How to Survive Financially While Applying for Disability

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Artwork: Robin Mead

The typical disability application takes two to three years. If you are able to plan ahead, be creative, and reach out for help, there are many ways to help make it through.

💠 Get approved early. This is, of course, the best way. If you take steps to create a great application at the beginning, you may not have to wait three years!! Many of our readers have gotten approved in six months or less this way. (Hint: Most lawyers do little to improve your application at the beginning. These are things you can do to help yourself.)

💠 Be willing to change your life. Many people have to make hard choices and big changes in their lives while applying. For example, moving in with family members, selling their car, using food banks, or filing for bankruptcy. If you make changes early on in the process, it may help you avoid getting into getting into a crisis situation down the road.

💠 Apply for help. Some people (wrongly!!!) think that they cannot get any help until after they are approved for Social Security. No, no, no. There are bunches of other things you can apply for: How to Get for Help While Applying for Disability. You can apply for food stamps, medicaid, home caregivers, discounted meds, housing programs, student loan forgiveness, cash assistance, medical equipment, home modifications, paratransit, and much more.

💠 Reach out for help. Reach out to friends, family members, neighbors, or any kind soul you think might be willing to lend a hand.

💠 But wait! Don’t just ask your support people to give you money or bring you food or clean your house. Food and money goes away and by next week your house will be messy again. You might try asking them to look through this site with you and pick out a few things they can help with. Think about it this way: A friend can spend two hours taking you to the doctor one day one time. Or a friend can spend two hours helping you apply for a disability transit program, and then you can get rides to the doctor every day for the rest of your life.

💠 Consider working or consider not working. It is possible to get approved for disability while working part time (under $1,170 per month). However, it may be more difficult to get approved, and may take longer to get approved. Just something to consider. Learn more: Applying for Disability While Working

💠 Avoid penalties from your retirement plan. If you take an early withdrawal from your retirement plan, look into your plan’s policies on hardship withdrawals. It may be possible to avoid early withdrawal fees. If you are permanently disabled or have high medical costs, it may also be possible to avoid IRS penalties.

💠 Learn more about debt collection: It may help you to know that there are special laws in place that will protect people on Social Security from debt collectors. It may also help you to know that debt does have an expiration date! Creditors will keep calling you forever, but sometimes they are bluffing. Learn more.

💠 Ask yourself this question: Do I want to be a homeless person with good credit? If you expect that at some point you will not have enough money to survive, please think carefully before giving all your money to debt collectors right now! We have seen this happen. It does not end well.

💠 Qualifying for Help: Food stamps, utility assistance, general cash assistance and other programs will disqualify you if you have over a certain amount of money in the bank. The amount that is allowed varies by program ($2,000 is a common limit for a single person). The regulations in most programs will allow you to spend money, and will allow you to own a house and a car. Some people find it helps them to pay down a mortgage, buy needed medical supplies, prepay a phone or internet bills, pay for critical repairs, or stock up on food or other needed items. Do not give your money away. (Giving away money may cause problems with applying for benefits. You are allowed to spend money other ways).

💠 Move. It is very common for people to move in with friends or family while applying for disability. Many people sleep on a friend’s couch. If you make this change before things get desperate, you may have more options.

💠 If you are applying for SSI, the way you are living right now can make your disability check go up or down. Learn more about How to Apply for SSI Without Falling into Quicksand.

💠 Financial Aid. Some people survive off of financial aid and student loans while applying. Here are two stories: Hibiscus Applies for Disability While in School and Poppy Applies for Disability While in School.

💠 Paying Student Loans. If you already have student loans, and you are having trouble paying them, check out: How to Escape the Crushing Weight of Student Loans

💠 Get help if you are at risk for homelessness. If you have a mental health diagnosis and you are currently homeless or at risk for becoming homeless, contact The Amazing SOAR Program to see if they are in your area. They can help get disability applications approved very fast. Many of these programs will only work with new applications, not appeals.

💠 Speed things up if you are homeless: Be sure to notify Social Security if you are homeless. For new applications: Contact the person handling your case and ask them to add  a “homeless” flag to your case. For hearing appeals: Send in a dire needs letter stating you are homeless and submitting proof if possible. For both: Also,  Contact your Congressperson, tell them you are homeless and ask them to help get your case processed quicker.

💠 Get a Faster Decision: There are a bunch of other special circumstances and conditions that can make your application decision sooner, or move up your hearing date: How Can I Get Social Security to Move Me to the Top of the List?

💠 Check with your employer. If you are still working, or stopped working recently, many employers offer disability insurance. While Social Security disability often takes months or years, employer disability payments can start immediately. There are a few important things to know about Long Term Disability.

💠 Collect Unemployment. In some situations, you may be eligible to collect unemployment benefits.  However, disability lawyers report that in some cases collecting unemployment may make it more difficult to get approved and some lawyers will not accept clients who are collecting unemployment.

