Chronic pain and personal finance

Chronic Pain Challenged us to Build a Simpler Life

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A simple life goes against many aspects of my nature. I love travel, adventures, and have a million hobbies. Well, okay, one million may be an exaggeration, but I am very good at keeping myself busy. Seeking financial independence involves taking control of your own life, but when chronic pain is present, that control is never fully realized.

chronic pain and personal finance is sometimes cluttered
Embracing each day and accepting what it offers helps us cope with chronic pain.

Chronic pain may take the form of something else for you. Every story has its unique challenge that motivates you to run to FIRE (Financial Independence/Early Retirement) faster, or complicates and slows your path. Unfortunately, personal finance is often ignored when dealing with a chronic medical condition (or insert your own challenge).

Our pack consists of a perfectionist (Mr. Kiwi), a planner/control freak (me), and two dogs. Well, the dogs, they are easy to deal with, but the humans require a bit more communication and love to lead a healthy life. A little over three years ago an unwelcome element was added to the pack: New Daily Persistent Headache (NDPH).

We were not yet on the financial independence path and chronic pain pushed us to start questioning everything.


Daily Life with Chronic Pain*

Each day varies substantially for our pack, and making long term plans is stressful for Mr. Kiwi. I, on the other hand, love setting goals and making plans. We’ve had to adjust and simplify to accommodate both of our needs.

At the start of the headache we kept gallivanting and going out of town 2-3 weekends each month to see friends and the world. Unfortunately, this lifestyle did not allow for resting and self-care that is needed after a long work week with chronic pain. Chronic pain means daily detailed tracking

Every blog that discusses financial independence talks about the importance of goal setting. However, goals are tough to envision, when they also come with the weight of realizing you will still have that headache. A few facts about NDPH:

  • Headache onset is abrupt and the sufferer can remember the exact day it started (check)
  • There is no specific medical treatment, treatment is similar to that given to migraine sufferers
  • Most people (including Mr. Kiwi) have a headache every minute of every day, but some have a relapsing/remitting headache
  • Few patients ever remit – AKA: expect the headache for the rest of your life

Since the headache is here to stay, we’ve devoted hours upon hours to learn coping methods, acceptance, patience, meditation, yoga, and in therapy.

I’ve taken up 80% of the household chores/tasks, even though we work similar full time jobs. This shows that our division of labor is nowhere near equal, but it’s what needs to happen for us to have a double income household. We have run through the option of Mr. Kiwi going part time, trying to get social security disability, or just playing the role of house husband for now. But he wants to work full time, and I do what I can to make that an option. (The feminist in me has struggled with this, but I realize this is my choice, and thus a very feminist choice.)

Lessons Learned from Three Years of Chronic Pain

We’ve learned a lot from dealing with chronic pain, and I’m sure we’ll continue to learn and grow. The first year of constant pain was the easiest, since we had lots of hope it would go away. The second year was defeating, and now we are back on the upswing. We are nowhere near perfect.

If you’ve coped with chronic pain, I’m sure you can relate. And I’d love to hear your methods for finding happiness with the pain.

  • The pain will increase and decrease throughout the day and is unpredictable. Just because last week you could have gone apple picking, that doesn’t mean that you will feel good enough to do that this weekend.
  • Learning to say no to family and friends (including your spouse) is key. Both parties need to be able to safely express themselves and do things independently.
  • Having a job to go to every day helps to stay accountable. It is nice to take time off, but hobbies are done much slower, and sometimes that extra motivator of others counting on you is needed.
  • Full time work is draining. So having options and a high savings rate is helpful.
  • Money cannot solve your problems, trust me. We’ve thrown lots of money at this headache, sought treatment from leading hospitals, and tried lots of doctor recommendations. We are still seeking treatment, which mostly includes fun things like trying new prescriptions.

