when I make financial mistakes because of my bipolar disorder, albeit on a smaller scale than before. But I've definitely become more conscious of my behaviors; I've become more transparent, with myself and my network of loved ones, doctors, caregives, and friends. And when I am well, I work hard to rectify any errs in judgement. I work to correct my mistakes, and to take two steps forward (even if there's been one step backward) towards a healthier financial future for me and my family. And that is everything.