This story is part of a collection of pieces on how we spend money today.
Here are some of the things I have bought while manic over the years: a skateboard, a mini trampoline, a typewriter, about a dozen books (I was shoe shopping at the time), and purple hair dye which stained not only my hair but also my hands and much of the tile in my bathroom when I applied it later that night.
I made most of these purchases while I was in college, and they didn’t strike me as out of the ordinary. I wasn’t spending thousands of dollars at a time (because I didn’t have thousands of dollars to spend), and I wasn’t buying plane tickets on a whim (OK, maybe I did, but it was one time).
But the reality was, even though a lot of my friends were making bad financial decisions in college, too, the chemical makeup of my brain made it easier for me to make a lot more bad decisions. Scientists think that people who experience mania have lower volumes of gray matter in their prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain responsible for cognitive functioning and decision making—than those who don’t. In other words, for many people with bipolar disorder, myself included, during bouts of mania there’s less of a buffer, and often no delay between making a decision and acting on it. There was no rationalizing, as was the case for the people around me, just an idea followed by an action.
I was diagnosed with bipolar II in 2017 but had been experiencing symptoms for at least six years prior to that. That was six years of impulse shopping, spending money I didn’t have, and racking up credit card debt. But just about anyone can have trouble curtailing their spending, for any number of reasons, and knowing why doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. Getting that diagnosis was life-changing. It allowed me to pursue a specific bipolar treatment plan, and it forced me to more closely examine my spending habits. But there’s no cure for bipolar, so I’ve picked up a few tricks to stop myself from spending. Here are some tips to manufacture impulse control when you struggle with spending urges of your own.
Revert to Cash
Between mobile payments, fewer stores having a card minimum, and some places not even accepting cash, it's easier than ever to spend money in practically invisible ways. Cash adds friction! Cash can curb spending and help you spend smartly. When I feel a manic episode coming on, I’ll leave my cards at home and take cash with me. Even when I’m not manic, I do this sometimes to save money. I have a budget I at least loosely follow month to month, so at the beginning of the month I’ll take out the amount I intend to spend for the month and will carry usually between $20 and $100 depending on what my plans are for the day. If I’m making plans with friends, I’ll let them know in advance. More and more places in New York don’t take cash, so I don’t want to put someone in the awkward position of having to cover me. But I’ve also found that my friends are often thrilled when I offer to pay them back in cash, as they rarely to never have it when they actually need it.
Kam Burns is the social media coordinator for WIRED.
Seeing the money physically leave your hands forces you to think more about what and how you’re spending. And if you leave the house with only $20, you’re not going to spend more than $20.
Make the Virtual Marketplace Stickier
There are so many ways and places to spend online, and your computer only wants to make it easier for you. If you use Google Chrome, go into your Settings>Autofill>Payment methods and turn off “Save and fill payment methods.”
Autofill essentially gives you 1-click shopping all across the web. Having to take the extra step of pulling out your card and typing in the number forces you to stop and think about what you’re purchasing before you click Buy Now.
The HabitLab extension is a great tool for productivity and mindfulness online, but it can also provide another layer of friction when buying online. On both Amazon and Etsy, I've set up Gatekeeper, which makes you wait a few seconds to visit the site and asks for double confirmation before you proceed. You can set it up to automatically close the tab after 60 seconds or stop your scroll.
Also, consider abandoning Amazon Prime altogether. Free two-day shipping is a magical thing, and once it’s out of the equation, you’ll be a bit more honest with yourself about whether you really need that air fryer, especially if it means you have to leave the house to get it.
Remove your credit card from your Amazon account and use a virtual gift card balance instead. Seeing that balance disappear and having to manually reload it every time it runs out may help you reconsider some of your purchases.
Take Advantage of the Wish List
Even without a Prime account, I can still use Amazon to keep track of things I might want to buy with my Amazon wish list. Instead of adding an item to your cart, add it to your wish list, and then walk away. If you find that you still want the item a few hours (or days) later, fine. But in my experience, you’ll most likely forget what you were looking at in the first place.
For sites other than Amazon, after adding items to your cart, just close the tab. Most online retailers can remember what you had in your cart when you reopen it. But if they don’t, and you’re not able to remember what you were looking for when you return, you can safely assume it wasn’t that important.
Don’t Drink and Spend
It’s tempting to unwind with a glass of wine and indulge in some virtual window shopping, even though we all know alcohol impairs judgment. I stopped drinking entirely a little over a year ago because this is especially true for people with bipolar disorder. But there is already so much messaging and so many tools encouraging you to spend. Take at least one of them out of the equation.
Wait a Minute—or a Month
Most of the people in my life don’t know that I have bipolar disorder, but those who do can also recognize the signs of mania even before I can. My closest friends will gently point out if I’m talking faster than usual or have no filter with someone we’ve just met.
Last year, I decided I wanted to get a gecko and promptly told one of my friends. Noticing my elevated energy level, they politely but pointedly asked if now was the best time to do that. Hearing that grounded me, and I decided to wait. A month later, when I was sure I wasn’t manic anymore, I did ultimately decide to get the gecko, and he brings me joy every time I see him. But I’m glad I waited.
Track Your Spending—and Your Mood
There are many ways to keep yourself from spending more in the moment, but long-term it’s worth trying to get to the root of the problem. Julie Fast, a mental health expert with active bipolar disorder suggests that those with bipolar make a conscious effort to write down the earliest signs and feelings of hypomanic spending as they’re happening.
“There’s really no such thing as controlling mania in the middle; that’s crisis control,” Fast says.
By recognizing those early signs, you can put those fail-safes in place sooner and stop overspending. And this can work for anyone, not just people with bipolar.
Take note of your mood and state of mind the next time you make—or want to make— an impulse purchase. It can provide valuable insight into why you’re looking to spend, give you a chance to examine those feelings, and maybe find another way to fill that void.
More Stories on How We Spend
Why the Apple Card Is the Gleaming Future of Money
An Obituary for the Dash Button
The True Meaning of Emoji on Venmo
How to Shop Safe on Amazon
Should You Really Spend $1,000 on a Smartphone ?
The Secret Shame of Instagram Kettleball
(Sayurai went to graduate school in the US, and she made it clear to me that she doesn’t think much of American shopkeepers’ cash-counting abilities.) "It's much faster to pay with cash than wait for a card transaction," International University of Japan professor Soichiro Takagi told me.There is something about the feel of bills, the skill of the shopkeepers in dealing with them, and the ceremonial role of cash throughout life which resonates profoundly in Japan.