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An illustrated figure is facing a dress in a starburst shape. Its yellow glow is falling on the figure’s face. Behind the figure you can see symbols of overdue bills in bright red. Paige Vickers/Vox

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My ADHD makes it hard to manage money. What should I do?

It’s possible to navigate finances even when your brain gets in the way.

Nicole Dieker is a personal finance expert who's been writing about money for over a decade. Her work has appeared in Bankrate, Lifehacker, Morning Brew, and Dwell. She answers reader questions for Vox's On the Money column.

On the Money is a monthly advice column. If you want advice on spending, saving, or investing — or any of the complicated emotions that may come up as you prepare to make big financial decisions — you can submit your question on this form. Here, we answer two questions asked by Vox readers, which have been edited and condensed.

Hey Nicole, this might be a little left-field, but I was wondering if you have any tips for building a simple-but-effective money management system for someone with ADHD?

Normal systems just don’t seem to work (I’ve tried strict budgeting [too rigid and hard to maintain] buckets [the world got in the way of the allocations] and berating myself for being terrible with money).

At the heart, ADHD is a dopamine deficiency, and that lack of dopamine produces interesting (and sometimes unhelpful) effects.

The ADHD-specific brain-things that get in the way of money are:

  • time issues (a tendency to experience time as now/not-now)
  • impulsivity (and the dopamine associated with buying something)
  • object permanence issues (out of sight = out of mind, so I literally forget how much money I have or what I need to spend money on)

The results tend to be getting down to nothing each paycheck, credit cards and similar are a nightmare, and stupid amounts of stress when I’ve treated myself and then remembered I need to pay for a psychologist appointment.

Thanks in advance and sorry for the tricky one!

I don’t think this is tricky at all — but that’s because I think a little bit differently than you do about dopamine.

We both know that dopamine is real, and that a lack of dopamine may make some mental processes more challenging. I’m not going to argue that.

We also know that dopamine is a metaphor.

You aren’t testing your blood for relative dopamine levels before and after you buy something, for example. You’re experiencing an emotion and calling the experience dopamine, and because of that you’re able to justify the impulse purchase you just made.

What about the emotion you experience later on, when you realize that you can’t afford what you just bought? Right now you’re calling it stress, but if you really want to put this metaphor to its maximum efficacy, you should start calling it anti-dopamine.

This gives you the opportunity to approach all purchases — impulse or otherwise — as follows:

Will this exchange result in a net loss of dopamine?

In other words:

If the anti-dopamine you get from a purchase is greater than the dopamine you experience at the point of sale, DO NOT BUY.

How do you know if a potential purchase will result in a net loss of metaphorical and/or actual dopamine? You could try budgeting, but it doesn’t seem like the best choice for you — so I suggest you try comparing the purchase you’re about to make to similar purchases you’ve made in the past.

You already know — you literally wrote it down — that “treating yourself” results in a net loss. The stress more than cancels out the value of the treat, which means that all impulses to treat must be reconceptualized as anti-treats.

You also know that you prioritize your immediate experience as “now” and deprioritize future experiences as “not-now,” giving the present significantly more value than the future. This is why I suggest saying to yourself, every time you consider a little treat: Purchases like this make me feel worse, not better.

Don’t put it in the future — don’t say purchases like this will make me feel worse LATER — because then you’ll devalue the stress in favor of the immediate emotion.

Tell yourself, every time: Purchases like this make me feel worse.

Then, DO NOT BUY.

Do you know what you’re going to feel, when you walk away from a purchase that you know — both rationally and emotionally — is a bad decision?

Dopamine.

Do you know what you’re going to feel later, when you can make your financial obligations without stress?

Dopamine.

Metaphorically, anyway. We both know you aren’t checking your blood levels multiple times a day. But metaphors matter. We use them to make sense of the sensory; to give words to the experiences we feel in our bodies. They are the maps we make of the territory around us — and, like all maps, they can and should be updated.

It’ll feel strange, at first, but before you know it, the experience of walking away from a purchase you can’t afford might give you the biggest dopamine rush of all.

How can you limit the amount of taxes you will pay on your 401(k) after you retire?

I don’t know your specific situation, so I can’t give you a specific answer.

I can, however, suggest you read David McKnight’s The Power of Zero: How to Get to the 0% Tax Bracket and Transform Your Retirement. It’s one of my favorite personal finance books, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.

(Make sure you get the revised and updated version.)

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