It may not be a surprise that the effects of alcohol stretch beyond your physical health—alcohol can impact your relationships, mental health, and even your sense of security. For many people in recovery, an unhealthy relationship with alcohol can also impact their financial health.
There’s no shame in experiencing financial strains due to alcohol use disorder. AUD is a medical condition that can make it difficult to responsibly manage money, and we all deserve support. Below we’ll uncover why debt and alcohol use disorder often coexist, and provide resources for finding financial independence in your recovery.
The Relationship Between Money and Alcohol Use Disorder
“Addiction and financial mismanagement frequently co-occur,” says licensed professional clinical counselor Lynn Matti. In her practice, Matti often discusses the intersection between the behaviors associated with substance use and money spending, such as impulsivity and compulsivity. Impulsive behavior is an action taken instinctively, without premeditation, whereas compulsivity is a premeditated action taken in order to act upon a strong urge.
Matti continues, “Both impulsivity and compulsivity play a role in the development and perpetuation of addiction, though impulsivity is more influential in the early stages (mild to low-moderate substance use disorders), and then later stages (high-moderate and severe SUDs) are characterized more by a combination of compulsive and impulsive acts.”
Matti pointed to a 2012 study, published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, showing the impacts of substance use disorder on money management and debt. “People with substance dependence have approximately twice the likelihood of carrying debt as compared to those without substance dependence, although they may not have less income.”
Impact of Alcohol Use Disorder on Financial Health
While the research tells us there is a link between alcohol use disorder and financial health, it may be more helpful to think about these concepts in real terms. Meaning, the specific ways alcohol may be impacting your relationship with money and influencing your financial decision-making.
During my active alcohol use disorder, I lacked the ability to make more thoughtful decisions with spending. Because I lived in a city, there were stores, bars, and restaurants all at my fingertips. The way I spent money was almost formulaic.
In the days before pay day I would fantasize about all the alcohol-related things I’d buy when I got my check. On pay day itself, I’d impulsively take the afternoon off work and I’d hit the food and wine stores on my 15 minute walk home. It may have been my intention to start out with sushi and a nice bottle of white wine, but after 30 minutes, I was at the store buying a second, third, and sometimes fourth bottle of wine. As the week went on, I’d be buying as many cheap bottles of wine I could afford, often scrimping on food so I could prioritize drinking alcohol.
Some other ways that folks (myself included) spend excessively while drinking, include:
- Shopping while under the influence
- Spending on alcohol in bars and clubs
- Buying other peoples’ drinks
- Going to exclusive venues that have a minimum spend, or liquor bottle purchase requirement
- Getting Ubers and Lyfts frequently
- Spending more on takeout and food delivery services
During my active alcohol use disorder I had numerous high interest credit cards and I didn’t think twice about maxing them out every month. Sometimes I’d even take out payday loans. Over the years I accrued well over $40,000 in debt and I know I’m not alone.
Kristina Canfield M.Ed., substance abuse prevention and recovery coordinator at The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) says the most damaging area for people with substance use disorders is debt. “I have seen many folks enter into recovery with what feels like insurmountable amounts of debt,” she says. Those could be student loans, tax/IRS debt, and credit cards.”
Accruing legal fees is also very common for folks in early recovery and beyond. These fees may include drunk driving or public intoxication fines, or may be associated with other legal responsibilities that weren’t tended to while drinking.
Canfield shared that she too struggled with a large amount of legal fees. “I owed well over $20,000 in restitution and court costs/fees.” Thinking about the reasons she struggled with money, Canfield says that she wasn’t taught how to manage money, and that when she was drinking it wasn’t really a priority.
Financial Health in Recovery
Recovery provides us with the opportunity for growth in all areas of life, including our finances, but also our self-worth. In my experience over the last decade in recovery I’ve had many conversations with other folks about money. I’ve found that, overall, recovery gives many a new relationship with money, where they take ownership of their debt, pay it down (often settling their debt altogether), and even start to save money. The process, just like continued sobriety, improves our self-esteem. We feel worthy of having nice things and being responsible for our choices.
However, like recovery, financial health doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes the unhealthy habit of excessive alcohol use can become replaced with irresponsible spending. Psychotherapist, licensed social worker, and author Ann Dowsett Johnston likens the process of recovery to a game of Whac-A-Mole. “When we remove one substance, it is likely that another will rear its thorny head,” she says.
Reflecting on her own journey, Johnston explains that putting down alcohol led to another maladaptive behavior, excessive shopping. “When I got sober, money ended up being a problem—or more specifically, clothes shopping. It took some time and effort for me to understand that I was numbing with shopping as I had with alcohol.”
Perhaps a reason why many of us struggle with money is that we simply don’t have the knowledge or skills to manage it. This was the case for Canfield. “Even in early recovery, I just lacked the skill set to manage my finances and would buy things that were completely unnecessary,” she says. “Sometimes it was just to feel good about myself and sometimes it was to get back some of those things I lost.”
However, just because we don’t necessarily have the skills doesn’t mean we can’t gain them.
Resources to Improve Your Relationship with Money
There is a range of strategies people in recovery can use to tackle their relationship with money.
Licensed social worker and author Jennifer Matesa recommends starting with similar tools as those we use to approach recovery. “Perhaps the most important thing is to establish an honest and open relationship with money, to view repairing one’s relationship with money as you might repair any relationship that has become damaged during AUD,” she says.
Matesa recommends using a tool as simple as your phone. “There are apps that track how much money you’ve saved since your sobriety date,” she says. Apps like Nomo can track recovery and how much you save by not drinking. You can also check out this alcohol savings calculator. These tracking resources can provide an ongoing sense of encouragement and accountability as you get to see the financial benefits of sobriety grow over time.
Canfield also advises that financial advising or counseling can be helpful. “We don’t have to do it all alone,” she says. “I was really ashamed in the beginning and scared to be honest with anyone, even a professional who could help, about just how bad it was. But having someone help me plan and tackle the debt bit by bit was extremely helpful. On my own, it felt like this huge mountain I would never be able to climb. I also needed someone to help me through the legal pieces.”
Working with a therapist is another way you can get personalized guidance and support. Therapists can help you address feelings of impulsivity and compulsivity, and make strategies for prioritizing your financial health while also navigating sobriety. They can also help you check in on a budget and regularly review spending.
Another important skill in this financial journey is prioritizing our self-esteem and new identity in recovery. Lydia Milburn DNP, PMHNP, CARN-AP explains, “We often think we aren’t worthy of having money, or that if we do have, we might spend it on substances.”
Milburn explains some of the breakthroughs her clients achieve. “We spend a lot of time reviewing that it is okay to access money in a way that is congruent with your values and that you deserve to pay for necessities, especially medications that save your life.”
Support Group: Navigating long-term sobriety together
Whether you are new to recovery, or a few years in, there is no wrong time to tackle your relationship with money. Just like the process of recovery, it begins with awareness. Once that awareness grows, you can begin to learn new skills or try new techniques for managing your money more effectively. What’s key is that you start with curiosity, rather than judgment, and you give yourself the time you need to grow into healthy new habits. We’re here to help.