“Affording” a home

March 15, 2016

I think it’s time to move.

I have been in my current apartment for 10 years. The longest I ever spent in one place before this was a year and a half. I didn’t mean to stay here so long, but inertia set in, and years passed, and here I am.

Every 2-3 years I look for a new apartment. I get discouraged when I can’t find anything nicer than what I’ve got for the same price, even in a less popular neighborhood. And I like my neighbors. So I stay. And then the next year I consider moving again. It’s a tiresome cycle.

But this year may just be the year. I’m tired of this. I want a change. And my recent dog experience made me realize that if I’m going to move, I should do it now, before I get a dog, because it would just be too hard to move with a new pup in my life.

In the past, I always set my housing budget based on my income and the others things I spent money on. When I moved to my current place, it was more expensive than where I was moving from, but I decided it was worth giving up some of the extras in my budget so I could afford it.

Now it’s different. My social security disability and other benefits cover my non-rent expenses and I have a few hundred dollars left over to put towards rent. But a few hundred won’t do it around here. Until now I’ve been taking the rest of the rent from my savings, but that won’t work forever.

I won’t get a roommate. Not only would I hate having a roommate, but I couldn’t share the kitchen with someone unless they also had Celiac Disease. So let’s assume no roommate. What are my options?

I can stay where I am. My guess is that my rent will be going up when I renew my lease (I’ll find out in a few weeks.) Let’s say staying here would be $1600 per month, including heat but no other utilities.

I could move to a nearby town where I’d like to live, and pay around $1500, including heat.

I could move to a town a bit further out and pay $1400, including heat.

I could move an hour away and pay only $1100, but have no friends or social life nearby.

I could put all my savings into buying a condo, with a mortgage lower than my rent. But then, when I add in condo fees, property taxes, and repairs, I’d be paying about the same as I pay in rent, but, I’d have put my savings into the down payment.

I could buy a single family house with a mortgage about the same as my rent. There’d be no condo fees, but I’d still be pulling money out of savings every month unless I could start earning more…. but there’s be less in savings because I’d have used it for the down payment.

I could move farther out and buy a 3-family house, live on the first floor and rent out the other two floors. My savings would go into the down payment, but the rent from those two apartments would cover my mortgage, property taxes, and house repairs.

Obviously the last option makes the most financial sense, but it has some problems. I’d have to move at least 45 minutes away, maybe more. That means I wouldn’t see my friends as much or socialize as much. I know nothing about owning a house. I’ve always rented. And I can’t fix anything, or event attempt to learn, because of my health problems, so I’d have to hire someone to fix every little problem. I’d have to deal with tenants. But on the bright side, if the rent from the tenants covered my costs, I could basically live there for free. Then my social security would cover the rest of my expenses (medical bills, car, etc.) and I wouldn’t have to worry about doing any other work.

I would probably buy a 3-family house if I could do it near where I am now, but it’s simply not feasible here (it would be at least $600k.)

So that brings me back to renting as the simplest, most straightforward option. But I can’t afford to rent indefinitely unless I start earning a living.

Blech. I keep running around in this circle in my mind. I look at apartments and condos and houses online and I run the numbers over and over again. I’ve done the research on how to calculate for vacancies when renting out. I’m good with numbers. But no matter what I do, the numbers just don’t add up.

The answer is obvious, really: move away. But my life is here. My friends, my social life, my chronic pain support group, my doctors….everyone is here. I can’t imagine starting over.

I’m lucky that I have options. I know that. I am incredibly lucky. I’m thankful that I saved up some money back when I was working. I’m lucky that my family has helped me out from time to time. But that luck isn’t enough to support my current lifestyle. So I’m just not sure what to do.

And in case any of you regular readers are wondering about Section 8, I’ve been keeping an eye out for places that would work with that, too, but I’m not seeing anything. And considering how inept they’ve been about processing my paperwork, I’m not exactly holding my breath that it will come through anyway. So, it’s in the back of my mind as a potential option, but I don’t think it will solve this conundrum for me….


Why I’m scared to work

September 14, 2015

Up until a few years ago, I just assumed I’d work a full time job. At one point I quit a job where I was miserable and I took some time off before going back to work, but of course I assumed I’d get another job, and I did. I always worked.

Until I didn’t.

I’m coming up on the 4 year anniversary of when I left my job for what I thought was a few months to rest and recover. Little did I know….

A lot has happened in those 4 years. At the start, doing any sort of work was out of the question. It took every ounce of energy I had to cook dinner or read a book. I didn’t have the physical or mental ability to do any sort of paid work.

