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How chronic migraines have shaped my financial independence

Living with headaches has changed the way I manage my money


My financial independence has been shaped by all sorts of life lessons – from my family, my job and even my disability.

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Personal finance is intricately tied to our personhood. The decisions we make about our money are inherently shaped by our personalities, values and goals as much as by external circumstances like privilege, environment and community.

My own attitude toward my finances has been shaped by these factors – the value my parents put on comfort and experiences over material things, my privileged ability to escape higher education without massive debt looming over my head, and so on.

But there’s another big part of my life and identity that affects the way I spend, save or give – my disability.

I suffer from chronic migraines. That means I experience debilitating pain, sensitivity to light and sound, fatigue and difficulty concentrating on average 15 days per month. In addition to other miscellaneous health issues, this makes my life a little more difficult.

When you spend half of your life pushing through discomfort, it alters your perception of the world and the things you value. But something I’ve come to realize only recently is how much it affects my financial independence.

Disabilities and being a woman

Let’s back up for a second and talk about why this topic is so important to To Her Credit, a publication designed to specifically address the needs of women and the unique financial challenges they face.

In the case of chronic migraine, it’s no secret that women are impacted significantly more than men. In fact, three out of four people who suffer from migraines and their associated problems are women. If that weren’t enough, Americans lose an average of 157 million days of work per year while they cope with these symptoms.

That alone opens a whole can of worms: Women already struggle to earn the same as men in a job or advance as quickly through promotions due to factors like taking time off for child care or the gender pay gap. When you add additional lost days from illness, things get a lot worse.

But that’s still not the whole story. Like many other chronic illnesses that disproportionately affect women (think Multiple Sclerosis, severe depression and fibromyalgia), chronic migraine is an invisible disability.

No one can see the pain, and that comes with a forced need for sufferers to prove its validity. Women’s health issues are often downplayed or overlooked completely, because medical professionals, employers and others are more inclined to disbelieve the severity of their struggle.

Combine that attitude with no visible symptoms, and suddenly, asking for extra time off work, flexible hours or other accommodations can be interpreted as thinly veiled laziness and is punished in that vein. (On the contrary, a Swedish study found many women with migraine work harder in their well periods to get ahead on work in case of a headache coming later.)

This lethal combination of assumptions and discrimination results in those who suffer from invisible illnesses being severely limited in their career potential – and therefore their ability to be financially successful.

My experience with disability and its impact on financial independence

I’m very lucky. My personal experience with chronic migraines could hardly be called easy, but it is so much simpler than the struggle of many others because of my privilege.

Unlike many, I have a supportive employer, partner and family who don’t doubt my problems and go above and beyond to give me the help I need when I need it. I have always had access to top-notch doctors and treatment options. When things got particularly hard this year, and I was struggling to find relief from treatments due to a completely separate heart issue, I was able to take several weeks away from work without fearing for my job security.

And I do all that with a nice financial safety net that I’ve built for myself, thanks to my aforementioned lack of student debt and plenty of financial education.

Still, with all that in my favor, there have been a lot of hard lessons I’ve had to learn from this part of my life. My migraines have forced me to rethink the way I plan everything – my diet, physical fitness, career goals, role in my household and, of course, money.

All I can do is take the way my perspective has had to change and try to turn it into a positive force, hoping that what I’ve learned along the way can help others do the same. Here are a few of the biggest takeaways that living with chronic illness has given me.

Spend: The spoon theory and granting myself grace

Perhaps the single greatest thing I’ve ever read about chronic illness is spoon theory – a metaphor used to explain life with invisible disabilities to the average person. In essence, it equates a unit of energy to something concrete you can hold in your hands: in this case, a spoon.

For most healthy people, “spoons” are nearly unlimited. You go about your day spending your spoons on tasks like making breakfast, driving to work, dropping a letter at the post office or walking your dog without worrying about how many you’ll have left when the day is over.

But for those with a chronic illness that impairs their ability to function at these kinds of basic tasks, each new day comes with a limited number of spoons you must spend with extreme care and caution. If I have five spoons for a day and spend three to get through the workday, I have to decide whether to use the two remaining at the end of the day to cook dinner and meet a friend or take a shower and fold my laundry.

You can sometimes borrow spoons from another day or bank them when you know you need more energy, but that means you have to sacrifice some and get less done on the day you steal from. No one can see it, but once you’re out of spoons, you feel emotionally and physically spent.

At my current state with my migraines, most days, it feels I barely have enough spoons to get through my eight-hour workday, much less have the energy left to cook, clean, exercise or pursue a hobby.

