Chronic Illness and Money Pain: The Honest Truth About Coping with Lost Jobs, Less Income and a Tight Budget

Chronic Illness and Money Pain: The Honest Truth About Coping with Lost Jobs, Less Income and a Tight Budget

Chronic illness hurts all over, and that can extend to your budget. It’s not polite to talk about money, and that can lead to a cone of silence around this difficult subject. When I developed fibromyalgia five years ago, I was forced to leave my graduate program because I could no longer keep up. In the process, I lost my scholarship and my teaching assistant position. Now my husband and I live on a single income. I think it’s important to be open about how illness and disability impact income. First, it is vital to break down the stigma that ‘people who live on a reduced income are lazy.’ Second, I think it can be helpful for people living with long-term health problems to share their experiences and support each other with advice on how they cope with the challenges of living with illness.

Unfortunately, my inability to work is far from being an exception.  According to a Community Health Survey, 14% of people with fibromyalgia report being permanently unable to work (Parlor, 2007). That rate is 25% for working-age people with arthritis (Arthritis Society, n.d.). In Canada, only 51% of working-age people living with a disability are employed, compared with 75% of non-disabled working-age people (CCD, 2013). In addition, people living with a disability are two times more likely to work part-time than nondisabled people (CCD, 2013).

Not surprisingly, the reductions in employment levels among people with illness and disability lead to reductions in income. For example, 43% of people living with fibromyalgia reported their annual personal income to be below $15 000, compared with only 29% of the general population (Parlor, 2007). Overall, 20.5% of Canadians living with disabilities live below the poverty line  (CCD, 2013).

In addition, there are out-of-pocket medical expenses. This is bad enough in Canada, my home country, where many people may not have extended health insurance for medical drugs or treatments like physiotherapy or massage. In the U.S., there is no public medicare (national health insurance), so the medical expense of just seeing a doctor can be prohibitive. The CDA (2013) reports that, in the U.S., medical problems are behind 62% of personal bankruptcies and almost 50% of home foreclosures.

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Finally, for those who qualify for social assistance, income support is severely limited. In Ontario, Canada, the maximum financial support for a person living with a disability is $1151/month, for all expenses (Community Living Ontario, n.d.). In the U.S., the average monthly benefit for a family paid by Social Security Disability Insurance is $1,130 (CDA, 2013). Since this amount would barely cover rent and food, it is hard to imagine how anyone could even begin to pay for vital medical expenses or enjoy any quality of life.

Those numbers can look pretty bleak and do not capture the strength and resiliency shown by so many living with chronic illness!  It is important for those who do not live with chronic illness to understand that we work harder than anyone you know, every day, to manage debilitating symptoms, earn a living if we can, participate in our family and social lives, and advocate for ourselves and others.

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If your politics tells you that social assistance should provide only survival support for medical and living expenses in order to “incentivize” recipients to work harder, then you are condemning to poverty people whose only ‘crime’ has been to develop a chronic illness. Working harder is not a cure for a chronic disease or permanent disability. I believe a compassionate and farsighted society should provide adequate medical and income support to people living with illness and disability because inequality wastes human ability and restricts the freedom of people to participate fully in society. Appropriate accommodations can be put in place so that we can work, including flex hours, remote work opportunities, and many others. We all have something to contribute, and many of us would be able to do more if adequate social support were put in place.

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I’ll get off my soapbox now. It’s time to get practical. Since we are where we are in terms of reduced income for people with chronic illness, what can we do?

  • Build a budget. No matter how limited, every dollar will stretch further if we spend it on what we need. For a simple and practical approach, I like using Gail Vaz Oxlade’s budget builder
  • For your weekly expenses, use cash! If you also suffer from brain fog, then you will sympathize with how hard it can be to remember how often you swiped your plastic this week. If getting out to the bank is a hassle, then get cash back at the grocery store, so you can do two chores in one.
  • Put your cash in labeled jars or envelopes, keep your receipts, and record your expenses. Clear glass jars work best for me. My budget jars are labeled: groceries, entertainment, drugstore, pet, clothes, transportation and allowance.
  • Don’t be too proud to get the help you need. Whether asking for financial advice, applying for social assistance, buying second hand, or going to a food bank if the fridge is bare, remember this isn’t your fault and you deserve the best quality of life possible.

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