Then slowly, I saw some improvement. I began to leave the house more. I did some volunteer work from home. I did favors for friends that involved using my brain in ways that I hadn’t in a while. My cognitive abilities still weren’t what they had been, but they were better. My physical health had improved, too.

As I felt better, I wanted to do more. I started thinking about small ways to make money. I sold my crafts. I did some more of the consulting that I’d let fall away. Someone asked if they could hire me to help them with a project and I said yes. It felt so good to get paid! Still, I was no where near being able to cover my bills. I needed something bigger.

I thought about that person who hired me out of the blue. I thought about the clients I had. That was good money with a flexible schedule and I could do most of it from home. In fact, with a little creativity and Skype, I could probably do it all from home. So how could I get more clients?

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have an initial plan. I’ve been reading a lot, I’ve listened to podcasts, and I joined Facebook groups of other people trying to make money in similar ways. The difference, of course, is that most them are working full time and they work on their side businesses in the mornings, after work, and on weekends. Even so, they probably put in a lot more hours than I can. On a good week I can do 5-10 hours, and on a bad week I’ll be lucky to do 2. So I figure that if they can earn good money in a matter of months, then I should be able to do the same within a year.

With a lot of the research done, I crafted my plan. And then I got stuck. I was scared. At the beginning, I probably won’t earn much, but what if I begin to earn more? How will I handle that? If I earn more than $780 per month for 9 months, and those months don’t need to be consecutive, then I’ll lose my social security benefits. That means I’d better earn enough to make up for that! But actually, that’s not the part that scares me.

No, what scares me is 3 years from now, and 10 years from now. If I can manage to earn a few thousand dollars per month doing work from home that I somewhat enjoy and that doesn’t strain me too much, then yay! Fantastic! Perfect! But what if I can’t keep it up? What if 3 years from now I’m back to where I was 4 years ago, completely unable to do any paid work? And I’ll need to reapply for social security. And what if I don’t get it? Or what if that happens 10 years from now? Or in 10 months? Or 6 1/2 years? Will I be living always in fear of being unable to support myself?

Yes.

But what if I don’t do this? What if I stay on social security without working? I’ll be watching my savings dwindle as I use them to pay for all of the things that my benefits don’t cover, like medical expenses, electricity, some of my groceries, car expenses, part of my rent, everything related to my car, and any sort of entertainment (yeah, right!) And what will happen when my savings run out?

So I have to do this. I have no choice. If I could work a regular hourly job then I could make sure my income stayed consistently at $779, but that just isn’t an option. So I know I need to do this.

But I’m still scared.


Even when they’re wrong, it’s still my fault

August 12, 2015

Let’s face it, sometimes customer service representatives aren’t trained all that well. I once had one of those jobs, and I mostly learned what to do through trial and error. I’m sure some callers were annoyed at my inability to immediately solve their problems, but since I was offering technical support on phones, it wasn’t a big deal if something wen8-12-2015 6-10-09 PMt wrong.

Until I got really sick, most of my experience with calling customer support fell into those kinds of non-essential categories. Maybe the cable bill would be screwed up or I wouldn’t have internet access for two days. This was really irritating, but I knew it would eventually be fixed. I also knew that I’d receive reparations for my hassle.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way with government entities. If they get something wrong, it’s still considered my fault. A few weeks ago I wrong about my frustration with SSDI benefits, mostly based on a phone call with a representation at the SSA (Social Security Administration.) I’d read everything, but it’s confusing, so when she corrected me, I assumed she was right. I should have known better. Thankfully, reader StuckInTexas commented and corrected me. But what else are they getting wrong?

I called the SSA 4 times to report earnings from a bit of work I’d done. It was handled 4 different ways, including 1 representative who was so confused, I just gave up and hung up the phone.

Yesterday I called Medicare to ask if a certain treatment was covered. They said yes, but only under certain circumstances. Those circumstances weren’t 100% clear, and when I asked questions, they just reread the same passage. To me it sounds like what I need will be covered, but they wouldn’t confirm that. They were happy to repeat, though, that it’s my responsibility to make sure it’s covered. How is that logical? I can understand that it’s my responsibility to call and check, but if I call and they refuse to confirm, then what? Do they really expect patients to move forward with appointments and treatments without knowing if they’re covered? Obviously that’s sometimes necessary, but often it isn’t.

MassHealth, our state Medicaid, was different. She simply said she couldn’t tell me and then she passed the buck: she said my doctor had to call the provider line. I can only assume the representatives on that line are better trained and will be able to answer the question. When I asked about covering a TENS unit, for example, she didn’t know what it was. When I spelled it, she still didn’t know. Medicare doesn’t cover it, but at least that representative knew what I was talking about. I think. Maybe she didn’t. Maybe they really do cover it. I don’t know!!

