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Published 29 November 2023
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Living with a Chronic Illness? Find out How to Manage Unexpected Expenses

If you are living with a long-term health condition, you can be particularly vulnerable to any unexpected expenses. We hear from two women about their experiences of claiming benefits and how they cope when they need to pay bills they hadn’t planned for.

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More than 2.5 million people in the UK are unable to work because of long-term sickness, according to Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures from spring 2023. An increase of over 400,000 since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Not only may their health conditions pose a day-to-day challenge, but many of these individuals may also have to navigate the benefits system to stay financially afloat.  

And those unable to work because of long-term sickness often face additional essential living costs too, such as regularly paying for hospital parking and prescription charges. This combined financial pressure can leave them at a higher risk of falling into problem debt if their bills rise or they’re faced with an unexpected expense. 

Pam Brown, a former NHS agency nurse from Northern Ireland, has been unable to work for almost four years. She has diabetes, which has weakened her immune system and caused her to lose sight in one eye and start to lose sight in the other. Because she was on a zero-hours contract, Pam lost all her income when she stopped working. 

It took Pam around 12 weeks to claim her Personal Independence Payment (PIP), a benefit payment to help cover the cost of everyday life for those with an illness, disability or mental health condition, and she describes the process as “difficult” and “stressful”. She had to send doctor’s letters, surgery appointments, and letters from nurses who have cared for her, with her claim and, after an assessment over the phone, she was eventually put on the higher rate of PIP.

Although Pam’s claim was successful, it’s not the same story for everyone. 

Jamie Thunder, policy and public affairs officer at anti-poverty charity Z2K said in an email to NerdWallet that “…many people find that they get less [PIP] than they’re entitled to when they apply, or even get rejected altogether, so have to challenge the decision.

“Even if DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] gets it right the first time, it can take a few months between applying and a decision being made.”

Check your entitlements

In addition to PIP (in Scotland, it’s now known as Adult Disability Payment), people with long-term health conditions may be able to claim universal credit plus an additional amount if they have a health condition or disability that affects their ability to work.

Thunder comments that, even though it’s usually more straightforward to apply for universal credit than PIP, it could still take five weeks to receive your first payment. “In that time, you can get an Advance Payment to help, but it will be taken back from your universal credit over the next 24 months,” he continues.

It can be confusing to know what benefits you can claim, but organisations such as Turn2Us and entitled to have free calculators to help you work out what benefits you can claim. It may also be worth getting professional advice on your situation if you need extra help.

Sebrina McCullough, head of external relations at Money Wellness, an organisation providing free debt advice, highlighted in an email to NerdWallet some other sources of financial support: “As well as  benefits, people should get in touch with their local council to see what help is available from the Household Support Fund.”

She added that options can vary by location because councils are free to choose what to fund in their area, “…but it could include cash or vouchers that can be used to help with bills, food, and clothing”.

McCullough also pointed out that several charities offer grants and financial support to those who are financially vulnerable.

It’s also worth contacting your utility providers to explain your situation as you may qualify for extra help. For example, you may be able to switch to a cheaper social tariff and there are several energy support schemes designed to help vulnerable customers with their bills. 

What if the support isn’t enough?

Even if you’re claiming all the support you’re entitled to, it can still be a struggle to cover any unexpected expenses. Some people may have an emergency savings fund or may be able to get help from friends or family, but others may see no other option except to apply for a loan or credit card.

But before borrowing money, it’s important to research and compare options so you choose the best course of action for you. There are a range of providers that you can borrow from, even if you have a less-than-perfect credit history, including credit unions and other responsible lenders.

Anita Peall, a former theatre support worker from Kent, lives with her husband, their two teenage children and five-year-old grandson, and has multiple health conditions that prevent her from working, including arthritis, nerve damage and depression. 

Even though Anita receives universal credit, as well as a higher rate of PIP for both the mobility and daily living parts of this payment, she was sleeping on the sofa each night because she couldn’t afford to buy a new mattress. 

Anita eventually managed to pay for the mattress by borrowing from Fair for You, a not-for-profit credit provider that offers finance for buying household items. She repaid around £5 a week over one year to pay off the loan and has since used the lender to cover other costs, such as a new cooker.

Even though a lender like this can be helpful and often a cheaper alternative to a high-interest payday lender, it’s still worth considering other options. Depending on your credit score and financial situation, a personal loan or credit card may be a more suitable choice.

But it’s important that you only borrow money if you can afford to repay it in full. Borrowing may not always be the right option and could even make your situation worse. If you’re struggling with your finances and you’re not sure what to do, it’s worth getting professional advice. Several local and national organisations can offer free debt advice and help you figure out the most suitable option for you, including Citizens Advice, StepChange and National Debtline.

Image source: Getty Images

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