The hidden ADHD tax is landing women like me in thousands of pounds of debt

Until I received my diagnosis, I thought I was destined to live in debt for the rest of my life. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t learn from the financial mistakes I was making

Eleanor Noyce
Thursday 11 August 2022 16:02 BST
ADHD treatment may be needed by hundreds of thousands more children, experts suggest

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

My relationship with money has always been tumultuous. When I was little, I’d spend my pocket money as soon as I had it. As a university student, I was constantly making impulsive purchases. When my first student overdraft ran to 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 impacts the parts of the brain that control emotions, 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 just 4.2 per cent of women receiving a diagnosis.

Women with suspected ADHD are going untreated in their droves, and it’s impacting their finances. Without diagnoses, symptoms often worsen: around 80 per cent of the debt I now owe I accrued before I was diagnosed last year, at the age of 23. Had I had the resources to navigate my brain sooner, I might’ve been able to wade my way out of the difficult financial waters I’d thrown myself into.

My ADHD convolutes my approach to finances in a few different ways. Firstly, I struggle with impulse, and I often make irrational, ill-planned decisions on a whim. I’ve put offers down on flats, booked holidays and even moved countries largely impulsively. Nothing is thought through: if I have an urge to do something, I’ll do it. I’m too passionate to place my head over my heart.

Secondly, numbers don’t add up in my brain. Maths was never my strong point at school, and in adulthood, I find budgeting extremely difficult. No matter how hard I try to figure out the payments I have coming in and out each month, there’s always something that trips me up: a standing order I’ve forgotten about or a bill I’ve innocently neglected to pay. I’m always running short on money and I spend my life living paycheck to paycheck, a sad reality for many as the cost of living skyrockets globally.

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 heavy mistakes I was making. Then, I learned that the ADHD tax was a very real, tangible thing and that thousands of neurodivergent women like me were experiencing it, too.

It’s defined as “the price you pay for costly mistakes due to symptoms of ADHD”, and can include parking tickets, high-interest credit card debt, a low credit score, excessive spending on high dopamine foods and last-minute taxi bookings. For me, the ADHD tax realises itself daily in impulse buying sugary snacks, booking Ubers to compensate for my constant lateness and time blindness, and last-minute trips to Sainsbury’s as I realise half the contents of my fridge has gone off.

“ADHD is, at its heart, a blindness to time or, to be exact, it is a near-sightedness to the future. Just as people who are nearsighted can only read things close at hand, people with ADHD can only deal with things near in time”, Professor Russell Barkley explains.

In other words, people with ADHD can only consider what is right there in front of them, in that moment. It explains why I’ve failed to think through every financial decision I’ve made in my life; I’m financially impulsive – irresponsible, even – because my brain doesn’t consider the future and the implications decisions like extending an overdraft or applying for a new credit card might wield. My present self cannot understand, but my future always suffers for it.

New research commissioned by Monzo finds that ADHD can cost an extra £1,600 per year on account of its impact on money management. The findings also demonstrate that people with ADHD are almost three times more likely to struggle with debt than their neurotypical counterparts, resting at 31 per cent and 11 per cent respectively, and that people with ADHD are four times more likely to impulse spend.

Nonly are people with ADHD struggling with impulse control and financial education but that – when undiagnosed – their symptoms are wielding an impact to achieve highly in their careers.

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Charlie was diagnosed with ADHD last year. Like me, she has little to no control over her finances and it’s beginning to cause her problems. “Money is intensely stressful for me, not just because I can’t seem to save any of it but because I just can’t navigate it”, she says.

Also like me, Charlie is indebted in a few different ways: “I have three overdrafts, all maxed out in the thousands, two credit cards and a loan I’m paying back. I have no idea how I got approved for any of it. If anything, I wish the bank had declined my applications.”

I can’t help but feel that financial services have a responsibility, a duty of care even, towards their customers. A few minutes spent looking at my bank transactions would tell you all you needed to know: why was I, and why was Charlie, continuously approved for overdrafts and credit cards we plainly couldn’t afford?

Money will always be tricky for me. I’m on a journey, and I’m beginning to get to a place where I can navigate my spending. I still make mistakes, but I’m forming a plan to free myself of the debt I acquired before my diagnosis. Now, I understand the way my brain works and though that isn’t enough to turn back time and erase my financial mistakes, it’s a means to an end. It’s a beginning.

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