Yesterday I got a long form in the mail from the SSA. They want me to fill out all earnings I received since I went on SSDI. This was triggered by the earnings I recently reported, but I thought that only happened if the earnings were $750 or higher in one month. My earnings weren’t over $400! So now what should I do? I don’t want to have to fill out the form, but even more, I don’t want to be put in the category of people they “observe” unnecessarily. I want to call the SSA to check on this, but I’m pretty sure that if I call 5 times and speak to 5 different people, I’ll get 5 different answers! And if I do get 5 different answers, they’ll still say it’s my responsibility to handle this correctly. If I get 1 answer from everyone and it’s wrong, then the SSA will still say it’s my fault, even if I do exactly what they tell me to do. Don’t believe me? Look at what happened to these disabled folks who were on SSI.

I will take responsibility for my own mistakes. But I think these big government entities should do the same. What do they really expect from us? If they can’t manage to properly train their own employees in these complicated rules and regulations, is it reasonable to expect the general population to understand these same complicated rules and regulations? I don’t think so.

Have you encountered anything like this? How do you handle it? And if you’ve had to report income while on SSDI, did you have to fill out tons of paperwork? Please comment below so we can help each other out!


The problem with SSDI’s trial work program

July 28, 2015

When you’re on SSDI (social security disability insurance) the presumption is that your disability prevents you from working. Ok, I get that. But what if you want to return to work part time or full time? Ah, that’s and interesting process.20120809_220808

Everyone gets a different amount of money through SSDI. The formula is based on how much you paid into the system, and that in turn comes from the salary you earned and over how many months you earned it. You might be getting $900 per month or $1800 per month. If you’re on SSDI for more than 2 years then you’re eligible for Medicare, which is health insurance. You’re also more likely to be eligible for other benefits.

Now, what happens if you start doing some work? Well, at a certain point the SSA (Social Security Administration) decides that you’re able to support yourself. That point is a set number. It’s not a percentage of your benefit. Nope. It’s a set number: $1090 per month right now (this can change each year.) So if your benefit is $900 and you start earning $1100 then you lose SSDI and Medicare, but that might be ok with your extra income if you’re earning $1100 every month. You might only earn it occasionally, though (more on that in a bit.) But if your benefit is $1800 and you earn $1100, then you lose SSDI and Medicare and, unless you have unearned income from some source (like a spouse, alimony, or investments) then you’re probably screwed.

That’s how I feel now: screwed. I’m ready to do some small amounts of work, which is exciting in and of itself! I recently earned around $1100! This is very exciting! If it was all in 1 month, though, it would count towards my return to work trial period of 9 months total. Those total 9 months are spread out over 5 years, so I could work for 2 months per year, and still lose my benefits. That’s not good! Luckily for me, it was spread out over 3 months, at an average of under $400 per month. What a relief!

But wait, isn’t there something wrong with the system if I feel relieved to earn less money? Shouldn’t the goal be to get me back to work so that I don’t need benefits?

What if I make more than $1090 per month for 3 months this year? Then what if the same thing happens again next year? I’d stop working altogether so I wouldn’t risk going off benefits. I can’t afford to have 0 income, and I definitely can’t afford to lose my health insurance!

Instead, the system should encourage me to work part time with the hope that I would build up to more part time work or even full time work! The trial work period should only cover a short timeframe, like a certain number of months worked in a 1 or 2 year period. There should be a grace period for Medicare.

But with the current setup, I’m scared to attempt to go back to work. What if I try to work, lose my benefits, and then fail to continue working? Yes, there’s a grace period where I can get back on benefits, but it’s short. And I’m scared. It took me more than 2 years to get on SSDI in the first place. I can’t take a chance on losing it.

And that’s why the system doesn’t work.

Have you felt the same way about SSDI? How do you handle it? Do you hold back on the amount of work you do in order to stay on benefits?


The sad math of getting off benefits

March 15, 2015

Once upon a time there was a woman who worked most of her life. She babysat at 12, worked summers starting at 14, got good grades in school while doing a work-study program, went to college and graduate school, held many jobs during school and held more after each graduation, and 3-15-2015 1-59-07 PMalways did her best. One day she got sick. She was too sick to work. The government said they’d give her a small amount of money (after much fighting and pleading on her part.) Some people said she was lazy for not working harder, but she knew better. She was just too sick to work. Besides, all those years that she worked she paid into the fund that was now paying her. She worked on improving her health. One day she felt that she was ready to earn a small amount of money. She wondered what would happen if she ever wanted to earn her own living again. So she did the math….

