Background Non-adherence to tuberculosis (TB) treatment is an important barrier for TB control programs because incomplete treatment may result in prolonged infectiousness, drug resistance, relapse, and death. The aim of the present study is to explore enablers and barriers in the management of TB treatment during the first five months of treatment in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Methods Qualitative study which included 50 in-depth interviews and two focus groups with TB patients, their relatives and health personnel. Results We found that loss of employment or the possibility to work led to a chain of interrelated barriers for most TB patients. Daily treatment was time-consuming and physically demanding, and rigid routines at health clinics reinforced many of the emerging problems. Patients with limited access to financial or practical help from relatives or friends experienced that the total costs of attending treatment exceeded their available resources. This was a barrier to adherence already during early stages of treatment. A large group of patients still managed to continue treatment, mainly because relatives or community members provided food, encouragement and sometimes money for transport. Lack of income over time, combined with daily accumulating costs and other struggles, made patients vulnerable to interruption during later stages of treatment. Patients who were poor due to illness or slow progression, and who did not manage to restore their health and social status, were particularly vulnerable to non-adherence. Such patients lost access to essential financial and practical support over time, often because relatives and friends were financially and socially exhausted by supporting them. Conclusion Patients' ability to manage TB treatment is a product of dynamic processes, in which social and economic costs and other burdens change and interplay over time. Interventions to facilitate adherence to TB treatment needs to address both time-specific and local factors.