💠 Check with Your State. Some states offer small amounts of cash assistance you can receive while your disability application is being processed if you are very low income. A few states have short term disability payments that do not require low income. You can check this list of other forms  disability

💠 Fundraisers. Many people with chronic illnesses start online fundraising to help pay medical or life expenses. Ironically, this can cause you to lose your Medicaid, Food Stamps, SSI Backpay, utilities assistance, or subsidized housing. In some cases, there are safe ways to fundraise. Please take a look: How to Fundraise Without Losing Your Benefits

💠 Meds and Docs. Social Security will look to see if you are in regular treatment and following your doctors recommendations. If you can’t afford care, please check out When You Can’t Afford the Doctor. For treatment: How to Be Broke & Medicated. If all else fails: How To Explain Why You Haven’t Been to the Doctor


Learn More

Great article from someone whose been there: How Will You Survive if You are Unable to Work Because of Chronic Lyme?

A long list of financial survival tips for Spoonies: How to Be Poor in America

Updated Nov 2017. Please comment below with stories, questions, input or ideas. Please let us know if any links on this page stop working.

14 thoughts on “How to Survive Financially While Applying for Disability”

  1. There are a couple major problems with SSI – Supplemental Security Income, which is for people who haven’t worked long enough to have SSDI only – Social Security Disability Income. This happens to young disabled adults, or someone returning to
    the workforce after raising a family, etc.
    Here’s what disabled people on SSI are facing: 1) they are only allowed a monthly income that dates from 1974. Yep, that’s right – 1974, when Congress created the program. But Congress forgot to put in a requirement to update it. Even the census gets updated every 10 years.
    This allowable monthly income formula is $20 month/unearned income plus $65 month/earned income for a total of $85/month. Then they minus any impairment-related work expenses (IRWEs), then want 1 dollar back for every 2 dollars earned.
    But $85/month is too low a threshold for disabled people to be able to cover expenses. Disabled people are being starved by this requirement dating from 1974, 43 years ago.
    In 1974 when the program was created, the minimum wage was $1.60/hr. Thus $85/month was 53 times the minimum wage. Minimum wages today swing between $7.25 – $15/hr. It seems only fair to at least be able to multiply the current minimum wage in the area by 53 to get a modern updating of a minimally allowed monthly earned amount. And even this amount may be too low and need to be increased in order to cover modern expenses.
    2) Disabled people on SSI are allowed to have only resources of $2,000/individual and $3,000/couple. This change occurred in 1989, 28 years ago. It does not allow disabled people to have sufficient moving expenses or emergency expenses.
    The original resource amounts allowed in 1974 were $1500/indiv and $2400/couple. This was 900 times and 1500 times the then minimum wage of $1.60/hr. Therefore, there has been a great reductive loss in allowable resources as compared with the original amounts with respect to the minimum wage of the time.
    Recent federal legislation was passed to allow anyone disabled at age 26 and younger to be allowed to have a savings account up to $100,000 for disabled needs, which is great for young people, but not good for anyone disabled after age 26. This change in SSI law should include all ages, since disability can occur at any age.
    SSI and SSDI law can only be changed by Congress. We need more people understanding what is going on for people on SSI and those who will be applying for it, and simply to contact your Congressional reps to say: Update the allowable SSI monthly income to a livable amount in each area, and increase allowable resources. It’s only fair to rescue disabled people out of 1974 and 1989 economies, which were so much lower than what everyone has to cover today. There are at least 8 million people on SSI suffering abject poverty and they need your help.

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  2. Just for the record, you cannot get student loans forgiven until you are actually adjudicated disabled. Even then, it is a tenuous process with no guarantees, as the Dept of Ed treats every case how they see fit, and don’t necessarily adhere to all the Federal SSDI guidelines.
    Also, food stamp allowances vary by state. That is critical information, and as a person on SSDI with an income of $1081/month solely SSDI, I am allowed $16 in food stamps a month, and I ONLY qualified for Medicaid after I hit a certain spend down point. Overall this is an excellent article with great suggestions, and thank you for putting it together. Folks just need to understand that soooo many services listed here vary by state and even county. I had to survive on $200 month (all I could be allotted by CT as a single person) while in the disability process. I did have to sell everything, I did the food banks, and constantly had to negotiate with every creditor under the sun until I finally won SSDI after two rejections. Third time with a lawyer made it happen. It took several more years to get out from under the debt incurred in the process, along with getting my student loans forgiven.
    Your mileage may and will vary. To all of you in the battle, I send hope.

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    1. Thank you for this excellent response and all this great info. I’m so glad you persisted and it were approved in the end.

      The department of ed does now have a form for student loan forgiveness that a doctor can fill out. You can qualify for this even if you are not approved for disability. I don’t know if that is a new thing. 🙂

      At the income level you mentioned, I think you may be eligible for a Medicare Savings Program – run through Medicaid, but with no spenddown – in CT. Hope this helps: http://www.ct.gov/dss/lib/dss/pdfs/msp/MSPFAQ.pdf

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      1. sleepygirl, I now reside in FL, was in CT during the disability process, and yes, I did qualify for that while I was there. The Dept of Ed does have that form, which I did use, but they still require you to be approved first. Not trying to be argumentative…if you have not actually gone through that particular process, it is something to behold, and not everyone on disability receives forgiveness. 🙂

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    2. Very true, my daughter gets $804 a month on SSDI and her food share is $16/was $16. The Gov. of our State Wisconsin decided it was more important to give a Million $$$ foreign Country a billion $$$$$ incentive to build its company in the State while lowering the “already low” food share for those disabled to $15 a month.

