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Take steps to prevent bipolar card splurges

Untamed spending is one of the most common signs of bipolar disorder

By

To Her Credit
To Her Credit, Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for CreditCards.com, and also wrote for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs. See her website SallyHerigstad.com for more personal finance tips and free budgeting worksheets.
Ask Sally a question, or read her previous answers in the To Her Credit archive
Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear To Her Credit,
I am a 32-year-old woman with bipolar disorder. I receive disability payments and work part-time as a waitress. This past year I had a relapse and ended up back in the hospital, but not before I created a large amount of debt for myself through credit cards and spent all my savings.

My job welcomed me back but with reduced hours, and business has been slow. I'm having trouble keeping up with my bills. I was just wondering if there was some type of help for those with bipolar disorder who have the characteristics of untamed spending.

Thank you for your time.  -- Keisha

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Keisha,
Untamed spending is one of the most common signs of bipolar disorder and yes, there is help for it.

Many people do not understand bipolar spending. To those unfamiliar with bipolar episodes, it can look a lot like compulsive overspending, or even an excuse or a simple lack of self control. However, true bipolar spending differs from ordinary over shopping in some important ways, according to Drs. John M. Kuzma and Donald W. Black in their research paper "Compulsive shopping: When spending begins to consume the consumer." They found that:

  • Bipolar patients overspend during manic episodes of hyperactivity. Compulsive shoppers never stop.
  • Bipolar patients feel good about their shopping afterward and often show off their purchases. Compulsive shoppers tend to feel guilty and try to hide the evidence.
  • A defining characteristic of bipolar episodes is outrageous grandiosity, far above the fleeting feeling of power experienced by the compulsive shopper.

The first step for anyone who suspects she may have a bipolar disorder is to find help to treat the problem, not just the symptoms. Because you have been hospitalized and receive disability, I'm assuming you are getting medical help. I would encourage you to also find support groups and concentrate on improving your general health.

Next, make a plan to prevent future spending sprees. Sarah Freeman, author of Bipolar-lives.com, recommends enlisting other people's help. If you are married, your husband can drastically restrict your access to credit cards, checks and even car keys when he sees signs of an episode coming. You can also opt out of receiving credit card offers and credit card cash advance checks in the mail to further reduce accessibility.

If you're single, you have to take charge yourself. You can do this by avoiding situations that make spending more likely and by making it harder to overspend.

First, avoid spending triggers (this is good advice for everyone, bipolar or not):

  • Don't go shopping. The mall is not a good place for a walk! And don't even think about browsing the new car lots.
  • Limit Internet use. If Internet spending is a problem, perhaps you should not have it at your house. You can always use it at a friend or relative's house or at the library.
  • Slow the volley of ads and opportunities that come your way. Unsubscribe from e-mail lists, get off catalog mailing lists.
  • If TV ads make you want to shop, turn the TV off.
  • Call (888) 5-OPT-OUT or visit optoutprescreen.com to stop those tempting preapproved credit cards from flooding your mailbox.
  • Find something to do that makes it impossible for you to shop at the same time. I like to sculpt, for instance, and I've noticed it's impossible to shop -- or eat -- when I'm sculpting with wet clay. Maybe you like to garden or do volunteer work.

Making it harder to spend or make imprudent money decisions is also essential:

  • Don't keep excessive lines of credit. A couple of credit cards are plenty. Close excess accounts. (Any slight disadvantage to your credit score from closing the accounts is far outweighed by reduced risk of overspending.)
  • Call your credit card company and tell them not to send you those blank "convenience checks."
  • If you don't use paper checks to pay bills, get rid of them. Or put them with any extra credit cards and at-risk valuables in a bank safe or at your parents' house.
  • Enlist the help of others. For example, Freeman says, "If you are lucky enough to have any kind of portfolio, you may need to confide in your investment adviser or broker. Although they are bound to carry out the client's instructions, a heads up can encourage them to insist on written instructions and a face-to-face meeting. You may even be able to agree that they will notify a spouse, doctor or other appropriate person if any unusual transactions are requested."
  • Consider giving a trusted person power of attorney if necessary.

As for not being able to keep up with your current credit card bills, you may want to contact your credit card issuers and explain your situation. They may or may not be willing to work with you in lowering your interest rates or reducing your payments. One alternative would be to go to a local nonprofit credit counselor (affiliated with either the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies) to work out a payment plan. Your credit counselor will then contact the card issuers for you.

See related: The true cost of canceling a credit card, How to opt out of junk mail, e-mail and telemarketing solutions, Credit card addiction: How to break the spending cycle, For convenience checks, you pay a price 

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Published: January 22, 2010


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