What is the ADHD tax?

What is ADHD tax article, woman on the phone in her home while also doing laundry

At a glance

  • The ADHD tax is the “cost” people with ADHD pay as a result of ADHD struggles.

  • Some people think of the ADHD tax as the emotional cost of ADHD. 

  • But the ADHD tax can also be a financial price people with ADHD pay as a result of ADHD difficulties.

“The most expensive thing that I spent for ADHD tax is my university bills.” That’s what Tony Tran said on an episode of the ADHD Aha! podcast, which I host. He’d pick up courses and drop them, or not turn in assignments and fail courses. As a result, he spent an extra year in college, which cost him both time and money — the ADHD tax. 

The ADHD tax refers to the extra effort, resources, and time people with ADHD put into tasks that may be easier for others. It’s not an actual tax people have to pay, but it can still cost money. The ADHD tax can be a literal price people with ADHD pay as a result of the choices we make. Or it can refer to an emotional cost, like the feelings of shame that can come with ADHD struggles. 

I want to talk about both. 

The financial cost of ADHD

People with ADHD are more likely to have financial struggles because of impulsivity and trouble with planning. Some have compulsive spending habits. Some might buy things they don’t need. Or underestimate how much money they’re actually spending. 

Here’s an example from my own life.

My goal one summer was to organize my kids’ winter clothes, which I’d shoved into some storage bins. Summer turned to fall, and then suddenly it was winter again. I rushed to buy new winter coats for my kids, thinking they didn’t have any that fit. The new coats arrived. Then I realized I’d already bought coats for them the previous year, a size up so they’d still fit. Now I had two coats I didn’t need. And since I bought the new ones on final sale, I couldn’t return them. So I ended up donating them.

In this scenario, procrastination, trouble with organization, and forgetfulness cost me about $150. That’s a typical example of the ADHD tax in action. 

Here’s another example that a friend shared with me. My friend’s daughter, a young adult with ADHD, recently left home to live on her own. But her executive function challenges have made it tricky.

For example, she kept putting off going to the dentist, thinking everything would be fine (ADHD wishful thinking). When she finally went, she learned she had all kinds of dental problems that would have cost hundreds of dollars less if she’d addressed them sooner. This ended up costing her about $1,200, which the dentist let her pay in installments.

Those are just a few examples of how people with ADHD can waste money or overspend. But there are plenty of others, like hobby-hopping or hobby-collecting. This is when you suddenly feel very passionate about a new hobby or skill. You buy all the tools you need to get started. Then you lose interest and move on to another hobby. 

Another one is forgetting to pay bills on time. This can create financial strain. It can also hurt your credit score, which can result in higher interest rates on credit. And financial strains can cause strains on relationships with family, friends, and loved ones. 

The emotional cost of ADHD

The ADHD tax isn’t rooted in money alone. ADHD can also bring emotional costs, for both kids and adults. 

It’s common for people with ADHD to struggle with self-esteem. In fact, negative self-talk is a common theme I’ve noticed in my conversations with people with ADHD. Almost every guest I talk with has some version of it. Here’s a short list of the ways I hear guests describe themselves: 

  • “Lazy”

  • “Slacker”

  • “Hot mess”

  • “Ditzy”

One guest on the ADHD Aha! podcast talked about “shame around clutter,” especially for women with ADHD. When we struggle with something that seems like it should be easy, like cleaning, it can make us feel like we’re inherently flawed. 

Trouble managing emotions is often a big part of ADHD. Once we start thinking the negative thing, it can be hard to let it go. It gets magnified, and what we’re left with is a lot of shame, guilt, and anxiety. 

Tips to reduce the burden of the ADHD tax

Understanding the ADHD tax is a good first step. It can help you spot where these costs are popping up in your own life — and help you find solutions that work for you. 

Here are a few strategies that help me keep the financial cost of the ADHD tax down:

  • Make shopping lists. Before heading out to the store, make a list of what you need. What I like most about this is that the act of making the list forces me to take a mini-inventory of what I have. (“Oh, I already have two cans of pinto beans.”) That way I don’t overbuy. You could even do curbside pickup, to avoid in-person impulse buys altogether. 

  • Leave it in your cart overnight. Online shopping makes it easier than ever to impulse buy. Leaving items in my cart overnight helps me pump the brakes. In the morning, I reevaluate what I chose. Most of the time, I realize it’s not something I need or even want. 

  • Track your expenses. Calculating what you spend in a given month — and what you spend it on — can be eye-opening. There are lots of apps that can help you track expenses. Maybe this already sounds daunting to you (as it does to me). In that case, ask someone you trust to help you set up a system that’s easy to manage.

When it comes to the emotional costs of ADHD, practicing self-care is key. I’ve found that it helps to talk openly about ADHD shame in therapy and with trusted loved ones. It gives me a chance to reframe negative self-talk. For example, “I’m such a mess” can become “I had a hard time with organization today.” Little tweaks like that help me go from feeling like a horrible person to feeling like a regular human who had a tough day. 

Mindfulness and exercise help, too. So do ADHD medication and getting lots of rest. Still, coping with the emotional cost of ADHD is really hard. Again, just having a name for it is helpful. It’s a reminder to keep an eye on how I’m spending my time, money, and emotional energy. And it encourages me to make small but meaningful changes that make life with ADHD a little easier. 

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And see what else is under the surface when it comes to ADHD. Download this ADHD iceberg infographic. 

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