25 years old living with a disability and earning $ 33,000 in Chicago

This story is part of CNBC Make It’s Millennium Money series, which details how people around the world earn, spend and save money.

Britt Dorton, 25, is meticulous about her budget. She has multiple spreadsheets to document her income, bills, and goals, and feels comfortable knowing that every dollar is accounted for.

For Dorton, planning ahead financially has been a huge part of her life since being diagnosed with two chronic illnesses as a teenager. Dorton lives with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, an inherited degenerative disease that affects his connective tissue, and Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, or CRPS, an acquired chronic nerve pain disorder.

“My disabilities affect every aspect of my life, including my finances,” Dorton told CNBC Make It. “Unless you’ve lived with a chronic illness or someone you love has it, I don’t think a lot of people realize how expensive it is to be sick or disabled. . “

There are obvious medical costs – doctor’s appointments (Dorton gets spinal injections three to four times a year to manage his pain, which cost $ 1,200 per session), medication ($ 60 to $ 150 per month) , emergency hospital stays ($ 300 per visit) – totaling several thousand dollars per year.

There are also many hidden costs such as physical therapy, braces, orthopedic shoes to prevent dislocations, an Apple Watch to track Dorton’s heart rate and oxygen levels, or ergonomic equipment for her to use. work from home.

Britt Dorton, 25, is a disability justice lawyer and paralegal in Chicago.

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Here’s how Dorton balances health care costs, daily expenses, and his plans to attend law school while living on $ 33,000 a year in Chicago.

Making a living in Chicago

Dorton graduated from the University of Chicago in 2020 and started working for a legal aid clinic. Over the summer, she quit and accepted a part-time paralegal job at a civil rights firm so that she could focus on studying for LSAT. After passing the entrance exam in October, she switched to working full-time for the company.

She also earns up to $ 1,200 per month through ancillary activities, including freelancing on social media for a lawyer, being a sensitivity reader for a YA novel on chronic disease and disability, and by serving advertisements and sponsored content on their personal social media platforms.

Dorton won’t start law school for another year, but that’s already a huge factor in his budget. She spent nearly $ 3,000 on prep, taking the LSAT and law school fees before she even set foot on campus. Then there’s the estimated $ 200,000 tuition fee, which she hopes to cover with as many scholarships, grants, scholarships, and other forms of financial aid as possible, before inevitably turning to student loans.

Dorton doesn’t expect to make a lot of money once she becomes a lawyer – she wants to do pro bono community service advocating for disability and the rights of detainees. It is not exactly a lucrative field.

“As a chronically ill and disabled person, working for my community and advocating for justice for people with disabilities is something that is really important to me,” Dorton said.

Living on just $ 33,000 in Chicago forces Dorton to be strict with his budget, but “it’s not impossible.”

How she spends her money

Here’s a look at how Dorton typically spends his money, as of September 2021.

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  • Lodging: $ 1,016 for rent on a studio and electricity
  • Discretionary: $ 231 on shopping, entertainment, LSAT preparation classes, and donations to disability and prisoner rights groups
  • Savings: $ 160
  • Medical debt: $ 150 on his balance of $ 2,500
  • Food: $ 135 for groceries and take-out meals
  • Subscriptions: $ 34 for Amazon Prime, Adobe and Spotify
  • Metro: $ 5

Dorton’s biggest expense is paying a little over $ 1,000 to live alone in a high-rise building. The cost is well worth it for her health – living with roommates during the pandemic as a high-risk person was not good for her well-being, she says, and she has to live in an accessible building with an elevator, which limits its options for more affordable spaces.

Dorton cut social spending during the pandemic by cooking at home and walking instead of taking public transport or carpools. She is currently saving 10% of her take-home pay, or $ 160 in September, in an account she opened while studying, where she hid nearly $ 15,000.

Dorton feels lucky to still be in her parents’ health insurance plan, but that will end when she turns 26 next year, and she will have to find law school coverage. She spends $ 300 to $ 500 on medical care per month, which she puts on a payment plan. She pays $ 150 for her medical debt each month, which has a balance of $ 2,500. She doesn’t think she will ever repay him.

