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How to Live Frugally (but Happily) with MS

Reading time | 6 mins

I am bombarded almost daily with adverts about how to retire early, how to get rich fast, or how to become financially independent. It is continuous and, to be fair, mostly my own fault. I imagine there are cookies scattered all over my hard drive because of all the time I spent searching for ways to earn money while being sick.

Living with a chronic illness like multiple sclerosis – with added chronic pain – makes working in a traditional job very difficult. The world of work typically requires the strength of your back and the might of your brain in order to earn a living wage. My work required the use of my brain – concentrating on problems and finding solutions.

Finding MS-friendly work opportunities

Unfortunately my condition has made both those things impossible. Concentrating for longer than 15-30 minutes brings on a headache that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. So instead, I found a solution to earning an income that involved door-to-door surveys: I could use the strength in my legs to take me to the people who could answer my questions. Eventually though, MS put an end to this and took my mobility away, casting it onto the metaphoric pile of rubble that my working life had become. 

This dilemma caused me to start searching the web for suitable work that could bring in some extra income to supplement my disability allowance. It has been a difficult journey, but I now work 7.5 hours a week as a Research Assistant on a new study about cognition and MS at my local university. This solves two problems for me. It means I get the extra income and it has very positive impact on my mental health.

Dreaming of financial independence

While I was searching for extra income to keep me comfortable, I came across the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) concept. The concept follows two principles:

  1. Live as frugally as possible.
  2. Invest income that you don’t spend into something which – thanks to the power of compounding – creates a fund of money which should generate an income to live on without having to work. 

This caused me to take a look at my life to see if I could achieve this goal. My income is small. Very small. I receive modest financial support from the government, and with my new job at the university I have been able to increase my overall income slightly. However this still falls far short of the minimum wage in Ireland.

How could I possibly save on this?

Then, a revelation

After some reflection, it hit me. I realised that I have already achieved FIRE. Being medically retired means I cannot work, yet I do have a stable income. Because I have learned to be frugal, I am now bringing in just a little bit more than I spend… Just.

I have achieved the average Millennial’s goal of financial independence.

As humans, we have the gift of story, and with the power of our minds we can create whole new worlds, undreamed by anyone. With this talent I am sculpting a story around my life so I feel content, happy, and maybe even a little smug. 

It’s true that I’m not in this place because of a conscious choice. I never wished to have MS, nor did I want to be in a car accident which causes me never-ending pain. Millennials might make the decision to strive for FIRE, but not me. This medical situation was thrust upon me, and now I have to find a way I can live this life with some amount of joy, and even gratitude.

I already have all the things I need

In my life I need a few things. Food, shelter, heat and medical care. I have all of these and by no means are they basic. In our home we eat very well - fresh vegetables (organic if we can) and meat (usually free-range). We even make our own yoghurt from almond milk. A luxury diet that even includes cake!

Our home is warm and comfortable, and because I have a medical card I do not have to worry about paying for my care. Last week the Occupational Therapist visited and realised I needed a stool for my shower and a perching chair for the kitchen. Within a few hours they arrived. Not bad, really. On top of that, my medicine is almost free.

What about the luxuries?

Cake – tick. Holidays – tick (in fact we just got back from the USA). I can even afford to buy new clothes and insure my car. On the surface life is good. I choose to work to allow for those few extra luxuries, but I don’t have a massive income. And neither does my partner.

Don’t get me wrong - not everyone who lives with a chronic illness will be able to afford these kind of luxuries all the time. But with a slight change in mindset, it is possible to lead a more frugal and (hopefully!) financially stable life.

My top money saving tips

Plan, plan, plan

You’ll need to figure out what you will be spending every week, and what you expect the big bills to be. For me, car insurance is a big cost (about €500 per year), so every month I put some money into a separate savings account for this. I prefer not to use monthly payment plans because the extra charges can be huge, and I’d rather have the money in my pocket!

Another big bill in the winter, specifically, is heating. I deposit money with the oil company in advance every month, so I can make an order at any time. Pre-paying for things like utility bills means avoiding big costs building up, making for a much less stressful life - which is very important when you live with MS.

Bulk buy

In my opinion, rich people spend less money on things because they negotiate discounts on bulk orders. Instead of buying a small four pack of toilet rolls, they’ll buy 24. Even for heating oil (as mentioned above), buying a full tank means you’ll save a few cents per litre. These small savings add up and allow me to save for the bigger things.

Discount shopping

Yes, I do trawl through the discount bins in shops looking for great deals. The reduced aisle in the supermarket is always a good place to find discounted food and drink that is still within its sell-by date.

Buy better, buy less

My current focus is on Merino wool products. I have found a pair of socks made from this material and they come with a lifetime warranty. They were expensive to buy initially, but I will never have to replace them (wahoo!). They also don’t need to be washed as often (this type of wool is antimicrobial and doesn’t smell as easily), which means another saving on laundry bills. They also have additional benefits for me as my MS make it harder to keep my feet warm. Keeping my feet nice and toasty also saves on heating costs as the house doesn’t have to be so hot.

The takeaway

I’ve realised that my mindset is crucial to making this story a success. Focusing on the positives and being grateful for what I do have, makes me see the good side of life.

There are days when I fail at being positive, and they are dark. All I can see is the pain, the lost mobility, and the unproductive days, with no prospect of change. It’s horrible. My eyes moisten, my hands tremble and I grasp the duvet and pull it around me, although it gives no comfort. These are hard days. 

Yet, somehow, I manage to dig deep, rebooting myself and shedding the cloak of despair. I will not allow the negativity take precedence. I find the good things, the positives. And even though I am fifty and medically retired, these days I see myself as a young Millennial.

In my eyes I have achieved financial independence.

UK/MED/19/0292 November 2019