Depression, Spending, and Bad Money Behaviors

Can you imagine walking through your entire life… in two feet of water? You’re commuting to work in water, walking up the stairs to your office in water, and struggling to take care of your kids and the house with the resistance of water adding stress to your every move. And the only time you get a break is when you lie down – tired from you’re exhausting day. You’re technically able to move forward, yes, but you’re using a lot more energy to complete even the most basic tasks.

Your limbs feel twice as heavy as they normally do, and everything you do is an all-consuming hassle. Even making a phone call or getting showered can exhaust you for the day, which leaves little stamina to do much else. And when you’re wasting so much energy just to live, it’s easy to let bills and even friendships fall to the wayside. It doesn’t mean you’re not sad about it – or that you don’t care; you’re just too tired to feel anything.

You’re so weary that you’re numb.

This is how Abigail Perry, author of “Frugality for Depressives,” describes life with the constant ache of depression in the background. It’s hard, she says, and it’s something that outsiders don’t always understand.

But after living with depression and bipolar disorder for a lifetime, Perry learned to channel her frustrations and creative energy into her writing — including her blog, I Pick Up Pennies.

On her website, Perry covers topics that range from her husband’s journey with chronic pain to her own battle with depression and anxiety. And true to her website’s name, she seamlessly relates many of their battles to the financial struggles that inevitably arise when money and depression collide.

Writing ‘Frugality for Depressives’

Approximately 14.8 million American adults (or 6.7% of the population) suffer from Major Depressive Disorder, and that’s in addition to the myriad other mental health issues that afflict others. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Persistent Depressive Disorder, for example, affects another 3.3 million American adults each year.

And you can find ample books that cover mental illness and its side effects  – a gaggle of self-help books, books for family and friends, and medical text meant to explain these conditions. Yet, the books that talk about money in relation to frugality are basically nonexistent – and that’s absolutely bizarre. With millions of people suffering from some stage of depression or mental illness – and all of those people having to manage money in their daily lives – one would think that money management and mental health might be the topic of a book or two.

But this topic hasn’t been covered much in the mainstream; at least not yet. And that’s why Perry wrote her new book – because there is nothing else out there like it. Too few financial help books are aimed at people with the challenges that Perry and others like her face.

“Too much personal finance advice assumes perfect-world scenarios,” says Perry. “Plenty of people – even healthy ones – live in a very different reality,” she says.

Q&A with Abigail Perry, author of ‘Frugality for Depressives’

To learn more about the challenges of being frugal when you’re depressed, we wanted to open the floor to someone who deals with these unique challenges, yet overcomes them every day.

While Perry’s book is aimed primarily at depressives, she believes her commentary and advice might prove helpful for anyone having trouble with the classic frugal hacks – and people who might be too intimidated to get started. Here are some additional insights into Perry’s book from the author herself.

On why depression makes it harder to be frugal:

“Depression makes everything harder. During my worst spells, there were days the mere thought of a shower made me want to weep,” Perry says. “Remember in cartoons how something that had been normal-sized a minute ago is suddenly huge? That’s depression. Something that should be simple, like a phone call, is too much to even contemplate. So you end up stuck in another month of gym membership or subscriptions.”

“Even functional depressives can struggle,” she adds. “Their energy and coping abilities tend to be lower than healthy people’s. It takes more to get through their day, which means less energy and mental wherewithal to focus on money-saving tricks.”

Advice for people who are depressed but still want to get ahead financially:

“You need to start small,” Perry says. “If you try to take on every frugal hack at once, you’ll burn out quickly. Focus on one area until it feels natural. Then move on to the next one.”

It’s also important to acknowledge your condition – and cut yourself some slack, Perry says. “Remember that even healthy people have trouble sustaining radical change. You’re not healthy, and your approach to frugality (and life) has to take that into account,” she says.

