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


Living Well With Bipolar Disorder

1 in 4 Americans suffer from a mental disorder, and out of those millions of Americans, 5.7 million Americans suffer from bipolar disorder, characterized by erratic moods consisting of mania (an elated state of being) and the more familiar depressive episodes. I am one of those 5.7 million Americans.

Bipolar disorder is often considered the “artist’s disease,” from Sylvia Plath to Vincent van Gogh exemplifying the creative bursts of energy, severe depressions, and unstable highs and lows that come with the disorder. There is a range of creative treatments that safeguard mood stability, including traditional medications and therapies that are universally recommended to treat bipolar disorder. Often, mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and psychotherapy are the first lines of defense, alongside a good support system, to prevent mania and depression. However, three simple life changes can safeguard against serious bipolar episodes and help those who suffer from bipolar disorder maintain a stable, healthy lifestyle.

Early to Bed, Early to Rise – Healthy and Wise

Sleep is perhaps the most important preventer of manic relapses and a strong source of mood stability. Bipolar disorder is directly related to insomnia. The fewer people with bipolar disorder sleep, the more likely they are to become manic. The Center for Disease Control recommends seven hours of sleep daily for adults. Having a healthy sleep routine, such as an established bed time and avoidance of caffeine after 2:00 PM can help people with bipolar disorder achieve a good night’s rest. As someone who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and has worked for years to combat insomnia, I have found that turning off screens (from televisions, phones, computers, tablets, etc.) an hour before bedtime and having a strong sleep routine where I turn in around the same time each night works wonders. If insomnia persists, one can talk to a doctor about sleep aids available by prescription and consider using Melatonin or a Circadian rhythm stabilizer (available over-the-counter).

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

Exercise is another great mood booster, especially during depressive episodes and to combat the side effects of bipolar medications that often cause weight gain. The NIH recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. When you are active, dopamine floods your brain and gives you feelings of happiness similar to a runner’s high. This is especially important for bipolar disorder sufferers, whose serotonin levels are often imbalanced. However, staying active can be a challenge during depressive lows. I like to hike or cycle, which leaves me feeling satisfied and helps keep the pounds off from medicine. Find an activity you enjoy, whether it is biking or running, and watch as your mood improves.

Nourishing Your Brain, Nourishing Your Soul

Finally, good nutrition is directly linked to mental health, especially for those with bipolar disorder. Nourishing one’s body with healthy foods like whole grains, veggies, and lean meats, while reducing intake of fatty and sugary foods, and using probiotic supplements can improve mental health, buffering mood swings. I rediscovered my love of cooking healthy meals and have seen vast mood improvements since choosing a diet that works for me, specifically the low carb diet. Perhaps the Mediterranean or vegetarian diets will suit you? Experiment with food groups you like and remember to take probiotic supplements for a happy gut and brain.

Your brain, body, and emotions are all linked, bipolar or not, and with these healthy lifestyle changes, supplemented by the proper medication and therapy, bipolar disorder patients can not only survive but thrive.