Seven years ago I wrote an essay about what life would be like if I wasn’t struggling to save. In it, I envisioned the power it could have to have enough emergency money to provide bridging should I have to leave an abusive job or relationship.

But writing this essay and going viral didn’t change the struggle I was having with my own bank account. As I built my financial house, I continued my shattered existence as a construction worker, arsonist, and firefighter.

Around the same time, I began to suspect I might have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, after seeing more and more people posting about it on Instagram. But because I figured ADHD just meant I was distractible, and because a 90-minute exam cost $260, I waited for a diagnosis.

In 2021, when I was 39, my frustration pushed me to cobble together the money for a test. My diagnosis provided me with a map of the mental landscape I had wandered lost in for four decades.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, boys are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD as children than girls because boys are more likely to have the well-known trait of hyperactivity. But more and more women who tend to exhibit the lesser-known trait of inattention are being diagnosed later in life, thanks in part to ADHD groups and content creators who have helped them realize they have symptoms of the neurodevelopmental disorder . From 2020 to 2022, the frequency of ADHD diagnosis in women between the ages of 23 and 49 almost doubled.

For many of us, the diagnosis is tied directly to our checking account. As one person on a Facebook group called Neurodivergent Finance/ADHD Finance put it, “You people are panicking.”

The pandemic has increased awareness of ADHD, said Dr. Sasha Hamdani, psychiatrist and ADHD clinical specialist, because “people were being removed from the earlier architecture that gave them structure and stability.”

During lockdown, one of Dr. Hamdani’s patients shared a TikTok video of a 12-year-old promoting the medically unfounded theory that people who sneeze repeatedly are more likely to develop ADHD

This showed Dr. Hamdani who suffers from the disorder that these platforms could be flooded with misinformation. So she decided to create a series of small instructional videos that she assumed would only serve as a reference for her own patients.

I’m now part of her large social media following and consuming content related to her book, Self-Care for People With ADHD. Her explanatory TikTok videos, alongside those of other YouTubers, served as a form of currency between me and those close to me with ADHD. We message each other through videos that give language to our experience. Sometimes we’re shocked when we realize that the root cause of certain issues—like my scratchy handwriting—is part of our ADHD. I used the videos to explain my behavior and perspective to my friends and family.

dr Hamdani said money issues drove people to seek treatment more than other common aspects of ADHD — like chronic tardiness, interruptions, or sensitivity to rejection.

“ADHD is inherently a failure of numerous regulatory checkpoints,” she said. “Money management problems can arise in many different places.”

A lack of impulse control, she said, leads to impulse spending, and difficulties with executive functioning and planning made budgeting difficult. She added that issues with emotional regulation can lead to spending serving as a coping mechanism.

While testing an app she developed to treat ADHD, Dr. Hamdani notes an additional challenge for women.

“I found such a clear correlation with my impulsivity and cycles,” she said. Estrogen drops on premenstrual days, she explained, and since estrogen and dopamine usually work together, low estrogen means low dopamine, which causes her to be more impulsive.

“I checked it against my credit card statements and there was a $600 increase at the time,” she said.

“Dopamine is the magic molecule,” said Dr. Edward M. Hallowell, a board-certified psychiatrist and founder of the Hallowell ADHD Centers, where I was diagnosed. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, plays a role in alertness and mood and is what he calls the great mediator of pleasure.

“If you access it right, you enjoy it, and if you access it wrong, you get addicted,” he said. “It’s a very powerful little molecule, and people do all sorts of things in search of their dopamine rush.”

People with ADHD need more stimulation to feel the ordinary pleasure that most people feel, which often means they resort to more extraordinary means to achieve it.

“Normal life just isn’t enough for us,” said Dr. Hallowell, who also suffers from ADHD. “Whereas someone else doesn’t need an extra dopamine boost to be comfortable with being alive, we do. And I call that the itch at the core of ADHD. This is absolutely crucial – because how you scratch it makes all the difference in the world.”

This itch is sometimes referred to as reward-deprivation syndrome. Spending is one way to relieve the itch, and the more expensive something is, the more exciting it is, he said.

dr Hallowell described ADHD as a medical problem that can be managed with medication and specific strategies. He recommends focusing on the positive aspects of ADHD, such as curiosity, creativity, and energy, and hiring a coach to help overcome the challenges.

