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What My Year Of Depression Did To My Financial Life

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Growing up, I was always frugal. I never wanted to spend anything, I rolled and deposited the coins I collected, and going to the mall was the worst. I was decent with money for most of my college career and always worked to save my income from my summer internship — I was that person that would hold a $15 t-shirt in the teen section at Macy’s for twenty minutes before placing it back on the shelf because there were better things to spend $15 on.

Despite the occasional night out, I graduated college with a degree in history back in May of 2011 with comparatively very little student loan debt. However, the effects of the recession were still hitting the job market, and almost as if someone writing an article on millennials at Forbes magazine was controlling my life, the only job I could get was at Starbucks.

During this time, I fell into what I personally think was my first “diagnose-able” bout of depression. I had suffered from depression in high school and it runs in my family, but I was able to cope through therapy alone. And this new, less-manageable depression, I attributed entirely to my job situation, where I was waking up every morning at 4 AM and getting paid peanuts.

Admittedly more peanuts than other service industry jobs, but still legumes.

I went to therapy, got on antidepressants, and slowly got better enough to be able to find full-time employment in an industry I was interested in (though still getting paid peanuts). And I was happy.

For a while.

Slowly, the constraints and demands of my job began to wear me down. I didn’t think of the implications of taking a job so far from where I was living, the ridiculously high percentage of my income I needed to spend on my train ticket alone, or the complete lack of control I would have over my daily routine. Exercise and eating healthy, two things that helped me out of my first relapse of depression, started to fall out of my life as I couldn’t find the time or energy to even take a brisk walk.

People with depression sometimes use the phrasing of “having a pit inside you” or a “black hole” that sucks away your ability to feel anything but hopelessness. I certainly had that pit inside me and I desperately tried to fill it with stuff.

Stuff is a perfect word for everything that I bought while I was at one of the worst points of my depression. Clothes, home decor, even food that I knew I didn’t need but thought to myself right before buying “Yes, this is going to make me happy.” I watched endless hours of HGTV to distract myself from the despair in my head and slowly convinced myself that if my apartment looked like one of these high-design homes, I would be happy.

Knick knacks, bookshelves, candles, I even convinced my boyfriend we needed a new couch to, you know, “open up the space” or something. I was already spending almost a full paycheck on rent and commuting costs alone. I couldn’t afford it and I didn’t need it, but convincing my wrecked brain was too exhausting of a task, so I just let my thoughts run unchecked along with my debit card.

Eventually, it became too much. I was struggling with getting up in the morning, and by the end of the day, my boyfriend had to lead me to bed like a child because I didn’t have the energy to stand up on my own. One Sunday night on my way to go to the bathroom, I collapsed on my bed, too tired from the ten step walk, and started to hyperventilate. My boyfriend laid down with me in bed, hugged me, and coached my breathing.

“I think I need help,” I was finally able to say.

But my immediate thought was money. “How was I going to spend $50 a week on co-pays?” I asked.

I did some (sad) math and figured that I would blow most of my disposable income in co-pays for medication, psychiatrist appointments, and sessions with a therapist. Basically, I wouldn’t have enough for food. It felt humiliating, but eventually I asked my mom for help. She agreed that my mental health was important and agreed to help finance my therapist sessions.

I understand that this option may not be available for some people, but there are ways to get help. If you have insurance through your work, your employer might have an employee wellness program and I bet part of it involves mental health. For those without insurance, some therapists have a discounted out-of-pocket charge. Or you can find local community mental health services, supportive and reputable online chat rooms for depression, and, of course, suicide prevention hotlines.

I needed to control my spending and spend intelligently on things that would help me get better. This led to a decrease in buying “stuff” and an increase in buying good, whole foods as well as money towards my gym membership. I have a gym at work and a gym near my home (both $10/month), so I can go for a quick workout on my lunch if I know I won’t have the energy when I get home from work late in the evening. I spend money on things I need and will make me healthy, instead of just stuff that just takes up space in my apartment and money out of my account.

Most importantly, and something I am still struggling with, I needed to learn to forgive myself. With depression, long-term goals mixed with short-term achievements are key and I often still slip up. I purchase things like expensive makeup or pricey coffee drinks with short-term goal of making myself feel better, even though I have rent due the next day. Usually I would beat myself up, but I have learned that I need to forgive myself for when slip-ups happen, while still being serious about cutting down on my spending.
Depression is a mighty beast, and it can ruin your life in multiple ways. I never dreamed that depression would have a financial impact on my life. But finance is a great cause of emotional distress in and of itself, and the sooner you can gain control, the better.

Jackie is a recovering worrier and dreams of being a freelance writer. She is on Twitter and Instagram.

  • Meleah Bowles

    It can be so hard to spend money on mental health! I think I find it challenging because 1) it’s not a tangible purchase and 2) there’s not a clear end. You might pay $50 a week for just a couple of months, then start seeing the therapist every other week OR you might pay $50 a week for a couple of months and then need to see the therapist more often.

  • tessa

    Depression can certainly be a financial burden. For 3ish years, I spent an exorbitant amount…medical bills, certainly – both for prescriptions and therapy, as well as hospital visits – and on booze. Literally, hundreds (thousands?) of dollars on alcohol. I can’t even think about it. Glad you have been able to create more positive changes to supplant the depression-induced (and maintaining) ones. It’s really hard to do.

  • Thanks for sharing this. I definitely went through something similar in college – where I was depressed and maxed out my credit card every month. I’m lucky I have generous parents but now that I’m working full-time and trying to support my own lifestyle, it’s startling to see what we spend on when we’re unhappy. And you’re right, those things almost never make us actually happy.