When Reckless Spending Doesn’t Seem All That Reckless

Author: Violette Kay

My grandma’s neighbor was the first person with bipolar disorder that I ever met. I was a child- I didn’t really know what bipolar disorder was, much less that I would go on to learn that I had it too. My first encounters with the illness took place in this eccentric old lady’s condo, where she would call me over when she was depressed so that I could help her sort through all the random stuff she bought while she was manic.

“Reckless spending”: It’s a symptom of mania or hypomania, characterized by excessive behaviors involving money. One might picture a whirlwind trip to the mall, heaps of designer clothes and maxed out credit cards. Or perhaps a large and risky investment into an uncertain business venture. But reckless spending can look very different for a manic person who doesn’t have a lot of money or resources, adding complications to an already difficult relationship with money.

My grandma’s neighbor’s living room was filled with bags upon bags of small, questionably useful items priced at five dollars or less. That was her brand of reckless spending: walking through a store’s discount aisle and being seduced by the great deals not realizing that all those small amounts add up.
I am good with money. I always have been. I suppose it is a residual effect of years of poverty, inconsistent employment, and the trauma that ensued. So when doctors ask if I’ve been spending recklessly, I really want to say no. And I could get away with it too! Even at my most volatile, tragically low credit limits have kept me in check. But as I contemplate my manageable amount of debt, I think of the brightly coloured price tags in those bags of gadgets I sifted through, and I recognize that reckless spending can take other forms. Here are some of the ways it has manifested for me:
  • Backing lots of strangers’ Kickstarter campaigns for projects I later realize I don’t actually care for. I still have some pretty weird things they sent me as “rewards”. I can mostly laugh at it now.
  • Buying a music school. Whoops, I mean co-buying. Okay, I’ll admit this one is more extreme. But it was before I had a credit card, so I only spent money I actually had. (All of it. I spent all the money I had.)
  • Leaving jobs I hate, because “money doesn’t matter” and “the UniverseTM will provide”.
  • Shoplifting more confidently, because of a genuine belief that I shouldn’t have to pay.
Of course reckless spending will tend to be more extreme the more money you have access to! Just because you don’t spend tens of thousands of dollars on a boat or a fancy car when you’re hypo/manic doesn’t mean your experiences aren’t just as valid or do not cause just as much harm. Maybe you go wild at the dollar store and buy more random and useless small objects than a person can comfortably carry. Maybe you impulse-buy that pair of shoes just slightly out of your price range, though someone else may consider it cheap. Maybe you develop a saviour complex and start tipping way more liberally, and become noticeably more generous towards street performers and homeless people. Or maybe there is just a shift in your thoughts and attitudes surrounding money, without an outwardly noticeable change in your behaviour.

There is no dollar count you have to hit to meet the diagnostic criteria. It doesn’t matter that your spending doesn’t seem reckless to other people. What matters is that it is uncharacteristic for you. There are many ways to spend money recklessly just like there are many ways of being a person with bipolar disorder. Let’s not… “discount” (sorry, I had to!) our experiences just because they don’t match someone else’s expectation.

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