Money and humans have a funny relationship. Money is stolen, saved, earned, desired, and hated, but ultimately, fundamental. In the clutches of substance or alcohol use disorder, drained finances often serve as a reminder of one’s depleted state of being. 

Before getting sober, my relationship with money was in shambles: binge spending, piles of unopened bills and past-due notices, escalating debt, and building savings felt like a distant dream.

I used to think a budget entailed paying rent, spending the remainder of my cash on weed and alcohol, and then putting the rest of my life on credit. Once I maxed out my credit card, I would ration things like food so I had some extra money to pay off some of that credit card debt. Then, the cycle would begin again. It became exhausting and unsustainable. 

I used to think a budget entailed paying rent, spending the remainder of my cash on weed and alcohol, and then putting the rest of my life on credit.

In sobriety, my relationship with money changed. I have paid off thousands of dollars in debt, put thousands of dollars in my savings account, increased my credit score, and learned to manage my anxiety about finances while maintaining a salary similar to what I had when I was drinking.

Cleaning up your finances might be on your recovery to-do list, and it can be difficult to figure out where to start. I talked to Helen Ngo, a Certified Financial Planner and founder of Capital Benchmark Partners LLC to help you make a plan. With Helen’s recommendations and my own experience, we compiled ways to get your finances in order when you’re entering recovery. 

Money is personal and emotional, which means finding financial stability can level out and improve so many aspects of life.

Money is personal and emotional, which means finding financial stability can level out and improve so many aspects of life. So, stop making it rain and follow these steps: 

Let go of fear

The first step in repairing any financial ruin is to get fears about money under control. Instead of actively avoiding opening a bill, I gave myself positive self-talk when a new statement came in. I spoke with my therapist about why my instinct was to flee. And as I paid off debt and increased my savings, paying bills and checking my accounts slowly became an approachable everyday habit. 

“Money is very emotional and there’s a perception that money is a measure of success,” Ngo said.

When misusing alcohol and drugs, it can be easy to neglect the things you don’t want to face especially if that thing equates to self-worth. In recovery, you have the opportunity to define what success looks like, and it doesn’t have to be tied to the amount of money you make. This takes the pressure off. Embrace the challenges of managing finances and you’ll thank yourself in a few months. You might also find that your self-worth has increased. 

Be held accountable 

It’s easy to find a way out of doing something you don’t want to. However, if you decide to tell someone else what your plans are (say, getting out of debt), then you add a level of accountability which is a little harder to ignore. 

“Usually the first thing I would recommend is talking to someone you fully trust or an unbiased professional like a financial planner who can look at your finances from an objective standpoint and give you specific actionable steps to take,” advised Ngo. 

She also mentioned that if you can get free financial advice, go for it. 

If you’re in serious amounts of debt or scrambling to make ends meet, a financial advisor is a great option. There are a number of pro-bono financial companies you can seek guidance from. In my case, I visited State Farm’s free financial advice service through Next Door Chicago. A place where you can grab a cup of coffee and talk to an expert. 

A financial advisor, coach, or planner can help you strategize to tackle debt, plan for a major purchase, or devise a savings plan. They can also walk you through saving for retirement and investing for the long-term. 

If for some reason you can’t visit with a professional, find a trusted relative or friend who can hold you accountable in your own devised plan. Or consider having someone trustworthy take over your financial responsibilities — such as paying your bills on time — while you get back on your feet.

Make a list 

You can’t get your finances in order until you know what you owe and to whom. 

For my retirement plan, I consulted my coach, but for my outstanding bills, I made a list. I ordered my debts from highest to lowest interest rate first. The ones with the highest interest rates were paid off first while I put a smaller amount toward the rest of the bills. I’d pay off one and then focused my attention on the next one on the list. 

While it was tempting to pay off the smaller debts first, paying off the ones with higher interest rates was better in the long run. Interest rates mean digging deeper into your pockets and paying more than you already owe. With a double-digit interest rate, I paid off my airline miles card first. And when I finally made my last payment, my credit score went up — further enticing me to live a financially healthy life. 

If you have medical bills, oftentimes you can work out an interest-free payment plan that accommodates your budget. Six months before I got sober, I had knee surgery that left me with a haunting bill I’d set aside rather than deal with. In recovery, I realized taking care of the outstanding bill was necessary. I worked out a plan with the company and luckily, I was able to pay it off with no interest.  

Getting your finances in order is one of the many battles you will face in recovery. For me, leading a life strangled by the thought of money perpetuated my anxiety and fears. My self-esteem was tied up in how much money I had in my bank account, which was constantly depleted. Now in recovery, I’m comfortable in my own body and mind because I’m not avoiding financial realities. 

“One sure way to build confidence in yourself as you recover is to take control of your money and feel like you are ahead of the curve,” Ngo said. “Even if it’s as small as being able to stick to a consistent payment plan towards your debt, you are taking control of your money and your life. [You are] demonstrating you are responsible to yourself.”