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How to pay your bills when you can’t work

Tips to help ease your financial pain due to illness or injury

Life is unpredictable. One moment you’re healthy and active, and the next moment an accident or illness strikes and you’re not. This unexpected change can leave you out of work for a short – or an extended – period of time.

Don’t think it can happen to you? Here are some stats to make you think again. Before retirement age, one in four 20-year-olds will experience a long-term disability.1 And the average length of time for a long-term disability claim is 34.6 months.2 Even short-term disabilities (lasting six months or less) take their toll, affecting 5.6 percent of working Americans each year.2

The reasons for missing work run the gamut. Musculoskeletal disorders – such as back and joint pain – are the biggest reason workers miss work.3 Cancer, depression and anxiety, injuries due to fractures and sprains, and digestive disorders are other things that can keep you from working – and do a number on your family’s income.

Although Social Security Disability (SSDI) can help alleviate some of the financial burden, it may not be enough. As of January 2018, the average SSDI benefit was $1,197 a month. And, with it taking on average three to six months to get a decision on your SSDI application, it might be a while before you start receiving your SSDI benefits.2 Be aware that not all who apply may qualify to receive this benefit.

If you find yourself out of work due to a disability, here are some strategies to help ease the financial pain. Even if you’re feeling healthy, there are steps you can take now to help ensure you can pay your bills in the future – just in case anything bad should happen to you.

Create a barebones budget

Try not to tap into your emergency fund just yet, but know it’s there if you need it. Instead, delay dipping into your rainy day fund by creating a budget that allows for just your bare necessities, such as groceries, rent, transportation and insurance. Need a budget assistant, one that will keep you on track? There’s an app for that. Research a few online to find one that works best for you.

Also, (almost) everything is negotiable. Don’t believe it? Call your service providers (such as your garbage collector and home and auto insurance company) and ask for better rates. If they don’t budge, tell them you’re going to shop around.

Generate some income by selling household items or clothing that are in good shape but you just don’t need anymore. If you don’t want to go the online route, take your things to a brick-and-mortar consignment store in your neighborhood.

Cut (or download) coupons and visit warehouse stores

You can’t eliminate groceries from the budget, but you can save on how much you’re spending on them. If you prefer using paper coupons, keep getting the Sunday paper, which has coupon inserts on a variety of products.

For many, digital couponing is easier, since you always have your phone with you. Many grocery stores have apps that allow shoppers to add digital coupons to a store loyalty card. And often times everyone in the family can get their own card for the same account, amounting in even bigger savings. And other apps may give you cash back for buying certain items.

Whether you use paper or digital coupons, you can save even more money by “stacking” coupons and shopping at stores that have “double” or “triple” coupon days.

Warehouse stores also offer savings for families. Most don’t accept manufacturer’s coupons but they do offer great deals on items in bulk, especially meat, peanut butter, powdered laundry detergent and batteries. A couple more tips: Warehouse brands often are high-quality, so give them a try. And you might be able to save money on your prescription medicine at a warehouse store.4

Eliminate unnecessary expenses

Binge-watching your favorite shows while recovering from an illness or injury sounds like good medicine. And so does listening to your favorite musicians on a music streaming service. But both are an added monthly expense, so consider cutting them from the budget. Other “extras” that can be eliminated include gym memberships, dining out at restaurants, and trips to the coffee shop.

Have you reviewed your cell phone plan lately? You can save money by switching from an unlimited data plan to one with minutes.5 Also, a prepaid or a no-term cell phone plan might better meet the needs of your family. 

Prioritize credit card payments

Pay what you can – even if it’s just the monthly minimum. Don’t go into avoidance mode and not pay them. If you do, you’ll be hammered with late fees. And your credit score will take a hit since payment history accounts for 35 percent of your overall score.6

If you find yourself with a late fee, ask your credit card company to waive it. A recent survey found that 87 percent of people who made the request had the fee waived. And those who asked to have their card’s annual fee dropped or reduced (82%) and a lower interest rate (69%) got what they wanted.7

Apply for government programs

Don’t forget there are free programs and resources to help people who are struggling financially, yet qualifications for the programs may apply. The U.S. government offers credit counseling services that can help you develop a budget and manage your money.8 Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides such foods as fruits and vegetables; meats, fish and poultry; dairy products; and breads and cereals to low-income families.9  And the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) helps low-income households pay their heating and cooling bills10 and also provides weatherization assistance by fixing drafty doors and windows and repairing or replacing furnaces or air conditioners that don’t work.11

Explore credit and debt protection options

Payment and credit protection programs can help ease financial concerns in case you lose your income. So before an illness or injury wreaks havoc on your finances, consider getting a credit life insurance or credit disability insurance policy when taking out a loan at your credit union or bank. The former will reduce or pay off the insured balance on your loan if you die; the latter will pay your loan payments up to the contract limit if you become ill or disabled and are unable to work. And both help protect your family and your credit rating.


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1. “Paycheck Protection for Millennials,” Council for Disability Awareness, 2016. “Fact Sheet: Social Security,” Social Security Administration, 2018.

2. Council for Disability Awareness, 2018.  

3. “6 Ways to Protect Your Lower Back From Injury,” Council for Disability Awareness, April 17, 2018.

4. Gibbs, Karen B., “10 tips for saving money (and your sanity) at Costco and big box stores,” Today, April 13, 2018.

5. McLaughlin, Molly, “How to save money on your cell phone plan,” Lifewire, April 8, 2018.

6. Wiener-Bronner, Danielle, “The smartest way to pay off credit card debt,” CNN Money, August 10, 2017.

7. Anderson, Tom, “Asking credit card companies to lower rates and fees works 80% of the time,” CNBC, March 27, 2017.

8. Official Guide to Government Information and Services, 2018

9.  United States Department of Agriculture, 2018.

10. United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2018.

11. U.S. Department of Energy, 2018.

DOFU 5-2018