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Personal finance often puts a strain on mental health. Debt, bills, job security and similar matters are major sources of stress and anxiety for many people. Problems can flow in the opposite direction, too: Mental health struggles can make it harder to manage personal finances.
Credit cards present a unique challenge. They offer convenience, rewards, consumer protections and emergency access to spending power, making them valuable tools for consumers. But credit cards also make it possible to spend money you don’t have and get deep into debt fairly quickly, especially at times when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Mental illness doesn’t have to harm one’s finances. Many people who live with mental health challenges have turned to tools, strategies and resources to successfully and painlessly manage credit cards and other aspects of their personal finances.
Control your spending
Several mental health conditions can manifest in overspending — and credit cards make it easy to do so since they let you spend money, even if you don’t have any in the bank.
“At the heart of a lot of mental health struggles, we are dealing with a giant hole that we’re trying to figure out how to fill,” says Sarah Swantner, a certified financial planner and licensed professional counselor with Black Hills Integrative Counseling & Coaching in South Dakota. “For some people, spending money doesn’t solve the problem, but it provides temporary relief.”
Buying something new or taking an expensive trip, for example, might provide a distraction from psychological pain. In the case of addiction, the relief can come from substances or gambling. Addiction, in turn, may facilitate irresponsible or irrational spending while under the influence.
Thankfully, you can implement changes that will help control spending and buy some time to address underlying mental health issues.
Lock your card
A credit card lock temporarily disables your credit card for purchases, cash advances and balance transfers. You can usually install a lock by logging into your account and making a few selections; locks go into effect immediately.
However, unlocking the card is an equally seamless process, so if you think that a card lock isn’t a strong enough measure to curb overspending, you might pair it with some other strategies.
Cut off access to cash advances
Credit card cash advances can lead to overspending, too. They put cash in hand without having to make a withdrawal from the bank. Plus, their anonymity — the credit card statement will note the advance rather than the name of a particular merchant — hides the details of any spending.
To restrict your access to cash advances, contact the card issuer. Some allow you to disable the feature entirely or reduce the advance limit. Refraining from setting up a PIN with the card issuer is another preventative measure. A PIN is often required to take out a cash advance, so if you don’t have one, it’ll be more difficult to get money in that way.
It may also be a good idea to immediately destroy any convenience checks that the issuer sends you: Cash advances obtained with convenience checks are subject to fees and high annual percentage rates, or APRs. To ensure that those checks never even make it to your mailbox, ask your card issuer to stop sending them. As an extra safeguard, you could opt out of all credit offers by submitting a request at optoutprescreen.com. You can opt out for five years or permanently, but the latter requires written consent.
Seek help from a mental health professional
Credit card-related solutions like card locks can be implemented while you work to improve your mental health. Contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration by visiting its website, samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline, to be connected to local resources, or reach out to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Dial 988 to speak with a trained counselor during a mental health, substance abuse or suicide crisis.
Face your financial fears
Mental illness is associated with money-avoidant behavior, says Ashley Agnew, a Massachusetts-based financial advisor and board member of the Financial Therapy Association. Money avoidance is the tendency to resist thinking about money and making financial decisions. It can manifest as putting off or neglecting tasks, such as checking monthly credit card statements and monitoring credit reports.
Money avoidance is not necessarily related to income, either. Some people may have enough money to pay the bills but don’t have the motivation to take care of their personal finances.
Inaction with credit card accounts has serious consequences. Late payments are reported to the credit bureaus once an account is 30 days past due, lowering your credit score. After 180 days of nonpayment, credit card issuers can charge off accounts, meaning that outstanding debt is sent off to a collection agency and the account is closed.
These strategies can help you combat money avoidance and its negative outcomes. There’s also help available if your accounts are already in collections or you’re facing bankruptcy.
Put bills on autopay
Morgan Dubie, a freelance web designer from Vermont, experienced depressive episodes as a symptom of bipolar disorder. “When you get in these bouts of depression, you can’t function,” she says. “Credit card bills meant nothing to me because everything meant nothing to me.”
Setting up credit card autopay is one way to keep up with your financial obligations while you care for your mental health. Autopay can be set up in the following ways:
Minimum payment: Paying the minimum may lead to maintaining a credit card balance, which will accrue interest — but at least you’ll avoid a late payment fee.
Statement balance: Wipe out your entire monthly bill in full, as long as you have enough money in the bank account you’re using to pay the bills. If you’re short, the bank could charge an overdraft fee, and you’ll have depleted your account of funds that may be needed for other expenses.
One thing to note: While autopay can be a helpful solution to money avoidance, it may worsen a tendency to overspend when you no longer have to log in to your credit card account and see your spending history.
Freeze your credit
Some people apply for another credit card when one account is closed due to missing payments. “I’ve seen clients struggling to the point of having 22 credit cards to deal with their need to access funds instead of dealing with the initial problem of dealing with debt,” says Agnew.
Placing a credit freeze with the three credit bureaus Equifax, TransUnion and Experian can make opening up a new credit account a burdensome task. Any credit card application can’t be approved until you request the freeze to be lifted. To do so, you'll need to call the credit bureau or log in to your account, and you may need to supply your unique PIN to authorize any request to unfreeze your credit.
Work with a credit counselor
The National Foundation for Credit Counseling can help you develop lasting solutions to the effects of money avoidance. You can request a debt management plan, which consolidates all credit card debt into one payment, potentially with a lower interest rate. Credit counselors also offer advice on how to deal with debt collectors and bankruptcy. Many of these counseling services are free or at a low cost.
Prioritize your mental health
Dubie says getting out of credit card debt took time. She used some money she made from freelancing gigs to make payments, and she relied on financial apps to monitor her progress.
“They helped me to see that I’m better today than where I was yesterday,” she says. But the most important key to regaining her financial footing was taking care of her mental health. “That comes first, or else nothing else will work,” says Dubie.
Swantner agrees. By addressing the guilt, shame and fear surrounding money, you can make meaningful and lasting changes, she says. Our mental health has the power to permeate every corner of our lives, and when we are faced with multiple financial decisions in a single day, it is essential to care for ourselves as we put our financial houses in order.
Flip your script
“Money script” is a term coined by psychologists Brad Klontz and Ted Klontz that refers to a typically unconscious belief about money that was formed during childhood. A product of life experiences and messaging from role models, money scripts exert a powerful influence on our daily lives.
For example, if your money script says that credit cards are dangerous, you might feel ashamed after you open up a credit card account and then ignore credit alerts or statements. Someone else’s money script could convey the belief that credit card debt is preferable to losing access to cash. Credit card bills may not be paid in order to preserve liquid assets.
By rewriting your money script, it’s possible to improve your relationship with credit cards. That process begins by understanding how the money script influences your feelings and behaviors, says Swantner. She also notes that money scripts have developed to protect us, though they may not always be logical. Understanding this is “the difference between condemnation and self-compassion,” she says.
Changing a narrative that you have been telling yourself for years may not be easy, but it’s certainly possible. Consider working with a financial therapist, an accredited financial counselor or a mental health professional — or perhaps all three.
“It’s not a sign of weakness to seek help and advice,” says Agnew. “It takes a lot of courage to face your finances head on.”