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  3. Also, be prepared for aid programs and charities to be a lot less helpful than they sound. You have to fill out endless forms and jump through ridiculous hoops and often are told in the end that you do not qualify for one reason or another, often because you have not yet been named disabled by a state or federal entity yet. Credit card companies will not hold your account until disability determination is made, they will continue to accrue late fees and ever higher interest rates even when you tell them your situation.

    Hospitals will not tell you this, but most of them have some form of charity care for low income patients, required if they accept federal funds. Ask. You can often get many bills zeroed out that way or at least reduced if you have moderate income, Companies that contract with the hospital like anesthesiologists and outside labs will not usually participate in the charity care so you will still have to pay those bills unless they also have their own financial assistance programs.

    Once I finally got onto SSDI I made just a little too much each month to qualify for other assistance programs, I don’t always qualify for heating assistance and it runs out before it’s made available to non elderly most winters, Property tax exclusions are for elderly and disabled labeled permanently disabled. if you get SSDI for Lyme Disease you will not be designated permanently disabled, you will have to recertifiy every few years to prove you’re still unable to work. Food Stamps makes me submit every receipt for every prescription, medical procedure, and doctor visit, which amounts to thousands of dollars, but still only gives me $16 a month. Food Stamps is a supplemental program, It does not intend to provide enough money for a full month of food. Just be aware that there will be a lot of let downs in the social safety net, and a few very small sighs of relief. There is no such thing as welfare any more. You will have to be persistent to make even the smallest bit of progress. If you have a lot of friends, try setting up a Go Fund Me account. If you own a house and apply to the federal program to help you insulate your home, for low income people, you will fill out many forms and wait a year and then get an energy audit but nothing else unless you have holes in your house letting heated air escape or appliances you bought in the 1960s. I also find local charities to be more than a little tight fisted and have requirements that will make it difficult for you to qualify until after funds run out. That’s how it is here in Appalachia in NC anyway.

    Just keep plugging away, but don’t invest yourself emotionally in the outcomes to these applications for help or you will stress yourself out! It often feels to me like these aid programs are designed only to punish the poor and sick with paperwork and documents and other time consuming requirements that mean you spend hours on the phone. And maybe also to undermine your assertion that you are disabled by denying your applications for help in many areas. The rejections can be depressing if you let them, but there are small victories too.

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  4. I bet a lot of this is country by country. My chiropractor, who’s from France, says France doesn’t treat its people as badly as the US does. This country is falling down on the job of assisting its needy citizens.

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  5. Perhaps we could start some activism here on behalf of disabled people and disability systems. Try to keep suggestions simple. If you like an idea and want to act on it, feel free to report back regarding any results.

    Here’s the first suggestion, which is on behalf of 8+ million disabled Americans receiving SSI benefits. Social Security offices administer the program but have no say over the laws, so they are doing a hatchet job on disabled people’s finances and lives. Only Congress can change the laws.

    Call your Congressional reps and ask them to:
    1) extend the ABLE Act to ALL ages of disability onset for those on SSI. It was passed recently to allow young people disabled before the age of 26 to have a savings account up to $100,000 to meet their basic financial needs. States are currently implementing it.
    2) create/sponsor legislation to rescue disabled people on SSI out of 1974 – ie, update the current allowable monthly income amount dating from 1974 to a livable amount – perhaps tie it to the national minimum wage swing between $7.25-15/hr – ie allow more income in higher standard of living areas.
    3) raise the allowable resources levels dating from 1989 to amounts equivalent to the 1974 original ones – ie 900 and 1500 times min wage. That ratio worked back then.
    If the first one happens, we won’t need the 2nd and 3rd. But it doesn’t hurt to ask for all three.
    See my first post above for discussion about what’s going on.

    Btw, disabled people on SSI can face cuts in benefits at any time without restoration, as well as having faced several cancelled COLAs – cost of living adjustments, as well as only minimally raised COLAs, so falling completely below inflation – ie starving.
    Do you believe disabled people should be starving? Do you believe disabled people should have no allies? If your answer is no to these questions, then please, start to educate yourself on the many forms of economic discrimination that disabled people are going through and start doing some simple advocacy, even if it means just contacting your reps to tell them you’re concerned about what you hear is going on and that you’d like to see it changed for the better – ie a more doable financial existence for disabled people.
    Let’s give everyone a chance to live their life, even if injured or ill.

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    1. Robin, I agree people need to do more for advocating for those disabled. This WordPress website is a great start for those that are disabled to get information, many people get lost in the system just because they have no idea where or what to do next.

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