“I can’t manage finances any more than I can build a car,” he said, admitting that even he still feels a degree of shame that he hasn’t controlled his money habits as well as he does would have wished. His wife manages his finances. “We’re notoriously bad at money management.”

After racking up $15,000 in impulse debt, Ellyce Fulmore reached a breaking point during the pandemic when losing her routine exacerbated her inability to focus. She also spent a lot of time on TikTok, where she learned how ADHD symptoms like inattention can show up in women. She was diagnosed with the disorder in December 2020.

Ms Fulmore, an ADHD finance educator and author of the forthcoming book Keeping Finance Personal, said one of the biggest challenges people with the condition face is what’s known as the ADHD tax: the extra costs people incur because of their symptoms.

ADHD doesn’t always make people spend money. I know several people in the personal finance field whose ADHD causes them to become obsessed with money, some so much that they have trouble spending money.

But because activities like planning or budgeting don’t typically trigger a dopamine surge in people with ADHD, they may have a harder time starting or sticking with bookkeeping than neurotypical people. This creates additional costs – cancellation fees for missed appointments, or late fees for not opening an invoice on time, or lost refunds because we missed the deadline to return an unwanted purchase.

Ms. Fulmore offers an ADHD money management program that includes everything that makes it exciting, novel, or interesting to follow the dopamine pathway to financial success.

She used sticker charts, colored progress bars, and bullet journaling to “hack” her brain’s systems. She also automated her savings and debt payments.

“What helped me was unlearning a lot of the neurotypical expectations,” she said. “I’m going to do things differently, and it’s not going to be what traditional personal finance education dictates you do.”

Ms Fulmore entered therapy to deal with the shame she had accumulated in a world that echoed the message that her struggles were her fault. She also started using the stimulant Vyvanse, which helped her focus and reduce spending. Aside from her student loan, she is now debt free.

Madison Kemp’s husband, who was diagnosed with ADHD in elementary school, sent her a TikTok video showing a stack of boxes on a porch and a reference to “dopamine purchases” arriving all at once. “You do that all the time,” she said, he told her.

Ms Kemp, 33, always felt like she was chasing financially: once she refused to spend, she rewarded herself with more spending. She played what she calls “Miet Chicken,” hoping a rent check wouldn’t be cashed until after payday.

She found her diagnosis satisfactory. “Until I got the diagnosis, I was like, ‘Everyone has to go through life like this, right?’” she said.

Now that she’s on the non-stimulant ADHD drug Strattera, she can wait a whole day to think about a purchase and finally feels ready to start buying a house.

She follows ADHD TikTok accounts like Catiosaurus and finds relatable examples of habits she’s had her entire life.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, there are people who do this too, for that reason,’ and you really feel like there’s actually a community,” she said.

Shannon D. Smith had neglected her money journal. When she finally talled up her expenses, she realized why money had been tight over the past month — her family had spent $700 eating out.

“And I cried,” said Ms. Smith. “I felt irresponsible. I felt like a bad mother. I kept thinking: I should know better.”

Her inability to concentrate at work made her fear she might develop Alzheimer’s, a disease that runs in her family. But she found that working on her own business allowed her to stay focused well into the night. Your doctor recognized signs of ADHD

Ms. Smith’s ADHD diagnosis last year, at age 42, helped explain her problems with delaying gratifications.

She also internalized the stereotype that women are bad with money.

“You firmly believe that you’re not going to be able to handle money, and then you believe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Ms. Smith said.

Her diagnosis helped her seek support for herself and her children, who she suspects all have ADHD since research has shown it is inherited. “If I had had that information when I was younger, I would have gotten a lot further,” she said.

Ms. Smith, who coaches other women, tries to view ADHD less as a limitation and more as a guide. She reads ADDitude, a quarterly publication on ADHD, and follows the podcast Attention Different. She automates saving, uses accountability partners, and gives herself a 24-hour spending rule.

“I’m in a number of support groups, and hearing so many other women share the same stories of struggling with money or struggling with impulsiveness or self-control, it was just a validation to be like, ‘okay, that I’m not the only one,” she said. “So maybe I’m not as bad a person as I thought.”

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