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Ask Dave

Financial Stress And Bipolar Disorder

Katie has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She and her husband have three kids, and they are trying to do the Baby Steps but haven't had much success due to her illness.

QUESTION: Katie in Illinois has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She and her husband have three kids, and they are trying to do the Baby Steps but haven’t had much success due to her illness. Dave reminds her that as long as she continues to work on it, it will get a little easier.

ANSWER: You definitely need to play a role in the family finances. We work with a lot of folks who are fighting through and struggling with bipolar disorder. As you can imagine, it almost always causes financial trouble. In 20 years of doing financial counseling, I’ve gotten to know more than I wanted to know about it.

Here’s the deal. As I understand it, stress adds to your problems. And you not knowing what’s going on behind the curtain adds to stress. Having full working knowledge of what’s going on in the family household—adding an element of responsibility to you to behave—helps with your healing process. I’m not suggesting you carry the weight of the decision-making, but nothing needs to happen in your house that you don’t know about.

I don’t think we’re going to lay responsibility for the finances on you, but I do want to do a monthly budget that your husband puts together and that the two of you sit down and agree on because it’s very good for you to have a contract with your husband on the spending. You look at the budget together and then you pinky swear and spit-shake that neither one of you are spending any money except what’s on that piece of paper. From an integrity standpoint, it’s good for you to have that out-of-bounds marker agreed to because that becomes the little angel on your shoulder. You need a whistle blown somewhere in the back of your brain when you go out of bounds.

He’s probably going to be the one who writes the checks and executes the budget plan, and then there are portions of the budget that you would be responsible for—maybe more limited portions at the start, but more as you develop a track record and as your medication gets balanced. Lots of people with bipolar disorder function very well with therapy and sometimes medication. I’ll leave that up to your doctor. The bottom line is you’re going to get better if you continue to work on this. We’re not going to surrender to it.

Maybe we say here’s the food envelope with cash in it. This money is not to be spent on anything but food. We are all in agreement on that, and you’re in agreement that that is a reasonable amount to furnish food for this pay period. You’ve got a period of time that you are accountable for that one money behavior as a part of an overall plan that you agreed to. Then later on, maybe we add clothing to it or a few household-type responsibilities to the budget. But probably for the rest of your life, he’s probably going to be the one cutting the major checks. That’s okay. You’re still going to know what’s going on, and you still have a vote on those. We’re not making you a lesser citizen. My wife is not bipolar, and this is exactly the way our household functions. I’m the nerd, though. My natural gifting is to put the budget together and to write the checks. She doesn’t want to. It’s just a part of our relationship that we’re in agreement on—what we’re going to do with our money that we both own. Then she does the entertainment stuff at the house and the catering and buys the groceries when we’re cooking—those are portions of our life that she handles the money on, and most of that’s done on an envelope system. It’s not because she’s a lesser human at all. That’s her part of the equation; this is my part of the equation.

We’re in agreement on the overall game plan. Share all of this with whoever is doing your counseling and therapy so that they can help you navigate this idea of the integrity piece of behavior modification, which can really give you that out-of-bounds marker. It’s helpful from a stress relief standpoint for you. We don’t want to dump all of the budgeting on you. We don’t want to dump all the responsibility of running the household on you. That does not fit with this diagnosis.

You’ve got a good nature about it. You’re going to be fine. You’ll learn how to navigate your way through this. Really, what I’m outlining for you is not that unusual for a married couple that doesn’t have to deal with bipolar disorder. It requires tons of communication to have quality relationships and out-of-bounds markers. We all need those.

Thank you! Your guide is on its way! 

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