The new meaning of “Can I afford that?” when you live on SSDI

A friend just emailed me about a good deal on something I’d like to buy. But can I afford the $72 for 20120809_220808something that I don’t really need? Yes and no.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I was raised in a middle class family. When I was born my parents started a college fund, and I graduated from school without any debt. Actually, I had money in the bank because I’d learned to save what I earned from my various jobs. I was taught to never spend more than you had. Credit cards were to be paid off in full every month. I worked all through graduate school and never paid a dime in tuition. I had plenty of problems in life, but I never had debt. I feel so fortunate for that, I am so thankful for the good money lessons my parents taught me.

So when I had to leave my job due to disability, I had savings. Many people don’t. And I managed to get SSDI. Many people don’t. I am so grateful for all of that.

But for the first time in my life, money began to stress me out when I left my job. From the time I started babysitting at age 12, I’d always worked. I’d always had a way to earn money. Sometimes I worked part time, sometimes only on school vacations, but I always worked. Several years back I quit a job where I was unhappy and it was my first real break, but I had planned for it, I had savings, and I was highly employable, so I knew that I could get a job whenever I wanted and needed it. After some time off, I went back to work. I never earned a high salary, but I was frugal and I saved.

When I became too sick to work, though, it was all different. Not having the option of going back to work was stressful. There would be no way to replenish what I spent. That savings account is a huge comfort, but it won’t last forever. And then what?

SSDI is helpful, but it’s not enough. It almost covers my rent. Almost. I have food stamps that almost pay for my groceries. Almost. The extra rent and grocery costs are about $100 every month out of my savings account. Every single purchase beyond my rent comes out of my savings account. Electricity, gas for cooking, car insurance, gas for the car, phone, internet, very limited entertainment, and occasional clothing all come out of my savings account. And medical expenses. Oh, the medical expenses.

Each time I consider if I can afford something, I know that technically I can. Technically I have the money sitting in my savings account. But I also see those savings going down every month. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to earn more than I spend. So should I save that $72 for the future? And what about the present? There are doctors and medical tests that I think might help but that I’m putting off because they aren’t covered by insurance. Of course, those are hundreds or thousands of dollars, not just $72, but it’s the same idea. If I’m not pulling money out of savings for those doctors and tests, should I really do it for something more frivolous? And if I really wanted to pull money out of savings for something fun, I’d get a pet. But I can’t pull money out for those big things, so getting something little might be fun and comforting. Or I could spend even less and get something else I’d really like, like a new sweater. My clothes are all old and out of style and starting to get threadbare. But even if it was only $30, I would still have to take that money out of savings. And that brings me back to the start of my reasoning: technically I can afford it, but I probably shouldn’t.

Each little “just this once” adds up. $72 here, $15 there, and my savings account keeps shrinking. I’m so grateful to have that account. I want to make it last as long as possible.

Then again, maybe I’ll just take $1 out of savings and go buy a lottery ticket. Then maybe I could afford it all.

2 Responses to The new meaning of “Can I afford that?” when you live on SSDI

  1. Although I currently work, I’m envisioning the day when I either retire, solely on Social Security, or wind up on disability, with only SSDI. I have a very small amount in savings, but no way could I live on it for very long. It’s terrifying to consider that at some point I will be unable to replenish my savings and forced to choose between the medical/prescription copays and the grocery bill. You seem to be handling it as well as possible – hopefully once you’re feeling better, you’ll be able to get back into some kind of paid employment.

  2. yep – talk about new norm…
    Marcy Westerling

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