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Impulse buying, negative bank balances, and the ADHD tax (Paulette’s story)

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In 2016, Paulette Perhach wrote a piece proclaiming that all women need an emergency fund — what she calls an “f-off fund.” But when she struggled to secure an emergency fund for herself, she suspected she might have ADHD. Paulette, a successful author and writing coach, put off the evaluation because she couldn’t afford the $260 price tag.

In this episode of ADHD Aha!, Paulette talks about her trouble with impulse buying and online shopping. She shares her family’s history with money issues, including bankruptcy. And she and Laura have an emotional exchange about the ADHD tax.  

Related resources

See more of Paulette’s writing on her website.

Episode transcript

Laura: Hi listeners. "ADHD Aha!." I'm excited for you to hear my interview today with writer Paulette Perhach. Paulette became known in the finance industry for her written work, in particular for a piece she wrote about why all women need an emergency fund, which she calls an "F*** Off Fund." And yes, that stands for what you think it stands for.

I realize, listener, that you may have kids nearby, so heads up that there will be some curse words in this episode. Paulette told me about the moment she realized that there was tension between what she advocated for and her own trouble with money.

Paulette: I am globally known for being an advocate of saving money, and I'm waking up to negative bank balances multiple times in a month, and I just had to be like, "OK, something bigger is going on here."

Laura: In our conversation, Paulette speaks frankly about money. How much she was making, her trouble managing that money, and her family history with bankruptcy. It got more emotional than I expected. It's funny how talking about money can do that.

From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "ADHD Aha!," a podcast where people share the moment when it finally clicked that they or someone they know has ADHD. My name is Laura Key. I'm the editorial director here at Understood, and as someone who's had my own ADHD "aha" moment, I'll be your host.

I'm here today with Paulette Perhach. Paulette is a writer whose work has been published in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Glamour, Marie Claire. I could go on and on and on. She's also a writing coach and author of the book "Welcome to the Writer's Life." Welcome, Paulette. Thanks for being here today.

Paulette: Thanks for having me.

Laura: To start things off, I would like to ask you to share with our audience what's an "F*** Off Fund?"

Paulette: So, an F*** Off Fund" is money that I suggest every woman have, to tell someone to f*** off if an f*** off is deserved.

Laura: So, when you were writing about this for Billfold, did the act of writing about it help you kind of understand your own financial situation?

Paulette: Well, I was in a time when I was working at a corporate job. I'd come back from Peace Corps — like totally broke, total disaster, which was entirely my own fault — and ended up getting a job at this corporation for the first time. I had been a reporter, an intern, a reporter, a Peace Corps volunteer, and then I was writing proposals for a $50 million tech company making six figures.

And suddenly I had money in the bank. And I was like, "Oh my God." And I used that money to pay off my student loans, I was really proud of myself, and then also just had thousands in the bank. And I could re-see some of these scenarios from my life and how they would have gone down if I had had a few thousand dollars in the bank at the time.

Laura: And, did you manage to manage that money OK? These are very personal questions, it can be very personal to talk about money. But we're going to be talking a lot about money and the ADHD tax today.

Paulette: Well, I think I'm gonna write a financial memoir, so I better get used to it.

Laura: OK, well, there you go. So, you were making money, and you had a steady income coming in. What happened then?

Paulette: That job kind of imploded. And, you know, it was the company, the two founders of the company had a meth lab in their 20s that exploded. So, just leave that piece of information there.

Laura: We'll leave that one right there. Yep.

Paulette: And so, I was like, "OK, I'm going to do it. I'm going to freelance and be a freelancer and go out in the wild." And I traveled to South America for three months. And I think the situation is always that, like, people with ADHD crave chaos. Like we kind of, I'll say rather, we hate restrictions or in my experience, I hate restrictions.

And, you know, one of the things that I thought about calling my financial memoir is "Too Far," because I'm always traveling too much and then putting myself in a bad situation financially. And then that was kind of my "aha" moment was like, "Oh my God, I have become globally known for this idea of an 'F***Off Fund,' and now I've screwed myself out of mine."

Laura: So, this situation helped you understand that you might have ADHD. You just talked about, you know, this as an "aha" moment. If I understand your chronology right from here, you eventually wrote a piece for the New York Times, right? Called "For Women with Money Issues, ADHD Can Be Revelatory." Can you talk to us a little bit about why you wrote that piece and what was going on?

Paulette: Well, through the "F*** Off Fund," I became very well-known in the personal finance industry. And as I wrote in my proposal for my book, I am hilariously well-connected in the personal finance industry for someone who is so bad with money.

