Wellness & Education

Mental Illness and Holiday Debt 

Holiday spending is stressful for everyone. There’s too much to do and not enough time to do it. It’s hard to find just the right gift for everyone on our list. We have to figure out how to pay for it all.

The less we earn and the more we buy, the more stressful the holiday becomes. This is true for everyone, but particularly for those with mental illness. This is because mental illness often affects:

  • The amount of money we make
  • The amount of money we spend 

Mental Illness and Keeping a Job 

For most people, making money requires getting and keeping a job. Depending on our condition, mental illness can: 

  • affect our relationships with co-workers 
  • make it harder to focus on work 
  • interfere with finishing what we start 
  • decrease our productivity. 
  • interfere with problem-solving 

When mental health issues affect our work performance, they may cost us a promotion or even a job. If our condition is serious enough, we may become unemployable. If this happens, our income can disappear overnight.

Unemployment can create a vicious circle of stress and poverty that feed mental health issues….. that feed stress and poverty……etc. Whether we have a mental illness or not, it’s tough being poor. When you are both poor and mentally ill, the holidays can seem like a minefield of financial pitfalls. 

Holiday Spending – the Road to Debt 

Christmas decorations hit the stores earlier and earlier each year. The sooner people start shopping for the holidays, the more money they spend. Watch any “holiday special” and you’ll see where the money goes. There are parties to throw, gifts and decorations to buy, trips to take, etc. It doesn’t take long for needs to exceed cash, especially for those with a limited income. When this happens, many people turn to credit cards. 

Americans currently owe over a trillion dollars in credit card debt according to  U.S. National Debt Clock : Real Time (usdebtclock.org). This year is unlikely to be any different. International accounting firm Deloitte predicts that over 1.3 trillion dollars will be spent over the course of the 2021 holiday season. 

While 1.3 trillion dollars is a staggering amount of money, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Interest payments will haunt many low-income shoppers for years as they struggle to keep their credit cards above water. 

Mental Illness and Debt  

While credit card debt is certainly not an indication of mental illness, the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute reports that 46% of those with problem debt have mental health issues. 

Why do so many people with mentally illness have debt problems? 

The job-related issues mentioned above explain some of the mental illness/debt correlation. If you have less money, it takes much less debt to create a problem. Often those with mental illness simply have less money to use to pay off debt.

Lower income, however, is only part of the problem. Spending habits can also be deeply affected, particularly by certain mental illnesses. 

  • Compulsive Buying Disorder affects an estimated 5.8% of Americans. Estimated prevalence of compulsive buying behavior in the United States – PubMed (nih.gov) This disorder can cause severe anxiety that is only relieved by shopping. The relief is temporary, of course, and another round of anxiety soon follows. 
  • Bipolar disorder can cause manic episodes that lead to uncontrolled spending sprees. Feelings of optimism and empowerment can make it difficult to realize the long-term consequences of overspending. 
  • Feelings of depression can lead to “comfort” shopping. 

 What to do?  

There isn’t any one solution for managing holiday spending when you have a mental illness. There are some resources, however, for those who overshop.

1. Self Help Books

PhD Psychologist April Benson has published two books: 

“I Shop Therefore I am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self”  and “To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop”

2. Self Help Groups

Debtors Anonymous is a self-help group with a 12-step program modeled after                       Alcoholics Anonymous. Meeting locations can be found at Meetings Archive  Debtors Anonymous Member stories are shared on podcasts available at  Fellowship Podcasts – Debtors Anonymous  There is a separate group for those who are business owners.

3. Steps to Take

Donald W Black, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa, makes the following recommendations for those who suffer from Compulsive Buying Disorder (CBD) A review of compulsive buying disorder (nih.gov) According to Dr Black, people with this disorder should: 

  • admit that they have CBD; 
  • get rid of credit cards and checkbooks, because they are easy sources of funds that fuel the disorder 
  • shop with a friend or relative; the presence of a person without CBD will help curb the tendency to overspend 
  • find meaningful ways to spend one’s leisure time other than shopping. 

4. Counseling

Nothing takes the place of working with a mental health professional. A good counselor can provide emotional support while helping patients understand and cope with their condition.

5. Medications

Medications are available for some mental illnesses. Check with your primary care provider for more information or for a referral to a mental health specialist.