“Much of the work I have put into paying down this debt is undone by running expenses,” Dorton said.

Dorton also has $ 6,000 in remaining undergraduate student debt, but is not making repayments on his federal loans while they are on hiatus until January 31.

Britt Dorton plans to become a lawyer specializing in disability justice and inmate rights.

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Despite his heavy recurring expenses, Dorton balances discipline and pleasure. “If living with a chronic disease has taught me anything, it’s that life is very unpredictable and it’s important to enjoy it while you can,” she says.

She makes room in her budget for hobbies like baking, painting, and experimenting with friends. His latest craze: concert tickets to see Lorde on tour in Chicago.

Living with chronic illness is unpredictable

The astronomical cost of care is at the heart of Dorton’s advocacy work.

“No one should have to choose between getting the care they need or going to a doctor and paying for other expenses,” Dorton said. “But with the cost of medical care in the United States, unfortunately, this is a decision that I and many others have had to make.”

She also wants to confront the misconception of what people think it means to live with a chronic illness, sometimes called an invisible disability.

Britt Dorton works from home as a paralegal for a civil rights firm.

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Dorton’s symptoms are not always obvious. With Ehlers-Danlos, she may experience pain and dislocations from simple activities like sitting or standing for too long. With CRPS, she has a constant burning sensation in her left leg, which she rates at seven or eight on a 10-point pain scale.

“Just because I look good doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on underneath,” Dorton said. “When you live with chronic illnesses you get very good at pretending… But I wish more people would understand that just because we smile, we work, we go all day, it doesn’t. that we don’t treat pain on a regular basis. ”

Financially independent at 19

Dorton grew up outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, knowing that she would be pretty much on her own financially after high school. Her parents never opened a college savings account for her, so she was on the verge of getting scholarships, financial aid, and part-time jobs to pay for her education.

A few days before she was supposed to move to college, she dislocated her left knee and destroyed the ligaments simply by standing for an extended period of time.

While she had suffered spontaneous joint dislocations since college and had seen specialists over the years, the accident was the first time that medical professionals determined it was caused by Ehlers-Danlos and prescribed a plan. Management. She took a year off to undergo three surgeries and daily physical therapy.

The high cost of healthcare is at the heart of Britt Dorton’s disability advocacy work. “No one should have to choose between getting the care they need or going to a doctor and paying for other expenses,” she says.

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Now, in addition to paying for her studies herself, she also had medical expenses.

At 19, Dorton was an expert in deciphering insurance plans and hospital bills. Some nights she wondered if her pain was severe enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room and, if so, what she would have to cut from her budget to pay the co-pay.

Discussing the cost of child care with his parents and the stress it puts on his budget is a touchy subject, Dorton says. Her parents are trying to help her find ways to cut expenses, but they are unable to provide financial support beyond covering her insurance premiums.

These days, Dorton surrounds himself with friends who understand her illness and can support her by texting her encouraging or staying with her in the hospital. “It really means a lot to me to know that I have people by my side, that I have a community that can be there for me, even when my family is far from the United States and I am sailing alone in these great and scary things. “

Look ahead

Dorton’s short-term financial goal is to have enough savings to cover living expenses while studying law. She wants to graduate with as little student debt as possible and eventually pay it off. She doesn’t think she will ever fully repay her medical debt, but she will continue to reduce it.

I want to be in a place where, in a medical emergency, I don’t have to think about it, can I afford it?

She doesn’t expect a big corporate salary after graduation, but thinks her chosen career path is worth it because it’s the job I care about so much. , defend the communities that are close to my heart, so I am preparing for it. financial burden. “

Over time, she hopes to start investing, saving for retirement, and making larger charitable contributions on a regular basis.

Britt Dorton hopes to dispel misconceptions about what it means to live with chronic disease: “I wish more people understood that just because we smile, we work, we go all day, doesn’t mean we don’t. not treat pain on a regular basis. “

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