Living with credit

ADHD can make it tough to manage finances

Kelly Dilworth

The other day, I had to race to the nearest bank to get an important document signed by a notary in order to avoid losing more than $1,000 in funds. I’d forgotten to notify a group that was managing an old investment account for me that I’d moved halfway across the country two years ago, and now they were threatening to send my funds to the state’s Unclaimed Property Department if I didn’t confirm my address and identity.

I’d noticed before that the account’s periodic notices were being forwarded from my old address in Austin, but I kept forgetting to take care of it. I also put off actually opening the statements and would instead just throw them in a pile alongside all the other notices I’d resolved to read through later. Because I wasn’t keeping track of them, I didn’t notice that the statements had suddenly stopped coming altogether.

It’s embarrassing as a personal finance writer to admit that my system for keeping track of my finances is a mess. But the truth is, I’m a disaster when it comes to keeping organized.

I have bags of unopened bank statements and other miscellaneous mail from when I was single hidden in my closet that I keep meaning to go through and shred. But after nearly three years of marriage, I still haven’t gotten around to it. Before getting married, I also routinely lost bills and paid them late and frequently overdrew my checking account. The only bills I was good about keeping track of were my credit card bills — only because I was so afraid of hurting my credit score that the fear helped keep me on track.

In 2008, I was diagnosed with adult attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) after meaning to get tested at the urging of my elementary school teachers for years. For the most part, I’ve been able to manage my symptoms and, in some cases, find creative ways to overcome them. But when it comes to managing the steady stream of Very Important Papers that routinely come through the mail, I consistently fall short.

ADHD and money don’t always mix

Excessive procrastination and chronic disorganization are hallmark symptoms of ADHD; both can make it tough for people with the disorder to successfully manage their finances.

Good financial hygiene requires a high tolerance for tedium and many people with ADHD have trouble paying attention to things that don’t interest them. So boring but important tasks — such as balancing a checkbook — often get left undone.

Many people with ADHD also struggle with impulsive spending and poor financial planning and may even face recurring job loss if they don’t get their ADHD treated. According to a 2012 paper on the disorder’s long-term consequences, adults with ADHD are also much more likely than people without the disorder to experience high financial stress.

One of the most troubling and least talked about downsides to having ADHD, though, is that chronic disorganization can also undercut your consumer rights.

Consumers have a fair number of financial protections thanks to important laws such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Credit CARD Act of 2009 and the Truth in Lending Act. But, in many cases, to protect your rights, you need to stay organized enough to know when something’s up and to react in a timely fashion.

For example, the Fair Credit Reporting Act gives you the ability to see what credit bureaus are saying about you and file a dispute when they’re wrong. But in order to know that mistakes are marring your credit reports, you have to actually check them in the first place and monitor them regularly for changes.

Similarly, the Fair Credit Billing Act gives you the right to dispute billing errors on your credit card statements. But if you don’t catch the errors and dispute them within 60 days, you forfeit your right to a legally protected dispute.

Chronic disorganization can also get you into trouble if banks or credit reporting agencies fail to correct their own mistakes. For example, to get a persistent error removed from your credit reports, you may need to submit crucial evidence, such as bank statements or canceled checks. But if you lose that evidence, you could have a much harder time proving your case to the credit bureaus, which are notoriously bad about thoroughly investigating consumer disputes.

In my case, I periodically check my credit reports when I remember and have been trying to look at my statements more closely. But consistency is difficult: I have the best of intentions and know exactly what I need to do to protect my consumer rights. But too often, I get sidetracked by all the other demands crowding my financial life and frequently forget.

What about you? If you, too, struggle with chronic disorganization, what are some strategies and tricks you use to stay on track with your finances?

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