I can accept that I might never be able to get off of benefits. I don’t like it, but I can accept it. My health has improved and stabilized to a point that I’m happy with. Yes, I would like to feel better, but if I never do, I can manage at this level. The thing is, that could be a problem financially. Thankfully, 20120809_220808social security disability insurance (SSDI) allows recipients to earn up to a certain amount each month while keeping benefits. I believe right now that amount is $1050. If I could earn the maximum, I could get by. Barely.

But the truth is, I’d love to get off of benefits if I could. I have always been self sufficient, and I would like to return to that. I prided myself on my independence. On top of that, I have control issues. It’s no wonder, when the biggest thing in my life – my body – is so out of my control. I hate the idea of relying on the government for my income. As I mentioned the other day, some politicians have suggested cutting SSDI by 20%! I’d much rather control my own income and larger financial situation. Sure, a boss can always fire me, and working for myself is no guarantee, but it still feels safer. That’s how control issues work.

So I decided to do the math, just out of curiosity. It started slow: how many hours each month would I need to work in order to earn $1050? Well, at $10 per hour I’d have to work 100 hours. That’s 20 hours per week. Well, that’s not happening any time soon. But I could probably earn $20, so that’s 50 hours/month. Ok, that’s more like it. I might be able to manage that in another year or two. But I can earn more for some of my skills, like my financial work, so maybe I could average $30 per hour? Somewhere in there I’d lose a few of my benefits, like fuel assistance and food stamps, but I’d more than make up for that. I played around, and felt ok about the options.

Then I started doing the math on what it would take to get off of all of the benefits. And that’s where it all fell apart. First, I’d have to replace my SSDI income. Ok, that’s tough, but I might be able to manage that at some point. Then I’d have to pay for health insurance, since I’d have lost both Medicare and Medicaid when I started earning more money. Well that’s stretching it, but I could still manage. Maybe. Eventually. It felt tight, but doable, until I remembered: taxes! SSDI income isn’t taxable, and I doubt that $1050 per month would be taxed much, if anything. But at these new income levels, I’d have to pay taxes. When I add it all up, I figure I’d need to earn at least $4000 per month. At least. And that’s just to break even!

So I can earn $1050 per month while getting SSDI, or I could earn at least $4000 per month, and the two would be equivalent from a financial point of view. But one way I’d have time to take care of my health and the other way I wouldn’t. Realistically, I just can’t see working full time again health-wise. It would have to be part-time work. And as much as I want to get off of benefits, it doesn’t seem worth it if I’d be breaking even, so I’d need to earn more to make it worthwhile. And that puts me back at my old salary (which was just slightly over $4k/month.)

It would be nice if there was a gradient of some sort. Like, if I earned $1050 I’d get full SSDI, and if I earned $1200 I’d get $150 less than full SSDI. That would be a great way to transition. But as it stands, it’s all or none.

I’m not saying it’s impossible that it’ll ever happen, but it sure feels unlikely that I’d be able to earn my old full time salary while working part time.

If you’re on benefits, have you ever considered getting off of them? Have you tried? How do you feel about it? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.


I miss having the security of a steady liveable income

March 10, 2015

Sometimes I forget what it was like to have a steady liveable income. My new “normal” has become so ingrained, it’s easy to think that’s how it always was. Then I’ll wish I could buy a new sweater, for example, and I’ll remember there was a time when I really could buy a new sweater any time I wanted to.

This is one of those things that can be hard to understand until you live it. Politicians talk about cutting social security disability payments because they see the huge amount the program costs overall. They don’t consider what it’s like for an individual to have to actually live on the average payment of less than $1200 per month. (Full disclosure: my payments are above average. Of course, the cost of living in my city is also above average. I haven’t done the math to figure out if the ratios are the same or not.)

Of course, it’s all relative. There are people who aren’t on SSDI who only earn that much. There are people who earn $150,000 per year and are in debt. The former has their own set of issues that need addressing on a federal and state level. The latter has options, though. I miss having options.

Once upon a time I earned around the average national income of $50,000. Even in one of the most expensive cities in the country, I had no problem living on that salary. I just avoided spending money on certain things. I saved money every month. So while I couldn’t shop endlessly or at high-end stores, I could definitely afford to replace worn out clothes. That was my “normal” for many years.

