Guide to Personal Finance in Recovery: An Interview with Tori Utley
Finances are a hot topic in early recovery. Substance use disorders are expensive, not only due to the high costs of drugs and alcohol, but also due to the fact that a steady income is difficult if not impossible to maintain during active addiction. The soaring cost of legal fees and other costs associated with choices made under the influence do not help, and for many, the cost of treatment requires going deeply into debt as well.
Thus, for many, especially in the first few months of recovery, dealing with the debt that has accrued while also learning how to manage the usual bills associated with life and living is priority number one.
Given that having any amount of money in hand can be a trigger for relapse is yet another issue for many people as well – all of this requires a delicate balance.
Tori Utley holds an MBA as well as an addictions counseling license in Minnesota. She is the founder and executive director of More Than an Addict, an organization that works to reduce stigma related to addiction by promoting employment, education, and entrepreneurship among people in recovery. She is also the founder and CEO of Tinua, a startup developing a digital platform and mobile application to allow unused gift cards to be donated towards charitable causes. Additionally, she is a contributing writer for Forbes and works with Mayo Clinic as a product manager, currently working with the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology on a mobile prototype for mood monitoring.
“Personal finance is a critical part of life that needs to be strategically and responsibly managed. Recovery gives the opportunity to bring newfound skills like organization and intention to personal finance, and thus ensures individuals are on the path to success in all parts of life.”
For many in recovery, taking on huge debt plus the management of a household budget can feel like an overwhelming endeavor. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be overwhelming at all. Taken step by step, it can be surprisingly simple to incorporate solid financial choices into your new life. Here’s what Utley has to say about the process of getting your finances under control in recovery.
There are a number of moving parts in financial management, especially for someone who is working to keep an accounting of income, pay off debt, and pay incoming bills while managing to have some “fun money” as well.
“Individuals in recovery should aim to start small. Starting small still means starting somewhere.”
Simply acknowledging that finances require management is an excellent first step, and there are a number of next steps that can help you get the ball rolling in the right direction, including:
- Make a list of all your debts: Who do you owe? How much? Make a list of everything you owe from smallest to largest.
- Make a list of all your assets: What income do you have? What money, if any, do you have in savings?
- Make a list of your monthly bills: What do you have to pay each month? Rent, utilities, car payment, gas/bus money, food? Write out everything with estimates if an exact number is not known.
- Open a bank account: With any money you have in hand, open a bank account that you will use to pay bills.
With all the key information in front of you, you have done the groundwork for building a strong financial future and are ready to take the next steps.
Choose Your Financial Goals
With the information you have in hand, you can determine what your financial goals should be. For every person, this will be different, so do not feel that you need to be in competition with anyone else or that there is some prescribed method you must follow. Utley makes a number of suggestions to help with this process:
- “Keep building up your savings.” Utley suggests creating a $1,000 emergency fund. If that is beyond your means, $500 is a good start. It is a small, finite goal, and it will help you avoid going further into debt should an unexpected emergency arise. This is for emergencies only, however, and should be used for no other purpose.
- “Look at the terms in which payments need to be made.” On a calendar, note when payments are due for each of your debts and bills. Note if any of them are “past due,” requiring you to catch up on payments in order to be current.
- “Work as hard as you can to make all of your payments on time.” Make the minimum payments on all your outstanding debts on time in order to avoid incurring further charges and late fees. With any funds left over after basic bill pay and all minimum payments, build your emergency fund until you have reached your savings goal.
- “Determine what debts need to be paid off.” Depending on the circumstance, getting current with a specific bill may be your financial goal after you have saved your emergency fund. It may be paying off a specific debt that is related to your freedom (e.g., court costs and ordered fees, IRS debt, etc.), or it could simply be the smallest debt on the list that you can most easily wipe out within a few months.
Make A Plan
You know what you owe, and you know your income. You have thought through the many different financial goals available to you and determined where to set your sights. Next, you need a plan.
Says Utley: “Determine things that need to get paid off first, where your money is coming from, how you can save, etc., and then look at deadlines, goals, resources, etc. Having a written plan that is organized and well thought-out will bring perspective and sequence to the seemingly daunting task of financial management.”
It can help to physically write it out. List financial goals you would like to accomplish over time with the amounts to keep it straight in your head. For example:
- Goal 1: Save $1,000 emergency fund. (Save $200 a month from August through December)
- Goal 2: Pay off $450 American Express bill. (Will be $400 by January after minimum payments, so pay $200 in January and February)
- Goal 3: Pay off $900 loan to parents. (Will be $200 after $100 a month payments from August through February, so pay $200 in March).
- Goal 4: Pay off $1,200 Visa bill. (Put $10 from minimum payment to American Express bill and $100 from minimum payment to parent loan together with $20 a month minimum payment plus additional $200 extra every month for $363 for four months)
The idea is that, over time, you have a snowball effect in which, as debts drop off, you have an increasingly higher amount to put toward the next debt, so even though it is larger sum to repay, it is just as quick to pay off as the smaller debts because you have more in hand each month to put toward repayment.
