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Mental Health

Bipolar Disorder. Reckless Spending

Pat Merrett and Marguerite*

Reprinted from "Income" issue of Visions Journal, 2011, 7(2), pp. 10-12

Out of control and in the red

Marguerite says: “My life is so much better since I cleared up my money problems. Without the tremendous dedication of my friend at MDA, I don’t know what I would have done. I’ve been volunteering for 12 years at MDA. It is very healing to be with people who care.”

Marguerite loved to spend money shopping and buying nice things for herself—expensive shoes, purses, clothing, makeup, and especially, jewellery. She had always liked the nicer things in life and never thought too much about the cost. She had a good job as an administrative assistant in a large national accounting company and a husband who had a secure well-paying job, so the bills were no problem.

When Marguerite was diagnosed in 1990 with bipolar disorder, her lifestyle changed. Unfortunately, she had difficulty finding a treatment plan that was effective. It took several years of trying different medications, having numerous hospitalizations and undergoing electroconvulsive therapy before her bipolar disorder was under control. Through all this Marguerite was unable to keep her job. Although no longer employed, she continued to buy expensive things. Her disability pension wasn’t large enough to cover all the bills, so she used her credit card.

Then Marguerite’s 20-year marriage broke up in 2000, largely due to her spouse’s alcohol addiction. She was able to secure subsidized housing and received spousal support, so she still had a reasonable income, though it was less than before.

Over the next few years, Marguerite continued to live beyond her means. She leased a car with all the extra costs that brings (e.g., gas, insurance, maintenance) and had expensive dental work done. She also opened department store credit accounts with large interest charges, and secured a bank loan in an attempt to consolidate some debts.

When her ex-spouse became disabled due to his own mental illness and could no longer work, Marguerite lost her support payments. Her income was reduced to just her disability pension. Making even minimum payments on all the credit cards left little for utilities, food and necessities. The impossibility of making all the payments resulted in daily calls from creditors wanting their money. Marguerite stopped answering the phone.

The stress of trying to manage all that debt began to take its toll. Her daily anxiety escalated as she wondered if the phone was going to ring, or if the day’s mail would have another demand for payment. The stress triggered an increase in depression, and feeling hopeless, she began to have suicidal thoughts. Her psychiatrist admitted her to hospital with severe symptoms of bipolar.

“I never want to go back to where I was a few years ago. I remember how I felt so helpless and was always crying. Having someone to help me with my money has made a big difference for me.”

It came down to bankruptcy

Marguerite had been attending the Mood Disorders Association (MDA) self-help support group and often volunteered with our association, where I work as the media director, arranging display events, creating materials, assisting volunteers and so on. Marguerite often stopped by my office just to have a chat, and we built a friendly relationship over time. 

I realized the distress she was in because of her money problems, and we discussed how she might deal with this problem. We sought assistance from a debt counselling service and on their advice gathered together all the information about Marguerite’s financial situation.

As we were going through this process of pulling all her information together, another huge debt surfaced. A family member who had a bad driving record and past claims had persuaded Marguerite to insure his car under her name so he could get a cheaper insurance rate. Then he had an accident—his fault—and the car was a write-off. The deception was quickly discovered, and Marguerite was told she was responsible for over $20,000 and faced the possibility of legal charges due to the fraud.

With this added financial obligation, the counsellor recommended filing for bankruptcy because she felt it was unlikely that Marguerite would ever be able to repay her debts. The decision to go ahead with the bankruptcy, something Marguerite wasn’t familiar with, increased her anxiety. But her psychiatrist adjusted the medications to help her cope.

Bankruptcy is a nine- to 21-month process for someone claiming bankruptcy for the first time. It involves meeting with a trustee licensed by the Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy (OSB) Canada, who evaluates the situation and explains how bankruptcy works. The trustee files the necessary papers with the OSB and deals directly with the creditors.

There is a monthly fee for the services of the trustee, which is based on the bankrupt person’s total income and personal situation. Because of her low income, Marguerite was allowed to make a monthly payment instead of paying the full amount to the bankruptcy trustee.

Beginning in spring 2008, Marguerite was required to submit a report to the trustee each month showing her income and expenditures. Marguerite and I worked together to create a daily journal, where she recorded all the money she spent each day. For the first time, she needed to show a receipt for every expenditure.

Marguerite was amazed at how all those little amounts added up. And she realized things like how much she spent on unhealthy fast foods at the bakery to satisfy her craving for sweets and the take-out pizza place when her mood made it hard to prepare a meal. Realizing this and feeling more in control of her money, she started spending more of her food budget at the grocery and produce stores instead.

During the year, she was required to attend two counselling sessions with the bankruptcy counsellor to review how she was managing her finances.

Since her bankruptcy was discharged in 2009, Marguerite has continued to record her expenditures. We meet and review the information a couple of times a month and make adjustments to the budgeted amounts when necessary; for example, when the cost for her monthly transit pass increased. And now, instead of making a monthly payment to the trustee, she puts that amount in her savings account, along with any extra money she receives such as her HST credit payments. Marguerite has used her savings to pay for a new television and some dental work, and is currently saving for a washer and dryer.

An ongoing challenge

Before you think this is the perfect story, it isn’t. In the spring of 2010, Marguerite’s bipolar disorder required an extended stay in St. Paul’s Hospital. On a couple of occasions, a friend took her out on a pass and they went shopping. The credit cards were gone, but she did have a debit card and her disability pension cheque had been deposited. After each outing, she arrived back at the hospital eager to show everyone her purchases: for example, a pair of designer sunglasses for $125, new shoes for $150, a leather purse for $200, and several other pricy items.

Once she was discharged from hospital, we sat down to do our regular review, and she could see in writing, on paper, the effects of her shopping sprees. The consequence was that she had to use money she’d been saving in her account for the washer and dryer to cover her daily expenses.

Marguerite and I discuss any unusual expenses. When she needed dental work beyond the regular maintenance, she got a quote and questioned any possible alternatives before agreeing to the procedure. She now sees the necessity of saving money to get those nice things she wants—and to cover the unexpected.

Marguerite sometimes has difficulty distinguishing between needs and wants, but she is working on it. But she now realizes that reckless shopping provides an instant feeling of well-being and self-importance, but later causes her distress and affects her bipolar disorder. She has also come to realize that her spending habits may have gone unrecognized as an effect of her bipolar disorder—when she is manic, she really likes to shop.

Marguerite now knows that just as her bipolar disorder needs to be controlled, so does her shopping behaviour. When her bipolar disorder is stabilized, she will stop and think about her finances. She also thinks about facing me and having to justify the purchase.

Marguerite is still the only one with access to her accounts, but she recognizes the importance of having a trusted partner to monitor her spending and bank account, and to help her make decisions and fix the occasional oops.

About the author

Pat is the Media Director for the Mood Disorders Association of BC (MDA) and was previously a business owner and teacher. Thanks to MDA, her husband’s depression was recognized and treated. MDA provides awareness, support and education for those living with a mental illness, their supporters and the community.



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