So, I started getting invited to speak at things like, you know, an early retirement retreat. And I'm like, "This has got to stop." And, you know, I mean, in some ways I am doing well, like I have kept that retirement account, right? That's like it takes the threat of a 40% hit on the money for me to actually not touch it.

Laura: All right. Because if you take it out, then they take 40%, OK. If you take it out early.

Paulette: I've never, you know, actually looked into it. Yeah.

Laura: And for anybody listening please like research before. Yeah. Don't take this as gospel at this point on how to work with your 401K.

Paulette: So, it was so funny that, you know, I just had this roiling feeling of like, "Oh my God, I feel like this hypocrite." But I'm like, "You know what? I wrote about that because I know the experience of not having that money." And learning that I have ADHD after, years after that piece came out, I just wanted to talk about what I'm up against and realizing what I'm up against.

And I think in the piece, I did simplify it too much about saving, you know, and then it was very humbling to struggle, to continue to struggle. Like, I am a boss bitch. I have been published 17 times in the New York Times. I am a dedicated writer, like people who know me know I am a hustler.

So, the money coming in, I'm really good at that, and I really bring a lot of value to people and things should be more settled at this point. I'm good at what I do. I'm a good writing coach. I have a software for writers. I design. Like, I am out here working it, you know? But that 3 a.m. "Am I going to make payroll?" wake-up call comes calling.

Laura: And if I remember correctly, the price of an ADHD evaluation kept you from getting evaluated for a while. Is that right?

Paulette: Yeah. So, that was the year I wrote my book. I got $9,000 from my book. And you know, once you take out taxes and what my agent got is very little. I worked from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. that year. I made myself stop working at eight, and I made $20,000 that year. And my book went on to be selected, as you know, one of Poets & Writers' Best Books for Writers. I was really proud of that.

So, $260 was not lying around at that point in my life. And because I misunderstood ADHD, I thought all I was going to find out was, "I have a hard time paying attention sometimes."

Laura: What else were you struggling with other than money management?

Paulette: Definitely not being able to wait for the right moment to do something or say something. Just like blurting out doing things without proper preparation. I can't niche down in my writing, I want to be five different kinds of writers. I've always had trouble sleeping. I definitely have a lot of like, I’m picking my nails right now. I have a lot of like, body-focused, repetitive behavior.

I have to get gel on my nails or I will bite them and they'll be bloody stumps. Yeah, all that, just like a total lack of... It's like there's a me inside observing this other entity that I can't control.

Laura: Oh, that's really interesting. Can you say more about that?

Paulette: It's like watching a landslide go down a hill where you're like, "Ooh, I wish that weren't happening. But like, it is happening." And I remember, I mean, when I was in college, like eBay came out...

Laura: Oh geez. OK.

Paulette:And I had a major eBay problem because it's the dopamine of bidding and winning, the dopamine of shopping, the dopamine of things showing up. Like, literally, my friends were like, "So many packages are arriving, you've got to stop." And yeah, just always being like, I just called myself a chaos monster.

Laura: When did you get evaluated for ADHD ultimately?

Paulette: Ultimately, I got evaluated late 2020, I believe. You know, I had it scheduled for the middle of the day and then like something else right after, like I was going to do something right after. And the person giving me the test was like, "Well, we don't have to get 20 out of 20." Then he was like, "Yeah, like, you know, definitely have ADHD." And I was just like, "Woof, like, I need a minute." There's a lot, a lot of feelings.

Laura: Yeah. What was the journey of those feelings for you?

Paulette: I think it was mourning all the effort I put into trying to fix things as if I weren't neurodivergent. All the self-hatred around my actions and my lack of control.

Laura: We talked sometimes about the ADHD tax, which I think people automatically associate with money. And there is a financial component with that. You may spend more money because of a million ADHD-related reasons. There's also an emotional tax that comes, and I'm kind of seeing that, if I can say, I see you like, tearing up a little bit there. Do you wanna speak to that?

Paulette: Yeah. I think it's like, kind of always knowing, "Something's a little different about me." You know? Which a lot of people go through and in many different, you know, identities and ways of being. But to be like, "Oh, this whole time I thought this, and then yes, there is." And I think it's like this space opening up for self-compassion where that had not been there for a long time.

Laura: Have your financial management issues impacted anyone else in your life?

Paulette: I think probably my mom, you know, for sure. And I wrote an article about that, like coming back from Peace Corps and just, you know, moving back in with her and using her car. And, you know, I don't have children, but I am the age that my dad was now when my family went bankrupt. And so, thinking about those parallels in our life is a lot. But yeah, I think just mostly like my friends and not wanting to be that person for my friends. I want to stand on my own two feet, you know?

