How the 'ADHD tax' can cost you money: 'I'm spending so much more on food than I thought'

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Key Points
  • About 4.4% of adults in the U.S. have ADHD, according to a 2006 University of Michigan survey of 3,199 adults ages 18 to 44.
  • ADHD impairs the brain's executive functions used for filtering distractions, prioritizing tasks, and controlling impulses.
  • Adults with ADHD can miss bills, have a hard time keeping up with spending, and buy impulsively.

Tim, a 37-year-old actor based in Los Angeles who prefers to go by his first name for privacy, was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder around 5 years old. Throughout his childhood and adulthood, he tried different methods to manage his symptoms, including taking medication like Ritalin and Adderall.

"I think probably for years I was lying to myself and saying to myself I had it more managed than I did," he says.

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder ― meaning it changes how the brain develops, often from an early age ― that impairs the brain's executive functions. These are responsible for filtering distractions, prioritizing tasks, and controlling impulses, among other things. While the disorder can affect every part of a person's life, it can make keeping on top of one's personal finances especially difficult.

Recently, Tim decided to try to organize his spending and discovered some patterns the disorder may have influenced. For example, "I'm spending so much more on food than I thought I was," he says.

Impulse buys are another budget challenge. "I step out of the apartment just to get some air and wind up buying expensive books or something that I didn't leave the house intending to get," he says. He's also left his credit card behind after social gatherings "more times than I care to admit."

While those without the disorder can fall into these bad habits, too, those with ADHD may find their personal finance problems are more chronic and harder to rein in.

In fact, experts like J. Russell Ramsay, associate professor and co-director of the Adult ADHD Treatment and Research Program at the University of Pennsylvania, have a name for the financial, and sometimes social, cost of having the disorder.

They call it the "ADHD tax."

Some 8 to 9 million adults have ADHD: 'Most are undiagnosed and untreated'

About 4.4% of adults in the U.S. have ADHD, according to a 2006 University of Michigan survey of 3,199 adults ages 18 to 44, which experts still cite today. "That would mean between 8 and 9 million adults in the U.S. have" it, says Dr. Lenard Adler, a psychiatrist and director of the Adult ADHD Program at NYU Langone Health. "Most are undiagnosed and untreated."

The reasons why so many adults go undiagnosed vary. As children, not all of those who have it display the classic symptoms of the disorder, like hyperactivity, says Adler, and so the adults around them don't pick up on it. Plus, medical expertise in this area is "still a niche specialty," says Ramsay, adding that, "the actual graduate and medical training for specific ADHD is still lacking."

Whether diagnosed or not, with some of the brain's functions used for organizing the world impaired, ADHD can make it extremely challenging for adults with the disorder to get their finances in order.

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Video by Courtney Stith

"Being late with things, having to pay late fees," says Ramsay, are some of what he's seen adults with ADHD deal with, "maybe excessive lateness on taxes." He gives the example of a patient who was owed a tax refund by the IRS but was too overwhelmed by the paperwork required to file and claim it.

"It was, like, $12,000," he says.

Plus, "we know that adults with untreated ADHD are more likely to have a lower educational attainment," says Adler. They "earn less money on the job, change jobs or lose jobs more frequently," which can have a significant impact on their bottom line.

'There's good treatment available'

Luckily for anyone who has or thinks they have ADHD, "there's good treatment available," says Adler, who recommends talking to your healthcare provider. Treatment can include medication like Adderall, as well as cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps "change thinking patterns," according to the American Psychological Association.

Experts can help patients implement habits to counteract challenges that arise from the disorder, like setting up autopay for bills to thwart late payments, or alarms to check budgets and keep up with spending. These are habits personal finance experts might recommend neurotypical people adopt, too.

Tim built an Excel spreadsheet to keep on top of regular spending like gas, rent, and medication. "I'm trying to get myself in that space where actually following through on it is reflexive, is not a thing I need to consciously remember," he says, "because I have trouble consciously remembering things."

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