ADHD and Money Management

Interview with Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D.

Struggles around money management can cause a person to feel incompetent, guilty and totally stuck!. Aaron Graubart/Getty Images

ADHD symptoms can make it very difficult for a person to pay bills on time, organize finances, plan and budget money, control impulsive spending, and save for the future. Struggles around money management can cause a person to feel incompetent, guilty and totally stuck! Luckily, there are some strategies you can use to better manage your finances and stay in control. Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D. is the author of ADD and Your Money: A Guide to Personal Finance for Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder.

I turned to Dr. Sarkis for answers to common financial challenges individuals with ADHD face.

Q: What are the most common problem areas adults with ADHD are likely to experience in relation to money management?

Dr. Sarkis: Impulsive spending, a higher rate of credit card debt, a higher rate of debt overall, lower credit score, getting into arguments with family or significant other/spouse over money issues. Adults with ADHD can go from being excessive spenders to going the other way and becoming excessive savers and so they may have a hard time spending money on anything, which can be just as much of an issue. Not knowing where their financial papers are, having difficulty accessing their receipts or other paperwork when it is time to file taxes - that can be an issue. Also, not saving up for retirement because people with ADHD have a hard time seeing long term and so we don’t think about 5, 10, 15, 20 years down the road - we’re going to need money when we retire.

And being underemployed can be an issue – meaning that people with ADHD usually aren’t employed up to their ability, so that could lead to a lower income.

Q: Money management can obviously be a very overwhelming prospect for many. How can people begin to make changes slowly? Where is the best place to start so it doesn’t feel like such a gigantic mountain to overcome?

Dr. Sarkis: What I recommend is that people get an assistant and it doesn’t have to be expensive. You can go to CraigsList and look for the section called “Gigs” and then “Domestic” and those advertisements are free. You can put an ad in for somebody to help you with your finances. Of course, you want to do a background check on that person first and make sure they are okay. Once you hire someone, this person can sit down with you and go through your receipts and say “well, do you really need this receipt” or they can help you with Quicken, if you use Quicken software. Quicken is nice because you can press one button and all your accounts will be synced and it will balance your checkbook for you. I know a lot of us, we learned how to balance a checkbook but it went in one ear and out the other. So Quicken does this for you.

There are a lot of college students that are looking for work and that works out well because they’re looking for work and you’re looking for help – so it is a perfect match. And also because of the recession there are a lot of people looking for work that are willing to help. So you just put an ad in CraigsList saying you need somebody 5-10 hours a week and then you tell them how much you are going to pay them.

The payment is based on what everyone else is paying in your area because the going rate really differs by city. I’d say anywhere from $8 to $25 an hour.

Q: How would you word the advertisement for an assistant?

Dr. Sarkis: Personal assistant needed for organization of finances. Must know how to use Quicken. Must have reliable transportation. And if you have dogs you want to put that in there because some people are afraid of dogs. The nice thing about CraigsList is you don’t need to put in your contact info. It’s an anonymous email, so you don’t disclose your contact info unless you want to contact them.

And you can have them email their resume to you. If they have any kind of errors on the resume like spelling or grammar errors, delete the email/resume. You want someone who is detail-oriented, because people with ADHD aren’t detail-oriented people. Then what you do is take all those emails and resumes and narrow them down to about three and interview those three people.

Go with your gut. If you meet somebody and it really clicks and looks like it is going to work well, then that is great. But if you meet somebody and there is a part of you that’s just nagging and questioning, then say “no” because that person is going to be in your home. You want this person to be someone you feel you can trust. And you want to be sure to check their references, too.

Sometimes people say, “Oh, an assistant is going to cost you money,” but actually it saves you money in the long run because you are getting help for the things you’re not so good at and you have more time to do the things you are good at which will leave you making more money. Plus, you’ll have a lot less late fees. You can even have the assistant fill out checks and you sign the check and then they mail the bill and check off for you. This way your bills get paid on time. The assistant can also set up bill pay through Quicken.

I also recommend people get automatic withdrawal and automatic deposit as much as possible because then you don’t have to think about mailing a check in and there is less paperwork to lose or forget about. It is also helpful to get automatic overdraft protection which covers you so your check doesn’t bounce. With overdraft protection, if you accidentally write a check or use your debit card when you don’t have enough money in your checking account, the bank will automatically transfer the needed money from your savings account, provided you have enough money in savings.

Q: Can we take a few of the problem areas you mention and one by one list possible strategies for addressing those difficulties? For example, impulsive spending.

