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‘Shopping is a nightmare’: how ADHD affects people’s spending habits

·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Simon Belcher/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Simon Belcher/Alamy

For most of us, popping to the supermarket is a mundane chore but for Hannah Crawford it’s a task that can fill her with dread. “A supermarket is a nightmare,” says the 24-year-old, who describes going to buy food as “like being a three-year-old in a sweet shop”.

Crawford says it can be an overwhelming, frustrating and exhausting experience. One of the main challenges is “getting out without spending twice as much as you intended”, she says, which means making meticulous lists and resisting the constant urge to impulse-buy.

She is far from alone in feeling this way. She was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) last summer, and is one of a growing number of UK adults with the condition. The total number is estimated to run into the millions, although most are undiagnosed.

Research shared exclusively with Guardian Money lays bare the challenges many with ADHD face when it comes to their personal finances.

The majority (60%) of those surveyed who are living with ADHD said they believe it has a direct cost implication for them

The research, commissioned by the digital bank Monzo and conducted by YouGov, found that those living with ADHD are four times more likely to frequently impulse-spend than those who do not have the condition.

The majority (60%) of those surveyed who are living with ADHD said they believe it has a direct cost implication for them because of its impact on day-to-day money management, which they estimated amounted to just over £1,600 a year on average.

The findings prompted charities to say that with a cost of living crisis raging and the number of people with the condition on the rise, banks should do more to support this community.

A Guardian article published earlier this month explored the increase in adult diagnoses in the US. A Guardian article published on 18 June said one in four prisoners in Britain were believed to have it. On TikTok, videos tagged #ADHD have been viewed more than 12bn times.

But until now it is thought there has been relatively little research done into the links between ADHD and people’s finances.

Monzo says it was prompted to commission some by anecdotes from customers.

As a result, YouGov spoke to 506 people living with ADHD to understand their experiences of managing their personal finances, with a shorter survey involving 2,068 UK adults done to provide comparison answers. There were a number of key findings.

• Two-thirds (65%) of those with ADHD say the condition makes managing their finances more difficult.

• Those with ADHD are twice as likely (76%) to suffer from anxiety linked to their finances compared with the general population (38%).

• According to those with the condition, spending impulsively (58%), struggling to budget (51%) and struggling to save money (49%) are the biggest issues they face.

• Those with ADHD are almost three times more likely to struggle with debt (31%) compared with the general population (11%).

• They are almost three times more likely to miss bill payments occasionally or often (49%) than someone without the condition (18%).

• They are more than three times more likely to find it difficult to stick to a budget (50%) compared with the general population (15%).

• Those with ADHD are four times more likely to impulse-spend often (48%) than someone who doesn’t have it (12%).

The research also found that fewer than one in five (19%) people with the condition believe their bank gives them all the tools they need to manage their finances.

Crawford, who lives in London, had a private diagnosis – NHS waiting times are notoriously long – and pays £130 a month for prescriptions and medication.

She says the issues she and others with ADHD face “is definitely not something that’s talked about – I don’t see or hear a lot about ADHD and money management”.

Crawford, who works in theatre as a producer, says she has a sense that most people have a “background programme running in their head – an abiding awareness of what’s in their bank account, how much have they spent so far that day, and upcoming bills or subscription payments. I don’t have any of those background programmes. Every time I open my bank account, it’s a total surprise to me.”

As a result, she spends a lot of time living in her overdraft by mistake, which creates stress and anxiety.

She has had a Monzo account since 2017 and says: “I try to automate as much as possible in terms of bills, direct debits and so on. You can easily put things into pots to schedule payments and upcoming bills.”

Things such as parking tickets and payment deadlines can be particularly tricky

She likes to be able to label and categorise her outgoings, which keeps budgeting more interesting, providing the “dopamine hits” her brain needs to pay attention, and likes the fact she receives push notifications with reminders of how much she is spending throughout the day.

Things such as parking tickets and payment deadlines can be particularly tricky. She says there are regular occasions when she becomes overwhelmed by a ticket or due date, and then the cost jumps. “It’s quite scary to feel not in control like that,” she says.

Crawford says there is “quite a lot of stigma” around this whole area. “I have to really remind myself this is not something to feel ashamed about – it’s just about finding ways of making financial things easier and more approachable for people like me.”

Monzo says digital banking tools designed to give users more control and provide greater “visibility” for their finances have been widely praised by many in the ADHD community.

The most helpful banking features identified by the survey included notifications about upcoming bills and places to set money aside such as savings pots.

Siân Leigh, 27, who was diagnosed with ADHD in September 2021, says one problem she used to have was “signing up for things late at night” and then forgetting she had done this.

Leigh, who lives in Cheshire and works as a digital marketing tutor, adds that she needs visual reminders of things – she needs to be able to “see” her finances.

“I never realised it was something I needed. With Monzo [which she has been with since 2018], everything is colourful, everything feels engaging … I’m a colour-focused person – that’s how I take information in.”

Taariq Fry, 22 – who is currently waiting for a specialist diagnosis but has been assessed by his GP – says that for him, one of the main issues is impulse-spending. “More so when I was younger – I just spent so much all the time.”

That in turn makes saving difficult and means he sometimes doesn’t have the money he needs to pay for things.

He likes getting instant notifications telling him what he has just bought, plus ones that let him know how much he has spent in a day. “[They] help me rein it in,” he says.

Fry says his advice for banks and financial firms on supporting people with ADHD is that they should “just try to make their apps better. A lot of them are just so traditional.”

Henry Shelford at the charity ADHD UK says the research “shows the scale of the challenge people with ADHD face with their personal finances, and it’s something I hear about anecdotally every day”.

He adds: “It’s more important than ever that banks consider this community and build products and services that are inclusive. Banking tools which give people control and transparency are great for everyone but they are critical for people with ADHD.”

The three core characteristics of ADHD are impulsivity, inattention and hyperactivity.

People with it can seem restless, may have trouble concentrating and may act on impulse, the NHS says.

They may also have additional problems such as sleep and anxiety disorders.

In the UK, the prevalence of ADHD in adults is estimated at 3% to 4%, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence says. That would translate into about 1.8 million UK adults. Meanwhile, there have been claims from some quarters that as many as 8% of people in the UK could have it.

Traditionally it was spotted at school, and it is more commonly diagnosed in boys than in girls.

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