Paying the ADHD Tax

We don’t always talk about how some type of neurodivergence, like ADHD, can impact finances. But the ADHD tax is real.

I had an amazing summer.


Retreats, retreats, and more retreats

Technically, it started at the end of April, when a dear friend and fellow content creator came to visit for a week. We went on a hot springs tour of central Idaho, taking it easy with work stuff for a couple of hours a day and then relaxing.

Then, in May, I went to Destin, Florida, for a professional retreat. I got to drive a golf cart, talk shop, learn some valuable new skills, hang out with colleagues who are also friends, and go to the beach. There were late-night hot tub conversations about life and business.

Also, in May, I had a little getaway to visit friends for my first camping trip of the summer.

I started June with a writer’s retreat in Jackson, Wyoming. Lots of thoughtful conversations, bonding, and new ideas for work. Coming off these retreats always invigorates me, but it can also feel overwhelming. So many new ideas! Interesting projects! My ADHD brain feels like it might explode!

Even though it was only June, the cracks were starting to show for the rest of the summer. There were a lot of moving parts, and even though my finances are largely automated, I forgot things.

The ADHD tax started rearing its ugly head. It’s hard to focus on my money when I’m gearing up for the next thing. And the summer was full of the next thing.

Two of my clients were late with payment, but I was too distracted to follow up in a timely manner. This slowed my cash flow at a time when I was spending A LOT of money. Not paying attention, I used the “wrong” credit card for some business expenses and that filled the personal card I used for automated expenses—leading to a returned utility payment.

Taking advantage of travel opportunities

My two biggest—and unexpected—travel opportunities of the summer involved two weeks in China and one week in Hawaii.

A friend of mine who had lived in China for several years was invited to serve as best man at a wedding. He reached out to all his friends and asked who wanted to go. One other guy and I were the only folks who had the time availability and the financial flexibility to go.

My ability to go was dependent on my travel fund, which I’ve cultivated as part of a sustainable system for the better part of a decade. Plus, my work as a freelancer meant that I could leave the country for two weeks and arrange my schedule in a way that worked for me.

The opportunity to spend a week in Hawaii came because a friend’s dad had a timeshare he was willing to let us use. I’d previously helped this friend meet his spending requirement to get credit card rewards, so he used his companion fare on my ticket to Hawaii.

The moral of this story is to get good friends. And have a travel fund you can tap.

Anyway, in between the China trip and the Hawaii trip, I had a paid speaking engagement in Los Angeles, California. After the Hawaii trip, I went to Toledo, Ohio, to spend a few days (and celebrate Toledo Pride) with some of my favorite people. From there, I rolled directly to Denver, Colorado, for a conference. My summer ended with a Labor Day Weekend family camping trip at Bear Lake, Utah.

So, it was an amazing summer. But I paid a price beyond the cost of travel. I paid the ADHD tax.

What is the ADHD tax?

The ADHD tax is what many of us with ADHD call the price we pay for being distracted, forgetful, or just having difficulty with executive function. All of that often leads to fees, more fees, and missed opportunities.

My ADHD money issues didn’t stop with my June shenanigans. Over the summer, I performed ongoing blunders as I moved distractedly from trip to trip and obligation to obligation (I still had nonprofit and political things to do throughout the summer).

Examples of my ADHD tax

  • Forgot to pay my July rent in a timely manner. My rent isn’t automated. Why? Because when I moved into my apartment, I didn’t go through the steps to set it up. ADHD executive dysfunction strikes again! Anyway, the fee for paying my rent late was $30 per day. I was three days past my grace period for an extra $90. Good times, good times.
  • Didn’t run payroll when I should have. Luckily, it was just me on payroll, but by not running payroll, I didn’t have money in my personal account when some bills came due. They got paid, but I got hit with overdraft fees. Luckily, my bank is on the low end of overdraft fees, and I “only” ended up with $20 per infraction—another $120 gone.
  • The utility bill debacle resulted in a returned payment fee of $30, plus a late fee of $25. On top of that, the company took me off autopay. Apparently, the gas company has a policy. So now I have to remember to pay my gas bill each month. Wish me luck with that. I guess that’s what bill reminders are for.
  • Forgot to switch out an expired credit card on autopay, and that resulted in piled-up membership fees. Now, I’m looking at an invoice for two quarterly membership payments in one go.
  • Just kept forgetting to pay my taxes. And my accountant. I’m squared away now, but it meant some bigger bills than I normally like to pay. There’s a reason we like to pay things incrementally rather than taking a big chunk out of the bank account all at once.
  • Didn’t bother with the email. Missed out on three different client opportunities because I ignored it for weeks at a time.

The impacts of the ADHD tax

My examples—from just the past several months—illustrate that the ADHD tax can add up. I was looking at hundreds of dollars. Over time, it can mean thousands of dollars spent unnecessarily.

Many of my issues stem from executive dysfunction. It would have taken only a few minutes to set up autopay for my rent, but I didn’t do it for almost a year.

Paying invoices as they came in would have meant a better cash flow. But I just put them aside for the time being. Until it got to the point where I had to come up with thousands (I’m not kidding; I had about $3,000 in delayed invoices) of dollars all at once. Because it finally just had to be done.

