Disabled and in debt: What to do?

Unable to work, a reader wonders how to pay the bills

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for CreditCards.com, and also wrote for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

Ask a question.
Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear To Her Credit,
I have tried to work out something with Capital One. The past two years I haven't been able to work due to a disability. I collect no Social Security benefits. My husband and I sold our home (and took a hit on it) and moved. His pay has been reduced, and we have unbelievable debt. I am a 50-year-old former teacher. We have a son in elementary school. We can hardly put food on the table. We sold our home, furniture, car, all assets. Our credit is trashed. We have $80,000 in debt -- some secured -- and $24,000 in credit card debt.

I have no idea what to do. We cannot pay anything extra, and my disabilities prevent me from working and functioning on a normal basis day to day. I cannot afford doctors. I tried to work things out with Capital One. I kept in touch every month. I have all of their operator's numbers -- about 75 reps who gave me 75 different answers regarding my debt. What can we do? We cannot even afford to file bankruptcy. I am so stressed and anxiety-ridden. I have to take care of our little boy. What can the credit card companies do? Are there any funds out there? The future does not look promising. Please help. Thank you. -- Glenda

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Glenda,
Your Capital One bill is the least of your worries. All your credit card debt could disappear overnight and you'd still wake up with your real problem -- the fact that you don't have enough income to live on.

Instead of focusing primarily on debt, you need to find some way to increase your income so you and your husband can take care of yourselves and your son.

The best solution to this situation would be for you to find a way to make a meaningful contribution to society, despite your disability, and get paid to do it. As a 50-year-old former teacher, you must have a college degree and years of experience you could put to good use. I don't know what your disability is, but I'll assume standing in front of a classroom full of lively children all day is out of the question. (It would be for many of us who aren't disabled!) That leaves many less demanding, more flexible options for someone who has your considerable skills.

For example, many parents need someone to help kids with homework, get elementary students up to grade level in reading and math or help with special projects. With so many parents both working, people are willing to pay after-school or summer tutors, and they should pay a respectable amount for your expertise. You could look for work through an agency or on your own through word of mouth and advertising.

Another option is to find a less physically demanding teaching job; for instance, a part-time job or one with smaller groups of children. Perhaps you could work with adult literacy or help people get their GEDs. There are many things you could do and still have the flexibility you need.

I'm worried when you say you can't afford doctors. Not only may you be suffering needlessly, but if your physical condition is keeping you from working, you can't afford not to go to a doctor. For most of us, our ability to work is our most valuable asset.

Try to find health care professionals in your area who will work with you on your limited income. Start by going to the Health Resources and Services Administration's Find a Health Center.

If your disability makes any kind of work impossible, surely you qualify for some kind of disability payments. If you were injured on the job, you should file a workers' compensation claim. As a teacher, the union or school generally provides disability benefits. And there's always Social Security disability payments if you are completely disabled. For nonprofit legal help, search the LawHelp.org website.

Back to Capital One -- the reason you wrote to us. You're not having much luck talking to them on your own. It's time to turn it over to a professional so you can focus on the more important tasks of improving your health and finding more income. Go to an agency affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies. A counselor will talk to you and make arrangements with all your creditors for you. Having someone on your side should make a huge difference in your stress load. You won't be turned down for lack of money, and they can help you see other options, such as bankruptcy or debt negotiation, that may be reasonable in your situation.

If you expend the same kind of energy to finding work or disability payments that you have to talking to the folks at the bank, I'm sure your finances will soon be looking up. Take care of your total financial picture at all times, and you'll be taking care of your credit.

See related: Disabled daughter needs advocate in dealing with debt, Disabled vet seeks relief from credit card debt, 8 steps to picking a credit counselor

Meet CreditCards.com's reader Q&A experts

Does a personal finance problem have you worried? Monday through Saturday, CreditCards.com's Q&A experts answer questions from readers. Ask a question, or click on any expert to see their previous answers.

Join the discussion
We encourage an active and insightful conversation among our users. Please help us keep our community civil and respectful. For your safety, do not disclose confidential or personal information such as bank account numbers or social security numbers. Anything you post may be disclosed, published, transmitted or reused.

If you are commenting using a Facebook account, your profile information may be displayed with your comment depending on your privacy settings. By leaving the 'Post to Facebook' box selected, your comment will be published to your Facebook profile in addition to the space below.

The editorial content on CreditCards.com is not sponsored by any bank or credit card issuer. The journalists in the editorial department are separate from the company's business operations. The comments posted below are not provided, reviewed or approved by any company mentioned in our editorial content. Additionally, any companies mentioned in the content do not assume responsibility to ensure that all posts and/or questions are answered.

Weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, advice, articles and tips delivered to your inbox. It's FREE.

Updated: 11-25-2017