Money and Mania: Managing Spending While Bipolar

As a young twenty-something, many of my friends and fellow Millenials have credit card debt.  We live in a culture of fast spending, fast cash, and consumerism.  Add on student loans, how easy it is to max out credit cards, landmark purchases like first cars, student loans, and rent, and my peers and I can find ourselves in a world of debt.  The media contains the narrative of a materialistic lifestyle, and with internet stores cropping up everywhere you see a Facebook ad, a culture of online shopping, and Paypal making it easy to buy from indie stores, compulsive shopping is a problem that plagues not just neurodivergent, but neurotypical consumers as well.

However, one of the hallmarks of bipolar mania, when the mood is elevated, and delusional thinking pursue, alongside grandiose thought patterns, high energy, insomnia, and good feelings on the apex of the roller coaster can all lead to manic spending.  Kay Redfield Jamison, the author of An Unquiet Mind, considered the hallmark book on bipolar disorder amongst many psychiatric circles with Jamison herself an expert clinical psychologist and academic that suffers from the disorder, ended up spending over $30,000 quickly in her autobiography on such lavish expenses as fox pelts from the Plains, Virginia and other unnecessary, erratic objects early on in her diagnosis.  This is sadly the norm for many bipolar individuals, and overspending is, unfortunately, one of the characteristics of the disease.

As someone that suffers from bipolar type 1, OCD, and anxiety, when my mental health dwindles, or my hormones make me a monthly roller coaster, I tend to overspend.  A Ph.D. Health Communication candidate and teaching assistant on a very modest stipend (think minimum wage thereabouts), my purchases tend to be small, but when I was at my worst, they were constant small purchases, and on my very small income, with a mortgage to pay and groceries to buy, lipstick from Sephora or jewelry from Etsy is simply something I cannot afford right now.

Back when I made a much higher salary in my early twenties on Capitol Hill, I could easily save thousands of dollars a month and still afford manicures, makeup, and beauty purchases.  Now, freshly full-time in university as a student, professor-in-training, and running a household, luxury items are simply not something I can afford if I want to stock my fridge, pay the house off, and have a little extra for copays for my mental health medicine and a nest egg for car troubles or technology issues like shattering my phone screen.  Unfortunately, I have a small amount of credit card debt carried over from the summer and fall when I was manic and developed unhealthy spending habits.

So how to solve this?

Quit cold turkey.

I decided to start from scratch, cancel my credit card today, and switch to using a debit card and cash system on groceries and gas, instead of spending money only that is in the bank and not racking up purchases on credit.  I decided to come up with a budget: cancel my Etsy account, limit personal purchases to less than $200 a month, including going out to eat only once a week, social activities with friends that cost less and or nothing at all, spending only necessary clothes or food, and completely cutting off online spending.  I am only going to purchase items in storefronts alone.  Etsy and Amazon were huge money-suckers for me when I was manic and would impulsively spend credit cards online on perfumes, cute decorations, beauty products, and movies or TV shows or Kindle books on Amazon.

This safeguards me against manic spending in the future.  I am giving my backup credit card to my fiancee for safekeeping and will pay off my debt (it’s $2500, not too much, not too little) at increments of $200 a month, funnily enough bettering my credit score with on-time payments.  I am much better off then most Americans, who on average carry around $6,000 of credit card debt, and if you’re a Millenial, the debt is on average $42,000, with most of it on – you guessed it – credit cards.

So how to prevent manic spending, pay bills on time, and build a nest egg?  These tips might help you!

Budget, Budget, Budget:

I like to draft up a budget for each month: my half of the mortgage, how much I’ll spend on groceries (if Aldi is around you, it is a gamechanger!), and a small amount for personal purchases such as getting my nails done or going to the movies with friends. The goal is to have about 30% of your income before taxes going to rent or a mortgage, but that’s not always feasible if you’re a graduate student or just starting out your career.  I end up spending half of my income on my mortgage, so I budget accordingly.  I aim to spend about $100 on groceries every two weeks and utilize coupons and circulars to get discounts and shop at affordable grocery stores like Aldi or if I want something in bulk, Costco.  For fun, activities, gas, clothes, and eating out, I aim to spend $200 a month.  For the most part, I meet that.  That gives you $50 a month of play around money.  Also, budgeting allows you to build a nest egg in case your mania gets out of hand, and you do end up making big purchases.  Aim to save 20% of your income as a rule of thumb, 50% towards necessities, and 30% towards discretionary items.  The 50/30/20 rule of thumb!

Let’s say you had a bad spell, and you made a big purchase like Kay Redfield Jamison’s stuffed fox.  This has happened to me before.  Remember this: keep receipts, and return!

Keep Receipts for Returns

The truth is, if you experience mania or hypomania, you will probably experience overspending during a bad spell when you feel elevated.  That is why you should always keep receipts so you can return items!  Avoid linking your credit card to websites that usually don’t allow returns like Etsy.  Trust me, there is nothing necessary you need on websites like Etsy!  Amazon is good about returns, as are most brick and mortar stores.  Usually, you can return items within 30 days.  Have a folder or wallet where you organize your receipts by date, and never take tags off if you are unsure about a purchase.

