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Money: The Lesser-Known Relapse Trigger

financial-worriesWe talk a lot about the potential for stress, transitions, relationships and other major life changes to trigger a relapse. With much of the focus on the “Big Three” – the people, places and things to avoid – day-to-day issues like money lurk in the shadows as a silent threat to sobriety.

Among the first tasks of early recovery is getting a job. This is a critical step in rebuilding confidence, repaying debts and achieving goals but it also means having a steady flow of cash – something that used to be closely tied with drug use. Here are a few tips to help you safeguard your sobriety while regaining your financial stability:

Broaden Your Personal Inventory. As part of your recovery from addiction, you may have taken a personal inventory. As part of your financial recovery, you need to take an honest look at your assets, debts and expenses. The process may be discouraging so have a plan in place for dealing with negative feelings to guard against relapse. Ask a friend or family member to take inventory with you and stay focused on improvements you can make in the future rather than dwelling on past mistakes.

Separate Needs and Wants. Regardless of how much debt you have, your sobriety isn’t served by ignoring genuine needs for self-care. Neither is it served by fulfilling your every desire in an effort to numb emotions or get a short-lived fix. The difference can be subtle. You need food and companionship, so invite a friend over for a home-cooked meal, even if what you want is a night out on the town.

Create a Budget. The addicted mindset is, “I want what I want when I want it.” To combat the desire for instant gratification, create a detailed budget and monitor your spending. There are a number of books and computer programs that can walk you through planning a budget. If it helps you stay motivated, set aside a small amount of money for a nice meal or short vacation when you reach your financial goals.

Store Money in a Safe Place. Saving for the future is an important part of any budget, but one that can be especially problematic for recovering addicts. The most obvious issue is that saving money can be difficult when you’re used to living dollar to dollar and are trying to dig your way out of debt. If you’re not accustomed to having money lying around, having a nest egg can also be a temptation to spend it on drugs or alcohol. If money is a trigger for you, consider storing it where it isn’t easily accessible to you – with a trusted spouse or parent or in a bank account (preferably with no ATM card) – at least in the early stages of recovery.

Draw on the Available Resources. People who get hooked on drugs or alcohol early in life, often in their teens or early 20s, may have never learned basic money management skills. Others learned the skills but as a result of learning and memory deficits brought on by addiction, have forgotten how to manage their lives effectively.

As with every other aspect of recovery, you don’t have to manage your finances on your own. Some treatment centers offer life coaching, which often includes financial planning and real-world skills training. There are also money management seminars, community courses and financial counselors that can provide guidance. There’s even a pre-paid debit card designed to help recovering addicts make smart money choices and rebuild their loved ones’ trust.

Beware of Compulsive Spending. It takes time to develop new habits and coping skills. It’s not surprising then that some recovering addicts go back to what they know: excess. With an empty space in their lives where drugs used to be and more cash than they ever had during active addiction, some begin over-spending, gambling or engaging in other potentially addictive behaviors. Even though they’re sober, their addictive patterns have not changed; they’ve simply taken a different form. This type of cross-addiction is a sign that you need more support in your recovery.

Stay Alert to Relapse Signs. Whatever your financial status and goals, your recovery must come first. As life gets busier and more stressful, check in with how you’re feeling day to day. There are various apps and programs that can help you monitor your moods and warn of an impending slip. In particularly stressful times, bulk up your support by attending additional meetings or calling a friend or sponsor.

As part of your recovery, you’ve focused on your relationship with family, your relationship with old friends and your relationship with yourself. Don’t jeopardize your recovery by neglecting another critical relationship: your relationship with money.

Money: The Lesser-Known Relapse Trigger

David Sack, M.D.

Dr. David Sack is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, and addiction medicine. As CMO of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees a nationwide network of treatment centers including drug and alcohol rehab programs at The Ranch in Tennessee and The Right Step in Texas.

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APA Reference
Sack, D. (2013). Money: The Lesser-Known Relapse Trigger. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Apr 2013
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