Dr. Sarkis: Come up with a set dollar amount that if you make any purchases, any single purchases, over that dollar amount you need to wait 24 hours before making such a purchase. For a lot of families the amount is $100. If there is an item that is over that amount you need to go home and sit on it and think about it.

Also, it helps just going with somebody shopping - somebody who doesn’t have ADHD, who is a voice of reason, but who is also understanding and gentle with you. So they can say “Okay, well this thing you are going to buy, do you really need it? Or is it just something that you want?” They can gently question you about whether you really need to purchase the item.

Q: What about dealing with debt? What if you are starting out trying to get better organized and you are in debt, what are some steps you can take to try to get out?

Dr. Sarkis: If you are in so much debt that you are not even paying the minimum on your debt, you do have rights through the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). At the FTC website, you can look up what your rights are with collectors calling. First it is important just to know what your rights are. Secondly, a lot of creditors will work out payment plans with you because they’d rather get paid something rather than nothing.

In extreme cases you could go to a credit counseling bureau, but you have to be really careful with that and make sure you go to legitimate ones. In the recommendation list in my book, there is a credit counseling bureau listed. You do not want to go to a credit counseling service that makes you pay a large amount of money up front, a fee, or anything like that.

You just have to check out who you are going to for help. In extreme, extreme cases of debt there is always bankruptcy which, of course, you want to avoid at all costs because it ruins your credit for 7 to 11 years.

Q: Money can certainly cause stress in relationships, what are some of the financial stressors that are specific to couples when one of the partners has ADHD?

Dr. Sarkis: If there is a joint account what can happen is that one person doesn’t write down what checks they’ve written. Or they spend money on a large purchase without letting the other person know. That can cause issues. What I recommend for that is possibly having separate accounts. Then everybody is in charge of their own stuff and you divide who is going to be responsible for paying what. For example, person A is going to pay mortgage and utilities and person B is going to pay for groceries and so on. If it is not a joint account, you don’t have that “did you enter the amount” argument.

In addition, sometimes people with ADHD – because they are embarrassed about their impulsive spending – don’t mention it or they have secret accounts or they hide away money. This doesn’t go pay bills, getting overdrawn on the account – this can be really frustrating for the non-ADHD spouse and can cause stress in the relationship.

Q: And to deal with that it may help to have separate accounts and designate who is responsible for paying specific bills. What are other suggestions?

Dr. Sarkis: Having someone else in charge of writing the checks. So if money management isn’t your forte, then maybe your partner should be in charge of writing the checks. Now that doesn’t mean the person with ADHD doesn’t have a say in their finances – they still do – it just means someone else is going to write the check.

It also helps to set up a weekly meeting where you both talk about what’s going on for you financially. There is a formula for having a calm and healthy discussion about financial issues so it doesn’t become an argument.

It helps to come to the meeting prepared by writing down issues beforehand. Each person speaks for 10 minutes without interruptions from the other person. Set a timer so you keep moving along. The timer is important because if you have ADHD sometimes you’re like a runaway train – once you get going talking about something you keep going! It is also important that the other person has their say without being interrupted, as difficult as that may be for the person with ADHD.

At the meeting, talk about any purchases over $100 or any other potentially problematic issues. For example, the cell phone. When one person goes over their text message limit or over their minutes and that can cause stress in a relationship because the cell phone bill is a lot higher than it is supposed to be. It is also important to meet to set financial goals whether those goals are for a year from now, 5 years from now, or even 10 years from now. When we have ADHD, we don’t always break down our goals into manageable steps. A financial goal a year from now might be to finish paying off the car or find more reasonably priced car insurance. A goal 5 years from now might be to purchase a car in full without needing a loan, or purchasing another large item. Or it could be five years from now you want to make sure you’ve contributed the maximum yearly amount to your retirement account.

Q: Anything else?

Dr. Sarkis: I think it is important that even if you’ve had problems in grade school, middle school, high school, and adulthood with having people tell you you’re not organized or even having people tell you that you are lazy, remind yourself that ADHD is a problem with motivation - not intelligence. Sometimes we just need somebody to guide us through the steps of money management. Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness. Money management might be something that we just need extra help on –and remember, even people without ADHD have money issues.

If you have had money issues in the past, be forgiving of yourself. Things can turn around and get better. It is also important to talk about treatment options for ADHD – counseling, coaching, medication, professional organizers, assistants, and financial professionals. So I think it is important to really reach out and know it is okay to ask for help.


Stephanie Sarkis, PhD. Phone interview/email correspondence. January 14 and 25, 2010.

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