How fintech can help control spending in the face of mental health...

How fintech can help control spending in the face of mental health struggles

Mental health issues can sometimes come with money problems, especially now that the internet lets us shop night and day. But while technology created this problem, it can also contribute to solving it.

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It’s never been easier to shop online – not only can you buy pretty much anything you want, but the process of doing so is increasingly quick and frictionless. Most of the time this is considered to be a good thing, but for people with mental health struggles it comes with its own set of challenges.

72% of the people surveyed by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, an independent charity, said that their mental health problems has lead to financial problems. Over 90% say they spend more when they are unwell, and they also find it harder to make financial decisions. This may refer to things like excessive shopping, but 60% also said it has lead to taking out a loan they wouldn’t otherwise have wanted.

Mental health struggles are increasingly common: among those aged 16-24, one in four women, and one in six men, report being affected by mental health issues, according to the Office of National Statistics. “Given the scale of this problem, it is essential that the debt advice sector continues to work with creditors and utility companies to ensure that outcomes are improved for consumers,” Caroline Siarkiewicz, Head of UK Debt Advice at the Money Advice Service, said at the time of the survey.

Returning some friction to online shopping

Excessive spending can be a symptom of the mania associated with bipolar disorder, whereas indiscriminate spending can also become a coping mechanism during a depressive episode. Back when we had to go to shops to buy things, or show up in person at the bank to access credit, it was a little more difficult to fall into impulsive spending patterns, but today’s quick and easy online shopping means there’s less to hold people back.

The goal of this work is to help people regain some of the self-control that’s lost in such a frictionless spending environment, says Martin Lewis, Founder and Chair of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute. “We want to empower people with tools that put them back in the driving seat. Many people shop to make themselves feel better in periods of depression, to give things to others to feel needed or to fill the time when they’re bored or lonely,” Lewis said as the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute launched the Shopper Stopper. This is an experimental browser plugin that lets users determine in advance what hours of the day they want to shop, for example restricting shopping in the middle of the night. “It’s by no means a cure-all, but by allowing people to set the opening hours of online shops, we want to add a little extra friction into the buying process.”

Adding just one small hurdle to a process can make a big difference to people’s behaviour. Challenger bank Monzo has been experimenting with ways to help people with mental health problems have a better banking experience. The app already lets you set your own spending limits, not just for cash withdrawals but also for the maximum card payment – and there’s a lot more that can be done. In a blog post, Monzo designer Zander described a “Safe Spending” feature which, if activated, could mean any spending after 10pm could be cancelled the next day. Another possibility would be to add a feature requiring a trusted family member or friend to approve any purchase above a certain amount. “Both of these features are speculative, they’re early drafts, and not automatically something we will introduce to Monzo,” said Zander. “Even in these relatively early days of the product though, it is vital to consider ways we can harness our technology, data, and outside research to build similarly powerful features.

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