Living my life with such basic daily tasks undone can be very disheartening, and I could easily let my spoon shortage trash my spirits. (If I’m being honest, it does sometimes.) Or, by looking at these accomplishments as a sign of success instead of weakness, I can transform my perspective and work on my long-term betterment.

I might not have made a home-cooked meal in the last few weeks, but I made it all the way through a workday without needing a screen break (success). Exercise might be falling by the wayside, but I’m eating every day and my home, animals and self are kept alive and well (success).

The same attitude carries over into my financial life, especially in times of money stress. In a brief period without a paycheck, for instance, I could lament the many luxuries I cannot indulge in. I could curse financial priorities like bill payments that keep me from them.

Or, I can find comfort in the little things that bring me joy on a smaller scale – my book of the month subscription, takeout from my favorite restaurant or a new toy for the cats – and praise how they keep me happy without threatening the roof over my head.

Being short on spoons doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice happiness. And, more than anything, it has helped me to empathize with fellow humans on a level I didn’t before. The truth is, it is impossible to know what is affecting a person behind the scenes. What might seem like laziness to an outsider could be a side effect of chronic pain. What seems like poor decision-making and financial ignorance could be the result of a string of bad luck and poor circumstances.

Compassion and understanding – both for myself and others – are the core of spoon theory in my opinion. And these are virtues that easily carry over into my financial decisions.

Save: A security blanket is more important to me than it might be for others

It’s probably not hard to imagine that having various health problems can be expensive. Health care is already a huge expense for many women, but when you add the need for specialty treatments, prescription medications and time off work, things can get even harder.

As I’ve already mentioned, I’m really lucky to have top-notch health insurance and a good job that pays my bills. But still, I’ve had to face the fact that I need a bigger security blanket than many people my age would.

I’m only 24, and I often advise my peers to spend more on being young – traveling, embracing new freedom and so on – than society often pressures us away from. I think experiences at this point in life last a lifetime, and shaming young people for indulging in them is the exact wrong approach to teaching financial wellness. Of course, it can go too far, but no one should feel unaccomplished if their savings doesn’t yet cover six months of expenses.

And yet, there are expenses that many don’t have that I need to budget for. If I were to lose my job and insurance coverage, my migraine pain medication alone would cost more than $1,100 a month (more than my rent). That’s not taking into account the cost of any of my other prescriptions, doctors’ visits, preventative treatments or even over-the-counter pain relief. Frankly, it’s also not something I’d be able to live a comfortable life without.

With this in mind, I save a little more aggressively than many people. I have a different set of personal realities to face, and my safety net in case of unemployment or another financial downturn just needs to be bigger. For me, it wouldn’t mean sacrificing dining out or travel, it would mean sacrificing health care and quality of life.

Give: Acknowledging my privilege and helping others

I regret that I haven’t always been the best at being generous with my money. While I’ve grown to acknowledge my privilege, it took my chronic illness to really force my empathy into action.

A big part of why I helped to start To Her Credit (and why I vote the way I do, donate to the organizations I support and believe in certain policies) is my understanding that systemic inequality is rampant in our country.

Circumstances outside of our immediate control – such as systemic racism, health problems, no access to financial education – affect the way we manage our money and our access to opportunities. I feel a moral responsibility to do my part to help others who are struggling to achieve their version of financial success.

I know firsthand how messy our health care system is, how hard it is to qualify for disability benefits and how impossible it can feel to find a treatment that is both affordable and works for you. This puts me in a unique position to help others by donating to organizations that solve these problems, supporting politicians addressing change in these areas and sharing my personal story with the To Her Credit community.

If life is this hard for me, with my privilege and accommodations, I can barely comprehend what it must be like for marginalized groups. And I have the ability to use this knowledge and my money to help those who don’t have it as good as I do.

Where I’m going next and what others can take from my experience

I still have a lot to learn before I reach true financial independence. I’m just getting started in my adult life, and there are plenty of mistakes in front of me.

At the same time, I value the lessons I’ve learned that have shaped my financial well-being so far – from my family, my job and yes, even my disability.

While I know these personal values might not apply to everyone, I think some of the perspective chronic migraines has given me might help the thousands of women in this country in a similar situation, as well as those who have an entirely different set of barriers to overcome.

The most important thing I want to get across is that financial independence is a deeply personal thing. What it means for you, how you can achieve it and how you can lift up others along the way is entirely unique.

As we say so beautifully in the To Her Credit mission statement, we strive simply to use our experiences and expertise to educate women and empower them to live their best lives. Hardships and all.

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The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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