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Money as a Trigger for Drug Use

For many who struggle with substance abuse, money is a powerful trigger. Just having a $20 bill is enough to send many users straight to a drug dealer. For someone with a substance abuse disorder, the use of money is connected to both getting high and to the stress that causes cravings. Because addiction chemically rewires neural pathways, the brain may associate money and getting high with pleasure. Those in recovery must be careful about money as it can trigger relapse even years of being clean from drug use.

Money, Addiction and the Brain

Many people struggle with impulsive spending because the act triggers a response in the reward center of the brain that results in a type of euphoria. In a healthy person this response reinforces hard work and reward. But when a person has a substance use disorder, his or her brain often associates spending money with the euphoria of getting high.1 Even though these two activities are very different, the response to the action occurs in the same part of the brain that is responsible for impulse control, anxiety and depression. With each activity, pathways are created and habits formed.

Responsible spending means a person can consciously override his emotional urges to buy everything he wants. However, someone struggling with substance use disorder is unable to control these impulses which directly affects his or her ability to refuse available drugs.2 But those in recovery can learn to make healthy choices about using money responsibly and not buying drugs.

Reprogramming Spending Habits

Impulses to spend money and get high whenever money is available may last for years after rehab. One of the most important skills that people in recovery develop during addiction rehab is the ability to recognize drug triggers and resist drug cravings.3 It is possible for an addict to correct his or her thinking and decision-making abilities even when faced with powerful cravings brought on by money.

However, until that ability develops, those in recovery must protect themselves in the following ways:

  • Avoid ATM or debit cards as they make it too easy to access money
  • Entrust a non-addicted friend or family member to control your spending
  • Set up direct deposit for your paycheck instead of receiving a paper check
  • Maintain close contact with your recovery sponsor in the first months after rehab, especially on paydays
  • Learn to speak with friends and loved ones about your drug use triggers so they don’t inadvertently contribute to a relapse

Finding and maintaining employment during recovery can be challenging and stressful. Your brain will want you to medicate the stress associated with money by using drugs, but you can resist this through support groups and ongoing treatment.

Finding Help for Money Problems and Drug Addiction

If you or a loved one struggles with substance abuse and access to money sparks your cravings, please call our toll-free, 24-hour helpline now at (866) 874-5899. Our admissions coordinators can help you resist the urge to get high and connect you with the best treatment program for your particular needs.

If you have already been through rehab, we can help you find aftercare programs and money-management resources. Don’t be ashamed of your need for financial help and accountability. You can overcome these cravings and we can help.

By Patti Richards

1Hartney, Elizabeth, and Steven Gans. “Do Your Money Problems Stem From Addictive Behavior?” Verywell Mind, 30 June 2018.
2Harrington, Michelle. “Substance Use Disorders.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 30 Sept. 2014.
3“Drug Addiction Treatment in the United States.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, Jan. 2018.