It’s been a cold winter and that’s fine by me! The cold is much better for my body than the heat, so I’m happy about it. But unfortunately, my wardrobe is not. I have many t-shirts, but not many sweaters. The ones I have are old and out of style. Some are falling apart. They are pilling and developing holes. But I keep wearing them because I don’t have a lot of options. Sure, I have some savings, but SSDI only covers about half of my expenses each month and I need my savings for that other half. I can’t go throwing it around on clothes that I don’t really have to have.

It’s not the clothes that I miss, it’s the ease of of those purchases. It’s knowing that any money I spent would come back into my bank account and then some. It’s knowing there was always more where that came from. It was knowing that I had years, decades, to keep earning and saving.

And that security is what’s really been taken away.

Despite what certain politicians think, I would rather be working if it meant getting that security back. But the truth is, that’s just not an option for me right now.


6 great things about not working

February 25, 2015

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I wish I could work.* I want to get off benefits and be independent. I want to be able to buy a new sweater. I want to move to a new apartment and afford the neighborhood I like.

Those desires are all well and good, but they don’t change the reality. The reality is that I’m not ready to work yet. The 2015-01-28 08.31.11reality is that when I do return to work, it will probably be for about 5 hours per week at a low wage. I still won’t be able to afford my current expenses, never mind adding any to the list. And I can’t change that right now.

So as long as I can’t work anyway, I might as well focus on the good things about not working. Here are just a few:

  1. No commute! Not having to deal with traffic and/or crowded trains is fantastic at any time of year, but Boston has been buried under snow recently. Streets are narrow, parking is impossible, trains are breaking down, and commuters are miserable. Then there’s the ridiculous amount of time spent commuting each week. I’m glad to avoid that mess!
  2. Avoiding crowds and long lines! When I worked, it was always at a 9-5 kind of job. That means I did errands when most people did them: in the evenings and on the weekends. Since I’m not working, I make sure to only do errands on weekdays, and it’s great! There’s little traffic and few lines. Things like grocery shopping are so much easier when the roads and stores are mostly empty!
  3. Lounging in bed! Sometimes I have plans of some sort, but most mornings I have nowhere to be. I wake up to an alarm to keep myself on a certain sleep schedule, but then I lay around reading until I feel like getting up. This morning I spent 1/2 hour in bed fantasizing about what I’d do if I won the lottery. Because why not? I get up when I feel like it and not a moment before.
  4. No bad bosses! I’ve had my fair share of lousy bosses over the years. There was one good boss, and I loved that job. The others were horrible. It’s easy to forget about those crappy bosses sometimes, but when friends complain about their bosses, I remember how miserable it was. And I’m thrilled that I don’t have to do deal with their bullshit anymore!
  5. Skipping lousy weather! Sure, sometimes I’m seeing a friend or going to the doctor, but most days I have a lot of flexibility in whether or not I leave the house, or I can change things. I watch friends complain about going to work in downpours, blizzards, blistering heat, and arctic cold, while I enjoy my cozy apartment. If I have plans with friends and we see bad weather in the forecast, we just move things to a different day. Easy! I rarely go out in bad weather if I don’t want to.
  6. My time is mine! I remember those bullshit meetings where we all sat around talking and nothing useful got done. I remember sitting at my desk with nothing to do, but not being allowed to leave. I remember having to schedule time to use the bathroom. I remember getting chewed out for being 5 minutes coming back from my lunch break. And I don’t miss any of it. Now I spend my time how I want to. Ok, I can’t always do the things I want to do, but at least those limitations are set by my body (or some other reasonable source) and not by some boss or company. I do what I want to do when I want to do it and I don’t need to get permission from anyone. I feel free!

I can think of so many other great things** about not working, but these are definitely some of the best. When I think about these, I’m glad not to be going in to an office every day. Sure, a salary would be nice, but since I don’t have that option, these reminders sure help to lessen the sting!

What about you? What are some things you don’t miss at all about working at a job? Let’s get a list going in the comments!

*Note: When I talk about “work” I mean at a paid job. Obviously we all work a lot on maintaining our health, managing our households, navigating doctors and insurance companies, and so much more. Unfortunately, we don’t get paid for that kind of work.

**Note 2: I intentionally didn’t mention how great it is to have the time and flexibility to take care of my health. I think that for a lot of us, that’s a given. Trying to get time off for doctor appointments, ducking out of meetings to take medications, not being able to each the provided food at a lunch meeting and all the rest was frustrating, stressful, and detrimental to my own self-care. I could write an entire post just on that. Maybe one of these days I will. For now, I decided not to get distracted with this, but feel free to mention it in the comments if it’s what comes to mind for you!


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