• Terri

Confessions of an ADHD Financial Counselor: Impulsive Spending and how to stop buying ALL THE THINGS

Author: Terri

The impulsivity that comes with ADHD isn’t just about being a daredevil or storming away in an argument. Another fun thing that comes with it: impulsive spending! I mean, those displays in the check-out lines at Target and Walmart? Clearly made for us ADHDers! Unless I’m the only one in line, I usually end up buying a few things while I’m waiting.


Why yes, I do need a snack! Actually, make that three snacks. Something fruity, something salty, and chocolate, obviously. A drink, more chapstick (I’m always losing mine). OH what’s this flavor gum? And, sure! Why not a magazine!? Shoot – sometimes I end up buying a portable charger I don’t even need because they just make it look so NECESSARY! The best marketers have to be married to someone with ADHD, I tell ya.

I’m 30-years-old, and I just found out I have ADHD last year. Looking back throughout my life, I can definitely see that pattern. The example above is not an exaggeration. I can’t tell you how many times I went to buy something just to get home and use or put it away and find that... oh my god I already have it! A past Terri was definitely looking out for future Terri. Self high-five!


I have now purchased at least 3 different self-tanners that I've yet to even read the instructions on. It’s the end of summer - what am I waiting for? I buy new mascara at least twice a month; there is absolutely no way I'm passing up cute nail polish if the color calls to me from across the aisle; clothes, shoes, beauty products… you’d think I would look more put-together with all the crap I buy! Now, I can’t say I’ve gone into “debt” due to this; though, I wonder what my savings accounts might look like if I didn’t spend so impulsively.

Luckily, I'm pretty cheap.

"To be honest, I'm PROBABLY gonna spill coffee on it anyway."

I'm always searching for a deal, and I never pass up a clearance sale. I'm also no good at online shopping – seriously, who has time to wait for something to be delivered?! I WANT IT NOW! I want to try the clothes on and feel the stuff in my hands and see them with my own eyes in person! This oddity about me has actually saved me some money – by the time I remember there's something in an e-cart, I'm already over it and onto the next! I mean, I know there are things that are “worth” spending the money on, for quality purposes. But my impulsivity gets in the way of my research, reviews, and saving for those higher-priced items. I’d rather buy my $3 Walmart tanks 35 times a year than spend $20-$40 on a “better quality” shirt. To be honest, I’m probably gonna spill coffee on it anyway. I’d rather ruin a $3 shirt than a $30 one – and OMG $30 for a white tank top when I can get TEN of them that are similar from somewhere else?! Who’s spending habits are we criticizing here, anyways?!


Okay, Okay, Okay….

MAYBE I’m not being completely open with my impulsive spending as I could be - I can already feel the judgement (or internalized judgement) just thinking about it! But I will admit, when I cancelled my wedding 2 years ago, all that money I was putting into savings each paycheck was put towards a “treat yo'self” spree I was on.

"Emotional Spending for an ADHDer is like self-medication."

This is deeper than plain ole’ impulsivity - this is emotional spending. There are many reasons someone with ADHD may impulsively buy something, but this is one reason I can absolutely identify with. Emotional spending for an ADHDer is like self-medication: you can forget about whatever it is you’re dealing with, plus - you have a sense of power/ownership over your decisions (new purchase), and you get something NEW! It’s that Dopamine-Hit Trifecta. It’s called Retail Therapy for a reason.


Even if it isn’t emotional spending, ADHDers can be impulsive buyers for each of those separate reasons on their own. I mean, I think the dopamine thing is the underlying factor, here, but I’m not expert! Think about it – for many of us, we have this internal voice in our heads telling us what we should be doing, who we're supposed to be, what we're supposed to buy – this internal voice is the mixture of all those people in our lives telling us that what we were doing was wrong. So, it makes perfect sense that, when we have the freedom and ability to make a purchase, we impulsively buy things we don’t need (or sometimes can’t afford). That's just us taking our power back - our “should” back. It is the financial equivalent of stomping up the steps and slamming our bedroom doors closed. It’s MY money and I’m going to spend it how I want to!

