Do I have a money disorder? Spotting the signs of 12 common financial disorders

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Financial stress is a common problem. In any month, 72% of Americans report feeling stressed about money. But at what point are money issues considered “money disorders”?

Money disorders are recurring issues with your finances that negatively affect your life,” says Dr. Judith Overton, a psychiatrist and medical director for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “While it’s not a formal diagnosis, a money disorder can definitely affect your health and well-being. So it’s worth taking the time to understand how they might be affecting you.”

What is a money disorder?

Dr. Overton: Money disorders are persistent patterns of self-destructive financial behavior. They develop out of distorted beliefs about money, or as a result of psychological issues like anxiety, depression or trauma. They’re often caused by painful or distressing life events that are related to money. These events are so powerful they affect a person’s actions long after they’re over.

For example, if people live through periods of scarcity, they can react in two very different ways later:

  1. Once they achieve a level of financial stability, they may buy more things than they need to ensure they never run out.
  2. Or they may buy nothing because they’re too afraid to spend any money for fear of running out.

In both cases, people are operating in extremes, which is never the best financial choice.

What are some common examples of money disorders?

Dr. Overton: Experts believe money disorders fall into 3 categories: avoidance, worshipping and relational.

1. Money avoidance

Dr. Overton: Avoidance disorders revolve around distancing yourself from money and include:

  • Underspending: Having such an intense hatred of money that your living conditions are unfit because you refuse to buy the basics for yourself or your family.
  • Excessive risk aversion: Playing it “too” safe.
  • Financial denial: Minimizing money problems by refusing to think about your finances at all (ex. throwing away bills without opening them).
  • Financial rejection: Feeling guilt over having any money. This often affects people with low self-esteem and may cause them to give money away at every opportunity.

2. Money worshipping 

Dr. Overton: Money worshippers can’t have enough wealth and believe that getting more will solve all their problems. Disorders include:

  • Pathological gambling: Taking large, unnecessary risks in pursuit of a big payoff.
  • Workaholism: Working to have as much wealth as possible, which often stems from financial insecurity.
  • Hoarding: Inability to stop collecting money because it’s the only thing that makes you feel safe and secure.
  • Overspending or compulsive buying: Relying on the ritual of shopping to provide a temporary escape from intense anxiety surrounding money.

3. Relational money disorders

Dr. Overton: These money issues are connected to your relationships with family or friends and include:

  • Financial dependence: Refusing to take responsibility for finances and instead relying on friends or family to manage money for you.
  • Financial incest: Blaming your spouse for or burdening your kids with money problems to reduce your stress.
  • Financial infidelity: Lying to your partner about money or hiding financial transactions or accounts (ex. saving, spending, investing).
  • Financial enabling: Helping family or friends with their money problems to the point that it affects your own finances (ex. parents financially supporting adult children who could be self-sufficient).

Dr. Overton: Money disorders can also be as common as impulse buying. If you do it to a degree that adds up to significant debt over time. Shopping online has also gotten so easy that it’s addictive for many people. Retailers now understand the psychology of getting people to spend money better than ever before. And it’s virtually impossible for some people to resist.

How do money disorders affect health?

Dr. Overton: Money disorders are often connected to current health conditions. People with anxiety or depression may spend money because it offers temporary relief from their symptoms. People with bipolar mania, attention deficit disorder (ADD) or substance use disorders may also go on spending sprees due to a lack of impulse control.

If you have a money disorder, you may experience: 

  • Stress
  • Headaches
  • Loss of sleep
  • High blood pressure
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Worsening of chronic conditions
  • Suicidal thoughts

Dr. Overton: Most chronic medical conditions worsen when people have stress over money or any other issues that affect their day-to-day lives. It’s not uncommon for that stress to push people to the point of desperation.

How to help someone struggling with mental illness

How do you know if you have a money disorder?

Dr. Overton: You may have a money disorder if you experience irresistible urges and tension around spending that’s only relieved when you make a purchase. Consider getting help if you:

  • Feel like you’re stuck in a cycle of overspending, relief, and guilt
  • Have financial habits that are causing significant stress to you or your family
  • Are unable to meet your basic financial responsibilities
  • Are keeping secrets related to money or finances

Dr. Overton: If you don’t have those issues and you’re meeting your day-to-day financial obligations, consider Iooking into financial planning for you and your family. Anyone can benefit from taking a financial inventory and finding ways to improve financial stability.

How can you get help for a money disorder?

Dr. Overton: Treatment for money disorders requires people to think about their behaviors and feelings toward money to identify where the problem lies. Sometimes it’s just a matter of cutting up credit cards, exercising willpower by using cash more often, or having an honest discussion with someone you trust who has the financial wisdom you need.

In general:

  • If you think your issues are emotional, ask your primary care provider for a referral to a behavioral health specialist.
  • If you simply haven’t received any financial education on how to save and budget, ask an expert for help.
  • For more serious issues, you may need legal assistance.

Dr. Overton: In the latter case, make sure you find someone in your community who has an established reputation for offering financial advice. An accountant can also be a good person to ask about where to seek financial advice, as can your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) at work. Many EAPs now offer telehealth behavioral counseling with physicians, so it’s easy to get help conveniently and confidentially.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).