Get a Loved One for Backup

I’m young.  I’m 25, fresh out of college, and am still learning how to budget and run a household and live on a very modest income (and I mean VERY modest!).  It’s okay to ask you’re significant other or parents to help monitor your spending if you ever feel unstable.  Many bipolar individuals give their financials and control of their credit cards over to their parents if they’re young, or husbands, wives, or partners if they are older.  There is no shame in that!  Talk to a loved one if you are struggling, and come up with a backup plan!  Debit cards are great because you can’t overspend, and a cash system (I sort my monthly allowance into envelopes!) ensures you are working with something tangible, something you can hold.  If you really need to, like me, disconnect your credit card from all online stores and give it to a loved one, who can make small purchases for you paid off in time to keep your credit score going.

With these three simple rules, manic spending can be minimized, reduced, prevented, and maybe even eliminated.  If you are a loved one is struggling with manic spending, remember, most Americans are in debt, and there are always options.

There is always hope.

photo credit: Sharon McCutcheon

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17 Replies to “Money and Mania: Managing Spending While Bipolar”

  1. Knowledge is nothing unless it is used, and when that comes it is called Wisdom. Well done young one. Self Mastery comes when we are able to Know Ourselves and Heal Ourselves.

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  2. at one time in our marriage my husband was without work, we had three children and we had a small stipend. I actually budgeted by going to the bank and drawing out cash…put it in envelopes labeled such things as gas, food etc. It worked well except as an adult my youngest is very frugal (not a bad thing) because she thought we were completely destitute.

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    1. I swear, the envelope system works! Thank you for sharing that story. And frugality is always good!

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  3. Thank you so much for this post. I’m trying hard to cut this out of my life as well because, while I have depression and not bipolar, I tend to spend money when I’m the opposite of manic to try to make me feel better.

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    1. I understand completely, retail therapy is definitely a real thing! When I am depressed I tend to compulsively eat which costs a lot if you are eating out!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have been on a spending spree for 6 months. Dwindling my nest egg. Glad i read this. You and i share the exact diagnosis’ ❤

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  5. Hmm sound advice but doesn’t seem feasible for me. My manic episodes result in months of chaos & disorganization with lots of overspending. I would resent my loved ones if I gave them control of my money & they didn’t give it back because they thought I was unwell. I wouldn’t put them in that situation. But I’m not good with money even when I am well & can only dream of having a mortgage one day (I’m 33). And most of my adult life I haven’t had a partner or any family members who I could trust with my money. So it’s a bit trickier. I’ve only been diagnosed for 2yrs now so perhaps in another 2yrs I’ll have some good strategies in place for myself.

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    1. Stay strong, Sarah! I’ve found that just getting things in mania under control with medication and therapy takes months to do, if not a few years – you are early on in your diagnosis, and I promise you, it will get better every year! If you have the option, you could choose to pay into a 401k or invest if you had enough of a nest egg, that way the money was secured. Just some thoughts!

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  6. Thank you for writing this; nobody understands when I tell them I spend two thousand dollars in days when I’m manic. My brother, who is very practical and good at this stuff, is helping me with budgeting and he suggested to use only a debit card and cash! He said put the credit card away and try it for a few months. He said you can’t spend more because if it’s not there you can’t buy whatever you wanted to buy. I too use the envelopes but I have been dipping in one when one is empty; he said that’s not working. Then I start writing checks and using my credit card without thought. I never had a debit card but I’m willing to try it; I don’t even know how it works so of course that ramps up my anxiety. I spend on amazon and ticketmaster; I need to figure out a budget too. He gave me a spreadsheet to help me, but it feels like trying to solve algebra problems. I too have a very modest income and I’m older than you so I really need to be saving more money for my future and building my nest egg slowly. It sounds like you feel better. So I’m going to go to the bank and get my debit card. I also am going to open an account in another bank not close by for my nest egg, so I can’t go online and use it. I would have to physically drive to the bank; 2 people told me this helps them. Good luck! And if you fall back, just stand up again!

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    1. Traci, it sounds like you are making amazing progress! Yes, I racked up 2.5k in credit card debt that I’m trying to pay off when I was manic! The debit card system is working beautifully for me, and I haven’t spent a cent on unnecessary items and gave my credit card to my parents. It’s an ingenious system! I have cash for when I go out: I’m allowed to spend $20 on myself each week, whether it’s dinner with a friend or perhaps some clothes or shoes I need. I’m trying to pay $200 off my debt each month and then put $200 into savings. And yes, it is so easy to spend thousands when manic! Unfortunately, manic spending is a hallmark of bipolar. I wish you the best of luck too!

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      1. Thanks Allie, and thank you so much for sharing your experience with me. I am glad it is working out for you and that must feel really good. You sound like you have a good plan in place to pay your bills. I’m so glad to hear it is helpful for budgeting and not using credit. I went to the bank yesterday and ordered my debit card. I’m looking forward to getting some financial balance and clarity. You have given me hope! Thanks! I do have a few questions. What about things that your card is linked to, like my car insurance and ezpass and my medications that come in the mail. I am thinking I will just leave the things that are part of my budget, the necessities, on the card. Maybe I can use my debit card instead, which will not allow me to overspend on amazon or ticketmaster. How did you stop yourself from online shopping? Thanks for your help!

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      2. I would link the necessities to my debit card, like the car insurance, ezpass, and copayments! That way you can afford them all. 🙂 To stop myself from online shopping, I cut up my credit card and disconnected it from my Amazon and Etsy. Good luck!

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