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Create a Budget
A budget is your key to making sure your good financial intentions turn into a reality. Track everything you spend, every dollar, to find what you are actually spending on food, electricity, bus/gas money, coffee with friends, clothes, etc. Knowing the exact amounts that are coming in and the exact amounts going out will help you to make sure your money is doing what you need it to every month. Over time, this steady use of a budget will allow you to watch as your debts get paid off one by one and your savings continue to grow.
Says Utley: “It is important to remember not to be shortsighted with financial management and budgeting. Budget realistically – earmark a portion for everyday expenses, personal spending, paying off debts, and saving. Building up savings while simultaneously reducing debts will help build up wealth and financial stability in the long run.”
Like other parts of treatment in addiction recovery, creating a plan and sticking with it even when it gets boring is the key to long-term balance.
Stress is a common trigger in relapse, and there are a number of usual suspects that can contribute to ongoing stress levels as well as acute stress. Finances are certainly one of them, an ongoing and unavoidable issue that can often come with “surprises” in terms of unexpected bills and charges.
“When finances aren’t being actively managed properly or weren’t managed properly before recovery, stress can build up in a person’s life and lead to relapse. Knowing that financial issues are common triggers of relapse, individuals in recovery should stay motivated to be vigilant in managing finances and ensuring they are being responsible with the funds they have, the bills they need to pay, and saving for the future.”
In other words, the more attention you pay to your finances, the less likely it is that you will come upon unexpected surprises or be unprepared when you do. For example, an emergency fund can help to fend against big expenses like medical bills or car repair as you work to pay off debt.
For those who are concerned that having any amount of money available is in itself a trigger for relapse, there is always the option of looking to a sponsor, financial advisor, or trustworthy friend or family member to help manage the issue.
Utley suggests that these relationships be chosen carefully: “Whether this is a sponsor, mentor or family member, make sure the relationship is healthy and patterned with transparency where dialogue will be open and honest.”
Utley also suggests taking advantage of some of the apps, sites, and banking products that are designed specifically to help people manage their finances together with another person in support of their finances. “There is a company called True Link that has a product called the Next Step Card, allowing individuals in recovery to work together with loved ones through a secure debit card for financial management supportive of recovery. This will help with budgeting and spending.”
Though some end up enjoying working toward their financial goals and the freedom that comes with living with a budget to guide them, others find it tedious. They ask, “How long do I have to do this? When can I stop dedicating every penny to paying off debt and save?”
The answer to that will vary depending on the individual and the financial goals. The hope is that budgeting will continue to be part of life for the duration of recovery. The more control you have over your money, the better able you will be to reach your financial goals. Right now, your focus may be on building an emergency fund and paying off debt, but as you make that happen, your new financial goal might be paying your way through college, saving up for a down payment on a house, or paying cash for a month-long vacation. The more persistent you are in your budgeting, the more capable you will be of accomplishing all the things you want for life and ensuring that money is not the obstacle or source of stress it once was.
Ask for Help
There is a reason why there are hundreds of books, classes, and even whole college degrees devoted to nothing but the study of finance and money management. It is not necessarily intuitive, nor is it easy to incorporate the necessary changes into your daily life, especially when you are already dealing with other emotional and physical issues related to addiction recovery. One of the best ways to avoid wasting time – and money – making mistakes when you are starting out is to ask for help.
Says Utley: “Having a financial advisor, professional mentor, or sponsor supportive of recovery will help create a source of wisdom and guidance throughout the process of working to become financially secure. They can keep you accountable while still being available for questions and offering lessons learned that will keep you on track financially while still focusing on your recovery.”
Don’t Overlook the Little Things
While your debts may be large, do not overlook how the costs of little things add up and get in the way of your ability to make large payments to knock them out more quickly.
Some things that tend to eat away at a budget’s buying power may be little things you take for granted, such as:
- Eating out
- Getting your hair done professionally
- Spending money on cable, magazine subscriptions, or other subscription services
- Smartphones or other tech devices
Even if you shop in thrift stores, you may find that you are still spending more than you have to. Remember that every dollar you save not only lowers your debt but also lowers the amount of interest that accrues on that debt as you are in the process of paying it off. Essentially, by paying off your debt as fast as possible, your money is earning money for you by helping you avoid paying even more in interest.
When all is said and done, the real goal of financial management is to enjoy a sense of peace and control when it comes to your financial life. Getting out of debt will ease the burden of worry and feeling overwhelmed as you start your new life in recovery. Building savings will increase your sense of security and give you the power of making responsible decisions that will enhance your life. Money does not give you happiness, but it does give you choices. That is, when you are not indebted to others and you have a savings account to draw from in the event of an emergency, you can decide the best way to handle whatever comes your way without necessarily sacrificing quality or taking the option that is cheapest. You can decide what is right for you in your situation after careful consideration of your options. While money will always still be a consideration, your ultimate goal is to get to the point where it is not the only consideration.
Says Utley: “The recovery principle of one day at a time is fitting in personal finance – any accomplishment with personal finance takes time – becoming debt-free, paying off credit cards, building up credit – it all takes time. Patience and diligence are two principles from recovery that convey directly to financial management. The day-to-day wins of paying off debts or saving can lead to long-term successes of debt-free living or the buildup of savings and personal wealth.”