How to Deal with Debt and Mental Illness: Use the ABC’s

ABC's of debtThree years ago I found myself at the lowest point in my life.

I was recently divorced and had moved my two young children and myself into my mother’s home.

I was without a job or any prospects of a job. I had a great deal of debt in the form of credit cards and student loans and my car had just lost its transmission.

To say I was depressed would be an understatement.

When my car died and I realized I had no way to repair it or purchase a new one, I cried for three days straight. As the tears dried up, I started making a plan. Part of that plan was to get myself out of debt for good and never go back there again.

Part of my problem was location, there wasn’t a huge job market in the town I was living in but a huge part of my problem was internally. It is something that I’ve had to deal with for 30 years and will continue to deal with for the rest of my days.

Confession: I am Mentally Ill

I don’t make this statement lightly, it has taken me quite awhile to say it without shame. I have lived with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) since I was 9 years old and a Bipolar diagnosis since I was 23.

Those two disorders make up such a huge component of who I am that I can tell you for certain that there isn’t one part of my life that exists today that wouldn’t if I weren’t one of those two things.

I am in debt due to a lack of education but also due to my ADHD and Bipolar disorder. I have mismanaged my finances, overspent my money and shopped in excess. I have made poor, rash decisions that have affected me negatively. I have done so many of those things because I was not stable, mentally.

It took this point of rock bottom for me to realize how much damage my mental health had done on my finances. As I was sitting in that small bedroom of my mother’s house, drying my three-day-old tears, I devised a plan that included: Find out WHY I’m continually in debt!

As a special education teacher, I was trained to address problem behaviors a specific way. We often discuss the ABCs of a problem. Study the Antecedent of the Behavior and it’s Consequence.

Meaning we look at what is the cause or what happened prior to the behavior. We isolate the behavior and define it in simple terms. And we explore the consequence, remembering that consequences oftentimes feel, intrinsically positive.

I took this same approach to my financial life and anyone who struggles with debt, personal finance or saving should do the same thing.

What I discovered was a lifetime of using credit cards to feed my emotions.

1. Discover what your antecedents are.

Emotions were the root of my antecedents. I did not have a healthy outlet for the emotions I was feeling, especially the negative ones. When I was in college, I spent a lot of time using “retail therapy” to fix whatever was bothering me.

I may have been dealing with low self-esteem or rejection. I may have been feeling lonely or depressed about a situation. I also fed the emotions of belonging and being accepted by using credit cards to have fun with friends even when I could not afford to.

For many months, post-divorce, I fed the emotions of freedom with the use of my credit cards and spent money that I didn’t have to travel and have fun.

Everyone who struggles with debt needs to do this. You can not make a lasting change if you do not explore what is causing you to overspend. You can not get out of debt and stay out unless you know why you are turning to your credit cards when you do not have the money in your checking account.

2. Define the problem in its simplest form.

My problem is: I use credit cards to buy things I don’t need and can’t afford.

This is and probably always will be a problem for me. I’m very much like an addict. I turn to this behavior whenever I have the opportunity.

I am incapable of walking around with a credit card in my wallet without wanting to buy myself something and it took running out of credit for me to realize just how bad it had become.

Once you have defined your problem, consider posting it somewhere that you will see it. Put it on a label and stick it to your credit card. I did this for my own credit cards before I was ready to cut them up.

Post it in your checkbook so you see it when you are paying bills. Turn your passwords into something that you will remember like: “URMADBROKE!250”.

Maybe the next time you are logging into your credit card account or thinking about impulse shopping online, that password will remind you that you CAN NOT afford to shop.

3. What is the consequence of your behavior?

This consequence is two-fold really. There is the initial consequence, the momentary reward that you are feeling, for me that was the short-lived high of buying something new like clothing, shoes or decorations for my apartment.

But also, you must consider the long-term consequences.

  • How is this affecting your finances in the long run.
  • Are you able to save money for that vacation you want to take your family on?
  • Do you have a 401K for retirement?
  • Are you getting close to reaching the max on all of your credit cards?
  • What happens if you lose your job tomorrow?

These long-term consequences are what most people who are in debt avoid thinking about. I did for many years. Sure I knew that I wasn’t really able to afford that trip across the country to see my favorite band in their hometown but I’d worry about that another day and focus on the fun I was about to have today!

Those consequences are what you NEED to be focusing on now. Those long-term consequences need to become your future goals!

Once you have broken down the problem behavior and truly discovered the ABCs of it, you can find a new way of dealing with the antecedents.

Find a positive reward to work into your life that will help you avoid the behavior you want to eliminate. Once you have done that, you can truly begin the road to debt freedom and recovery!


About the Author:

JessicaJessica Streit is a single mom, freelance writer, and owner of the blog, The Debt Princess. She writes about how debt controlled her life, the path to becoming debt free and ways to live a royal life with less money. She can be followed on Twitter ( and Facebook (