Laura: Asking them for loans and relying on them for things or...

Paulette: I think more like they have stable, steady lives. And so, you know, being like "Having an apartment in Seattle and, you know, going to South America. Can I crash in your stable city life for a week?" that kind of thing.

Laura: Yeah.

Paulette: Yeah. No, it would feel really bad to ask a friend for a loan at this point in my life. And I haven't gotten there, but mostly because if I needed money, I could go to my mom. You know, which not everyone has that privilege.

Laura: Yes. You're right. Not everyone has that privilege. And yes, it's also painful for you and a valid thing to have a lot of feelings around. I want to get really specific about what it means to be, "bad with money." And the reason I'm doing that is because I'm asking you hard questions about how trouble with money management, financial management has impacted your life. And I'm not just doing this to get, you know, a rise out of you of course,

I'm not trying to just showcase hard stuff. I want people to understand that, I think we have a perception as a society of what it means to be "bad at money," and that what we associate with being "bad at money." And I want to reframe it in the context of ADHD and your experience through ADHD. So, we can kind of like, take the blame off of you and others who may be going through this and think about the brain-wiring that is associated with this.

Paulette: I know, and that's a really hard part, because I know that there are people out there just be like, "Get your shit together and just do what the rest of us are doing." And I can see that argument. And that's an argument that, like, that little man lives in my head. And so, you know, having that ADHD community really helps. So I think, what it means to be "bad with money" is to know that you have these long-term goals, but not to be able to resist in the present moment.

Like, the present moment is this bubble you're always in. And to feel like you can't control what you're going to do in the future. And you know, we've done everything like freezing credit cards. And yeah, so it's just been such a struggle. It is like there's that thing of like, there's two wolves inside you, like that's what it feels like.

Laura: When people say — or if we think people are saying, or even if they do directly say it to you or anyone — to "get your shit together" when it comes to money, what do you think they actually mean?

Paulette: To quit focusing on self-pity and just start focusing on a plan.

Laura: There you go. Like, focus on a plan. What's hard for people with ADHD? Planning. Executive functioning skills. What are other things that people say or that you worry people might say in terms of money management challenges?

Paulette: Just that ADHD isn't real. That's just people trying to sell medication. And I guess just like, "The problem is you are defective and you are immoral."

Laura: Immoral?

Paulette: Like, the word that comes to my brain is like "You've squandered your opportunities," which I feel like I have.

Laura: Well, you're a boss bitch. Let's not forget that.

Paulette: I do believe that.

Laura: You are!

Paulette: But, yeah. Is just like that scene in Alien where I also have, like a chaos monster sticking out of my stomach with a credit card. I might choose another image if I could. I don't think that's working.

Laura: How did getting an ADHD diagnosis, did it change your approach to money? Did it help?

Paulette: Yeah. I mean, I stopped trying to do all the things that just, you know, like regular people can do for money management.

Laura: Like what?

Paulette: Like "Out of sight. Out of mind," right? For example, I have, like, such a sweet tooth. And, like, all I want to do is eat sugar. I have, like, Craisins in my house, if I'm lucky, I do not keep sugar in my house. Right? So, same kind of thing where it's like "I can't be on mailing lists and get emails from stores without going in there and shopping."

There are people who can be on those lists and not impulsively just go buy three sweaters with this feeling of like, that you are body-surfing a seven-foot wave. That's what it feels like when I'm like, impulse buying. Like, something, some force is like pushing me, and like, nothing else can be done.

Laura: Yeah. So, did having an ADHD diagnosis reduce maybe some of the emotional burden that you were feeling?

Paulette: Yeah, definitely brought on a lot of self-compassion. That was a beautiful thing, and community. And those kind of reinforced one another. The more I heard other people talking about things, the more I felt like, "Oh, OK, that's from my ADHD." I swear to God. I'm like, the number of times I have seen some memes and been like, "Oh my God, that's from my ADHD."

Laura: You've met and talked with a lot of friends of the pod, I like to say, folks who have been on the show too. Doctor Sasha Hamdani, Cate Osborne, many others. Has it been helpful to have that community? And what sorts of things have you heard or learned from them?

Paulette: Oh my God, it's been transformative. Yeah. Doctor Sasha especially, I think just, you know, learning so much about having compassion. You know, I think even after my diagnosis, you know, I don't want to become the friend that only talks about ADHD. But it was hard.