“That brings me to the other key ingredient: forgiveness. Depressives are our own worst critics. We look at ourselves through a funhouse mirror – usually the one that makes us look fat. We’re much more likely to beat ourselves up over failures, which keeps us from wanting to try again. It’s also a huge waste of our already-diminished energy.”

Finally, Perry says to accept mistakes. “Understand that you will make mistakes. If you accept that, you’ll be better equipped to accept ‘good enough.’ You can always improve on your results in the future. For now, it’s about seeing any progress. That will keep you going on the path to frugality.”

On the cycle of depression and frugality that leaves people unable to make progress financially:

Depression presents a number of obstacles to improving your everyday finances, but one in particular stands out. “I think that the biggest hindrance is the convenience tax,” Perry says.

“We can’t handle the thought of cooking, so we buy prepared food or order in. The supermarket feels too overwhelming, so we opt for the drugstore or even the convenience store. We’re not sure when we’ll have the energy to go out again, so we buy an item on site rather than wait for a sale or comparison shop,” she says.”

“All of these things cost extra, which is obviously the opposite of our frugal intentions. This usually makes us frustrated or even ashamed. And that sucks up more of our energy and lowers our ability to cope, thereby making life even harder. Which then increases the chance that we’ll pay the convenience tax even more often, making us feel worse. It’s what I call a shame spiral, and it ends with us paralyzed by exhaustion and self-reproach.

“Of course, the second issue is comfort spending. When we feel awful, we may try to buy something to feel better – whether that’s candy or a new dress. Once the euphoria from the purchase fades, we feel even worse, which could cause another round of comfort spending. That only makes us feel worse in the end and… cue the shame spiral.”

On her personal battle with depression:

“Looking back, I’ve had symptoms of depression most of my life, but I was diagnosed at age 21,” Perry says. “Then, I was correctly diagnosed at age 30 as being bipolar II. I still experience severe depression, just like normal (unipolar) depressives. I just also experience manias – though they’re significantly tamer than ones that normal bipolar people have.

“Before I was on the correct medication, I went through a lot of dark times. Usually, it was just that life was even more difficult to get through than normal. Still, there were a few times I thought of suicide.

“Life is much better now that I have the right medication (mood stabilizers). But there are still days that I struggle. Sometimes I can’t bring myself to do something very simple (for healthy people) like make a phone call or leave the house. I just have to accept that and find ways to work around it.”

Her advice for someone who’s depressed, yet wants to live a more frugal lifestyle:

“It’s really all about learning workarounds for and baby-stepping your way into frugal hacks,” Perry says.

“Even for healthy people, frugality is a marathon rather than a sprint. It can take years for money-saving routines to come naturally. So it’s important that you set up realistic expectations. It’s better to succeed at a small goal than to fail at a large one.

“Obviously it’s all easier said than done. It’s something I’ve been working on for years. Even now, my husband and I experience a mix of successes and failures. Rather than castigate myself for the failures, I try to learn from them and move on.”

Final Thoughts

If adopting a frugal lifestyle were easy, everyone would do it. But it’s not easy, and it can actually be close to impossible for those who deal with depression or other mental health issues.

Still, there is light at the end of the tunnel – and there is hope for those who live with depression but still want to get ahead financially.

But it’s important to be patient with yourself; and to be kind. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and anything worth doing takes time. Fortunately, the strategies Perry suggests could help someone get to a better place emotionally as well as financially, she says.

“Changing the way I think about and approach frugality has made a huge difference in my mental health,” says Perry. “I hope my book will help people do the same.”

What is your experience with frugality and depression? Please share your stories below.

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Holly Johnson

Contributing Writer

Holly Johnson is a frugality expert and award-winning writer who is obsessed with personal finance and getting the most out of life. A lifelong resident of Indiana, she enjoys gardening, reading, and traveling the world with her husband and two children. In addition to The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for well-known publications such as U.S. News & World Report Travel, PolicyGenius, Travel Pulse, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns Club Thrifty.