And because I was erratic in how I handled the late payments from my clients (yeah, I know, I was late paying as well), it was September until I got what was owed me in March.

All this messes up the cash flow and can lead to overdrafts, returned payments, and fees.  Plus, the opportunity cost of not answering emails that could lead to new clients and better pay down the road.

It can also be demoralizing. You’re falling behind, your cash flow is out of whack, and you get in a cycle where things are just overwhelming. The executive dysfunction increases, and you feel bad that you’re just scrolling through social media, but my goodness, you’re not ready to face your finances. Even if they’re not that bad yet—and you know they’re about to get worse if you don’t do something.


How I (try to) avoid the ADHD tax

In general, I’m pretty good about avoiding the ADHD tax. I’ve built systems and routines that help me stay on track with minimal effort and brain power.

But once things get crazy—even though I travel a fair bit, it’s been seven years since I’ve had anything like this summer—all that goes out the window.

Some of the ways that I’ve been successful with managing my money with ADHD include:

Automated finances

Most of my bills are automated. A few aren’t due to moves and whatnot, but I’m working on getting everything back on track and automating what I can. I’ll have to set a monthly reminder coinciding with my regular money reviews, to pay that stupid gas bill that they will no longer allow me to have on autopay.

Regularly schedule time to review my money

During the normal course of things, I have a set time to look at my finances. I review my money on Sunday mornings. This is a calendar item and my phone yells at me to do it. Double-check bills. Look for invoices. Make sure there aren’t fraudulent charges. Obviously, with so much travel over the summer, my Sundays weren’t conducive to this.

Another issue was that I didn’t start the move of my son’s tuition from the 529 early enough, and that caused all sorts of problems when I needed to come up with thousands of dollars very quickly. Having the regular review would have reminded me of that upcoming reality—and the tasks involved in making sure the money had time to move.

Quarterly subscription review

I look ahead and schedule time once a quarter to review my subscriptions and memberships. This includes checking credit cards and noting which are close to expiration so I can update them. I might also cancel subscriptions. This did not happen in June as it should have. I still haven’t done it properly, even though I should have in September. I’ll need to figure out some time—and soon—to deal with this.

Email attack

I try to set aside a whole day in my schedule twice a month to catch up on emails. As part of my freelancer schedule, it’s usually a day I have for projects. It’s a way for me to get on top of it. I did do this, sort of, on my flight to Hawaii. I paid $8 for the internet for the six-hour flight and took care of the most important things that I’d missed.

I’ve still got a few things to address, but I powered through in September and early October to try to tie up loose ends. And I re-did my email inbox so that the “important” and “priority” things are on top, automatically, so I see the opportunities, even if I don’t take time to deal with the junk.

Regular transfers to sinking funds and other goals

I also make regular transfers to my travel fund, retirement account, and HSA. I have roundups turned on for one of my accounts, automatically creating a “spontaneous” fund for my use. My emergency fund is covered through regular transfers.

This helps me prepare for travel and healthcare expenses. It also allows me to build wealth for future Miranda.

My travel fund is an example of a sinking fund. It’s a way to save for items that matter to you on an ongoing basis. This is what allowed me to travel during the summer, even while paying the ADHD tax.

(What to learn how I can travel so much during the year? Sign up for my workshop on creating a travel fund!)

Knowing myself and planning ahead

As far as work is concerned, I’m pretty good about looking ahead and scheduling my client work around travel. For FinCon and my extended stay in New Orleans this month, I knew I’d have limited mental bandwidth for work. So, I worked extra days ahead of time, and pushed other pieces of work until after. I flew in on Monday (after a morning of errands) wrote one article on Tuesday and one on Wednesday. I wrote an op-ed for my local paper on Thursday.

After that, I worked on small tasks here and there, in between catching up with friends, client meetings, forays into the French Quarter and Garden District, and speaking. I devoted an entire morning the following Monday and Tuesday to getting podcast tasks squared away and dealing with some nonprofit stuff. Then I was free to check off the items on my sight-seeing list all afternoon.

All said and done, my 10 days in New Orleans was a success in terms of managing my client work while traveling with ADHD.

Irregular schedules, uneven income, and the ADHD tax

In the end, what makes freelancing a good choice for me as a career is also a kind of drawback. I struggle in “real” jobs. Freelancing is great because it allows me to do different things and pursue various projects.

However, I also have to build scaffolding to keep me on track and develop routines that ensure I meet deadlines. On top of that, while many clients pay on a schedule, some of them don’t. And what happens if I forget to send an invoice? All these irregularities sometimes overwhelm me, and I end up paying the ADHD tax.

This is especially true if I’ve missed a step somewhere and my cash flow gets off. I get behind and then I’m playing catchup. Most of the time, my systems work. But when things get hectic, there’s a good chance it will fall apart.

Moving forward, I’ll need to work on mentally preparing for travel. And, in some ways, I need to start scheduling my money reviews and tasks much the same way I do my freelancing work: Look ahead, see where I might be missing something, and then re-jigger the schedule so things get done and minimize the ADHD tax.

It sounds easier than it is.

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