Also, you can't forget the novelty part of ADHD – we see something new and shiny and we HAVE to have it! It's going to CHANGE EVERYTHING! How did I ever live without this Target shirt that says “kind” on it in cheetah print?! How will the world know that I'm kind if don't buy this? What if the people that see me in this shirt decide to be kinder to everyone they come in contact with? The entire humanity of Earth is on the line here if I don’t buy it!! I mean it was literally made for me, wasn’t it?! (BTW I still have that shirt and love it – wear it all the time ).


OH YEAH - let’s not forget the whole Impulsive-Spending-To-Avoid-Whatever-Stressful-Thing-You-Are-Going-Through thing. Even if you’re not trying to ignore your feelings or thoughts about something sad, we may be avoiding stress from family or work or school. It can be a matter of procrastinating on something else entirely!

"As people with ADHD, we often feel we aren't good enough."

There also is the fact that, as people with ADHD, we often feel we aren’t good enough. Sometimes we try to combat that by being over-prepared or shooting for perfection. Example: I feel lousy sometimes because I never know what to cook. It's not that I don’t like to cook; I just hate the planning of it. And by the time I'm home and have everything from the store, chances are, I'm hangry (hungry-angry) because I didn’t eat enough during the day and now my blood sugar is low. So, now I need to eat ASAP and the thought of waiting or having to follow anyone’s instructions is too overwhelming. So, I’ll usually buy sushi or Taco Bell on the way home.


I guess this is the point where I admit to you guys that I'm actually a certified financial counselor through work.

It’s true!

I work in a credit union and I took a certification course and passed the exams– now I'm the one who helps our members get on track with their finances and repair their credit! Keep in mind – this role is a counselor, not an advisor. So, I do not have the skills or means to get anyone rich or start investing. I simply help people identify where their credit is hurting them and give them ideas on how to improve it for their future. I have budget spreadsheets and spending templates. I sometimes use these myself, but… #ADHD.

"If an ADHDer is feeling guilty, our efforts backfire."

Here are some tips I’ve collected from the counseling I do, advice I’ve read, and what I’ve found works on my own:


1. Be completely honest with yourself about your spending . You don’t have to stop anything right now, but start taking notice each time you get home from a store or review your receipts (I know you have them all crumbled in the bottom of your purse or the cup holders of your car anyhow!). This way you can actually see where your money is going. This part isn’t about judgement; it's just acknowledging your purchases.


2. Recognize what your mood is when you are doing the most impulsive spending. That doesn’t necessarily mean spending the most amount of money, but the purchases that happen spontaneously with no real benefit. Do you buy random things more when you’re happy? Like, that kind of Unstoppable-Happy-Where-You're-On-Top-Of-The-World-And-You-Just-KNOW-This-Purchase-Is-Going-To-Make-Life-Even-More-Incredible??

No, just me?

Okay, maybe it’s when you’re feeling down and sad about something going on in your life. Or maybe you’re pissed off about something and cooling down from an argument? It ain’t called retail therapy for nothing! Once you identify what your mood usually is when you’re spending, you can try and replace shopping with something else.


3. Use the Envelope System! Each time you get paid, put a certain amount in different envelopes or categories. If you know there is enough put from each paycheck towards your bills and savings, then put some in a spending category – now you have guilt-free options!


4. If you know you are going to be in a situation that you normally spend, or need to shop a little bit to feel better, set a max amount on what you want to spend. This is similar to the Envelope System. Sometimes when I'm in a *mood* and roaming the aisles at Target, I KNOW I'm going to spend money. I know I’m going to buy makeup I don’t need and won’t use. At these times, I’ll tell myself “okay, I can only spend $50.00 tonight.” Sometimes. I even limit the types of things I can buy – only buy clothes if I know I’ll wear it eventually; only buy makeup that costs less than $15; only buy food I know won’t go bad if I don’t eat it right away…" etc.


5. Give yourself some grace. I’m not an expert; I haven't known about my ADHD for very long, and I don't have a fancy degree in science or psychology – but I do know this:

If an ADHDer is feeling guilty (whether we do it to ourselves or get it from others) our efforts backfire.

Please don’t try to shame yourself into “fixing” your spending habits.

It’s life. Nobody is perfect and we all go through different waves and seasons. And, think of it this way – even if guilting and shaming yourself DID get you the desired results, is it worth the cost? Your mental health, psychological safety, and self-worth are much more important than keeping your impulsive spending at bay.

Until next time Friends!

– Terri 😊

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