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Could money problems be an unexpected ADHD symptom?

Could money problems be an unexpected ADHD symptom?

For people with ADHD, just living their day-to-day life can come with a hidden cost: the "ADHD tax". Charlotte Colombo shares her experience

What is the “ADHD tax”? 

Like a magpie faced with tinfoil, I can never resist shiny things, especially if I feel like they can offer me a hit of dopamine. Dopamine, which is also known as one of our body’s “happy chemicals”, is the neurotransmitter responsible for controlling the “reward centre” of our brain. If your brain produces enough dopamine, you will feel things like pleasure, motivation and satisfaction.  

Pile of receipts with a calculator representing the hidden costs of ADHD

But a little-known symptom of ADHD is that our brains seriously lack dopamine, leaving us constantly starved and on the lookout for things that can make our brain feel good. So, this pursuit of dopamine is one of the many driving forces behind “the ADHD tax”, which ADHD coach Andrew Avery defines as “the price you pay for costly mistakes due to symptoms of ADHD.”  

How does ADHD affect spending? 

At university, my housemates would cringe at the wastage as I threw away my untouched, spoiled groceries because I was constantly indulging Dominos, UberEats or a spontaneous restaurant trip after a hard day. I maxed out my first and only credit card a month after I got it for purchases I can’t remember making, and I’m still working on paying off the overdraft I used to buy tickets for a festival that I ended up leaving after one night.  

"ADHD brains lack the ability to control response inhibition, which leads a lot of us to act impulsively"

More than once, I’ve found myself short on rent and living costs because I passed by a pair of Doc Martens in the shop or overfilled my online shopping basket with clothes that I knew damn well I’d never wear. But it’s more complex than just being a “shopaholic”. Because ADHD brains lack the ability to control response inhibition, which leads a lot of us to act impulsively, driven by the promise of a short-term dopamine satiation while being unable to foresee consequences.  

A lot of my friends have savings, for mortgages, rental deposits, cars and other long-term life plans. Yet, for me, all the money in my account feels spendable. Later on, I might curse myself because I know I need to budget for future outgoings—but when I become fixated on something, that gnawing desire for dopamine is the only thing I can register, overriding all logic and silencing the more sensible parts of my brain. 

How else does ADHD cost people? 

If the ADHD tax was just impulsive overspending, it might be more manageable, but the problem is that the financial consequences of ADHD come to bite you in more ways than one. For instance, running parallel to my impulsivity is what is known in ADHD circles as “executive dysfunction”, an umbrella term for various ADHD traits like short term memory loss, the inability to concentrate and difficulty organising and managing your time.  

ADHD can cause people to forget to cancel subscriptions or even pay bills

One time, an editor said to me that I was “the only person they ever had to chase to get paid,” because, as a freelance writer, I’m notoriously bad at filing invoices on time. Because of my executive dysfunction, I’m always forgetting to cancel subscriptions, return things I don’t need and the worst one: pay bills. It’s not that the bills I pay are unaffordable, but I often forget when the money is meant to come out of my account, so defaulting on payments is a regular occurrence to me.  

The most ironic thing about the ADHD tax is that some of the money we lose happens because we’re trying to overcompensate for other ADHD traits. One of the biggest barriers I’ve encountered is “time-blindness”, meaning that no matter how hard I try, I never give myself enough time to get to places on time. It’s lost me patience, respect and even friendships. But I’m still always late. 

How common is the hidden ADHD cost? 

It’s easy to read all of this and say that I’m just lazy and irresponsible. In fact, I thought that about myself for a long time. But seeing how widespread it is among the ADHD community made me realise that I don’t necessarily have control over it. It’s a compulsory debt that comes with being neurodivergent, and an overwhelming number of people with ADHD (76 per cent) have suffered mentally because of the ADHD tax.  

Being ADHD might seem like a cute quirk on TikTok, but the lifelong consequences and the mental strain that comes with the ADHD tax is just one of many aspects of the condition that are glossed over because it’s not seen as palatable enough. 

"76 per cent of people with ADHD have suffered mentally because of the ADHD tax"

According to a recent YouGov survey, 60 per cent of people with ADHD said the condition impacts their ability to manage money, costing them an approximate £1,600 extra per year. Because there’s so many pointless, unspoken social rules about money, the 1.8 million adults living with ADHD are left to bear the burden alone.  

I can’t speak for every person with ADHD, but by breaking the silence—and more importantly, the stigma—that comes with the ADHD tax, I hope that other people in my position will realise that you’re not alone, that help and support is out there for you and, most importantly, that you have nothing to be ashamed of. 

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