Managing Money and Mental Wellness

The hardest part about being low-income is the lack of access. Things like affordable housing, childcare, and healthcare are simply not in the budget. A statement like, “Consult your doctor before trying xzy,” may be well-intentioned. But for someone like me, that simple direction wasn’t an option for a long time because of my income. 

Labeled and Low Income

I was diagnosed with bipolar when I was 24. I’ve managed it with insurance and without. I’ve spent weeks shuffling paperwork back and forth only to be told I don’t qualify for coverage or my premiums are still more than I can afford. Couple that with outrageous co-pays or cash prices for appointments and medication, and treatment for mental illness is a straight-up luxury for many people. 

Fluctuations in mental well-being are normal.

We all experience highs and lows in life. Situational anxiety and depression are totally normal. An emergency trip to the dentist is stressful. Starting a new job is stressful. All of these for a neurotypical person are taxing yet manageable, even with stress. Those who aren’t neurotypical or have mental illness are literally not wired to respond that way. An already triggering event can kick off massive depressive or manic episodes when coupled with lacking the money to correct these situations. Trust me. I have lived it too many times. 

Mackenzie’s time in Hawaii was filled with ups, downs, and mental and financial hurdles.

Impact of Housing and Living Expenses on Mental Health

I distinctly remember this from living in Hawaii while uninsured and low-income. The house we were renting a room in was put up for sale, so we had to start looking for a new place to live. With one of the highest costs of living in the country, apartment searching in Hawaii was straight up traumatizing. Neither my partner nor I was making great money. We had less than 30 days to come up with deposits and rent. 

After a week of applying to places, Hawaii’s lack of affordable housing meant we would probably be living out of our van. The dominance of private owners in the housing market worsened an already challenging situation. Legally, these owners can add stipulations that remove many from qualifying. It was a miracle we found a somewhat affordable place at the last minute, but that’s not the case for everyone. That all took its toll mentally. I dropped into a massive depression because I lacked access to therapists and couldn’t afford the $200 or $300 per session fees without insurance. I couldn’t afford to keep up with my medication because it was $100 a month, especially when I needed to try and save for moving. 

Long-Term Impact of Financially Traumatic Events

That one experience still affects me today. I went through a period of hoarding money and being scared to spend anything. I’m afraid to rent a home in case it sells and we have to move suddenly. I’m scared of switching jobs and losing my health insurance. I see vans while driving, and my first thought is how comfortable they would be to live in. And not because of cute van life aesthetics. I finally learned that these “quirks” have a name—poverty trauma.

Money Habits, Normal and Abnormal Reactions to Abnormal Situations

Because you don’t want to waste anything, some of you might scrape every little bit of toothpaste, shampoo, dish soap, etc. Like others, I am highly aware of food waste to the point of developing an eating disorder and overbuying things like canned goods. We’re worried about where our next meal is coming from.

How many of you put off things like doctor’s appointments because you don’t want to know if you have something expensive? It could be frugality, but it could also be something more profound. It looks different for everyone, but at the root of it, a lack of financial stability keeps us waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Mental illness rewires our brains to perceive certain events in a way that may or may not be accurate. Without access to consistent therapy or medication, we never get the chance to rewrite those stories, even after the event has long passed. It’s been four years since I left Hawaii, and I still carry those financial traumas with me. This is why access to mental health services and getting your money right is essential.

Managing Money Better Improved my Mental Wellness

Working on my finances brought me a lot of “Ah-ha!” moments regarding my mental health. The biggest one is my sense of security. Knowing I can cover an unexpected emergency, consistently pay my bills, and afford necessities removed stressors that are roadblocks in treating my mental illness. It is especially challenging to recover from a manic episode when you know you can’t afford a therapist, let alone groceries. We are forced to see treatment as a luxury; in reality, it’s a necessity. It’s frustrating and makes it harder and harder to make progress. 

In my years of experience managing money and mental illness, I learned some tricks to help with the lack of money and access to care.

I share these with everyone because I never want someone to feel as isolated and scared as I did. 

1. Local universities with psychology programs usually have sliding-scale clinics open to the public.

I’ve used this, and currently, my father does too. Without insurance, I was paying $10 a session. Talking with someone half your age might sound weird, but they are professionals. They have an entire team of licensed therapists to help review and suggest treatments.

2. Price shop for medications.

Medication is expensive. Currently, I’m on Lamotrigine. Without insurance, it would be around $500 a month. The expletives I have for this are unending. However, even without insurance, I can get a 90-day supply from Walmart for $10. Yes, really. Places like Walmart and Costco offer low-cost meds; you can find lists for them on their websites. Plus, you don’t need a Costco membership. Apps like HoneyBee Health and GoodRx find coupons for all kinds of medications as well.  

3. Look for sliding-scale clinics in your area.

These will base your co-pay on your income. Some clinics may even offer multiple practices in one. This means having a primary doctor, psychologist, gynecologist, etc., all in the same building, making scheduling and charting much easier.

Your financial situation doesn’t dictate how good of a person you are. It can, however, dictate how good you feel. Whether it’s about being able to go to therapy or having money to eat consistently, money and mental health go hand in hand. They both can make the other better or worse. These tips and tricks are nice, but they should not be the only accessible option low-income folks have to address mental health.

Related Reads:

Managing Stress and Money

Ultimate List of Mental Health Resources Online


Mackenzie Stewart launched her site Life at 23k to fill a void for the people who can’t afford to invest or start an emergency fund. She wants to find and give financial advice that the underemployed minimum wage worker can use – not just those making great salaries with marketable degrees already.

You can find her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

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