Like even my mom, who has ADHD, was like, "You talk about it a lot." I was like, "The disorder that has wrecked a good portion of my life for four decades. Like, yeah, I'm still processing it talking about it," you know? And so, I'm very grateful to the people who have been, you know, creating content that is truly helpful and helps me feel less alone. And, you know, I think coming from a place of self-hatred is never a good place to create change from anyway. So, really coming from a place of self-love is so much nicer.

Laura: And what's your relationship like with your mom?

Paulette: No, my relationship with my mom is one of the greatest blessings of my life.

Laura: I can't help but you know, remember that you said that your family went through bankruptcy, and I'm wondering if there is any connective ADHD tissue there.

Paulette: Oh, yeah.

Laura: Maybe. Yeah, you see it sometimes when you get your diagnosis — and it's hard because you don't want to diagnose your family and you know — but...

Paulette: Oh yeah, my dad had ADHD. Yeah, 100%. I mean, I am his daughter and he was an entrepreneur. And I was like — you know, as we're sitting there with no food in the cabinets — I was like, "Just give me a day job, just give me a corporate job." I remember thinking that when I was eight years old. I was like, "I am going to work in an office. It's gonna be great." Now look at me. You know, I'm like Little Miss Freelance. And it was just, you know, it was a very loving family and financial and visual chaos. You know.

Laura: Paulette I want to take a moment and contrast some things here that I find fascinating, just selfishly. Because I'm an editor and I started my career as a writer and I went to journalism school. I hate writing, I hate it, I love to edit. Writing for me is excruciating. I do have a lot of interest in it. I love the written word. I think I'm good at editing the written word, but I cannot find it within myself to put pen to paper for any personal projects and even sometimes within my own job.

I find it such an emotional hurdle to get over that, like, blank-piece-of-paper thing. And I just want to highlight that, that you have these financial management struggles when you are interested. I mean, your portfolio of written work is incredible, and your ability to self-start and plan and be a freelancer, it blows my mind. I tried to be a freelancer for like three months.

I was like, "I cannot do this. I have to have a job with more boundaries or else I am going to flail." And you have made it work despite — I know you're struggling with some things — but I mean, everyone go to Paulette's website, You have so much to offer there. You teach a writing course and meditation, all the things that like I'm a woman with ADHD, I can't do those things. OK, I'm going to end my rant now, but tell me about that juxtaposition, like how that manages to come so easily to you?

Paulette: Well, it doesn't.

Laura: Well, it looks like it comes easily to you, just given how prolific you are.

Paulette: And I think that's the thing. It's like, there's so much on both sides. Like, there's so much effort and organization and force toward my writing career and then and toward financial stability. And then there's so much like, impulsivity and chaos and disaster on the other side, too.

And you know, what I've said before is, like, people are always impressed by the fences I put around my life. Like I designed a software for writers, and people are just like, "Oh, what a beautiful fence you have around your life." And it's like, if you're at Jurassic Park and they have a 50-foot electrified fence, it's not a little lamb that's in there, right? It's a freaking dinosaur. So, like the fences I've built for my life reflect the internal chaos that I struggle with.

Laura: But even just building those fences takes all those skills that can be tricky for people with ADHD. So I just want to acknowledge that.

Paulette: Thanks. I'm a boss bitch. I am also a boss bitch.

Laura: You are a boss bitch. You really are.

Paulette: And? Yes, and?

Laura: It's been really lovely to talk with you, and I really appreciate your candor and your vulnerability. A lot of times, the things that people with ADHD struggle with can be the butt of jokes. Or people brush them off like, "Oh, it's just no, it's just no big deal. Just get your shit together. Just deal with it. Right? Like I'll just be here on time. Oh, you're such a space cadet. Deal with your money issues."

There's a lot of pain that comes with that, both from externally and internally. And I'm grateful that you went there with me today. So thanks for taking the time.

Paulette: Thanks for having me.

Laura: It's Please check it out. Check out all of her amazing work.

Laura: You've been listening to "ADHD Aha!" from the Understood Podcast Network. If you want to share your own "aha" moment, email us at I'd love to hear from you. If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently, discover their potential and thrive. We have no affiliation with pharmaceutical companies. Learn more at "ADHD Aha!" is produced by Jessamine Molli. Say hi, Jessamine!

Jessamine: Hi everyone.

Laura: Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, Seth Melnick is our executive producer, and I'm your host, Laura Key. Thanks so much for listening.


  • Laura Key

    is executive director of editorial at Understood and host of the “ADHD Aha!” podcast.

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