    Find the adventure and trip nearby
    Life, much like this river, doesn’t always follow the smoothest path. Sometimes you need to find happiness today.
  • You’ll go through waves where you aggressively seek treatment and hope that something will work, but you’ll also have times where you step back, get upset, and then practice acceptance.
  • People in your life may not be able to hear your story. They may be too close to fully process what you are going through. It’s okay, people have limitations, they still love and care about you.
  • Be grateful for the good days, but don’t push yourself too hard.
  • Take time to care for your mental health. We do this by:
    • Meditating
    • Yin yoga (other yoga is too active)
    • Writing
    • Cooking
    • Gardening
    • Programming
    • Tinkering with electronics
    • Therapy (a worthy expense, the others are essentially free)
  • Challenge everything: medical bills, your physical abilities, diet, exercise, and work environment.
  • You may need to find a new job that allows you to cope better with the pain.
  • People may be in pain and show no outward signs.
  • Simplify your life and pursue what brings you joy.
  • It gets easier, then harder, then easier, the cycle will continue.
  • Some days the list above will feel like utter B.S.

How does NDPH or chronic pain impact FIRE?

We were not specifically seeking FIRE, and hadn’t even heard of the movement before the headache onset, but FIRE has allowed us (ahem, me) to control at least one aspect of our lives. Having some control is helpful, especially when working 40 hours per week is draining with chronic pain.

Keeping records helps to manage chronic pain and secure better care from doctors
Is this a graph of a stock price or our portfolio fluctuating? No, it’s a daily pain chart! Doctors give us weird looks.

Chronic pain has likely sped up our savings by helping us focus, constantly evaluate, and change direction.

We’ve learned the benefits from accountability tracking. Throughout the three years doctors have had Mr. Kiwi logging his pain, food, and water intake throughout the day. It’s helped us manage his treatment, which made logging our detailed spending more approachable.

Pain has helped us practice our patience and get used to suffering. This in turn has helped us chug away at working. Things in life don’t necessarily come easy.

The patience we’ve learned has helped us to enjoy the path to FI. Often, once you discover FIRE and read other people’s inspiring stories, you may get frustrated and want to be at the finish line too. Unfortunately, it typically takes years to get there. Playing the comparison game in the FIRE world is easy (and you will likely be able to find someone who played the game better). The chronic pain has shown us that every journey/day is different and we need to enjoy the process. It’s funny how at one time you accepted that you would work until you turn 65, now you feel like a failure if you don’t reach FI by 30.

Chronic Pain and Money

Getting your finances in control, eliminating debt, and having a large emergency fund had helps to give you options. I argue that if you suffer from a chronic medical condition those options are even more important. Money and Chronic Pain

When daily life is painful, it may be tempting to spend more money on “luxuries.” But money alsocan’t buy you happiness. Gaining a handle on personal finance should be a priority for all people with a chronic medical condition they will need to manage.

Now that we are roughly half-FI, we have the option of becoming a single income household, while not slowing our journey too dramatically. If the pain worsens or our quality of life decreases, we can make a change. Having saved so much money over the past few years frees us from needing to continue making it, or at least at full time salaries.

While, hopefully, you won’t face medical challenges in the future, having the money to seek treatment helps alleviate a large burden. We typically are able to stick to in-network doctors, so we know the max out of pocket we will pay every year. But we’ve also elected to try some things before knowing what our costs would be. It’s (almost) always worked out in the end and been covered, even the acupuncture, but we have the savings and knowledge to try other treatments.

Having an understanding of the tax code and not living paycheck to paycheck enables us to fund our flexible spending accounts, and pay our medical bills with pre-tax money. We love optimizing our finances and reducing our tax burden.

Due to the health care system in the United States, we do feel tied to having a job with reliable health insurance in the near future. Things are currently unpredictable with our government, and as people that use our health insurance, the added stress of not having employer sponsored health insurance isn’t worth it.

I should Note – We have a lot of Privilege

Also, I will say that our path also includes a lot of privilege. We both grew up in families that expected us to go to college, even though we had to pay for the bulk of it ourselves. Just growing up white, in the US, cisgender, and straight means we started from a place of incredible privilege.

We are grateful we found FIRE in our mid-twenties, which makes early retirement an option. Many suffering from chronic pain do not have our advantages, and I would love to hear all of your stories.

FIRE Fits Us

The chronic pain is something we both cope with, and we are on the journey together. I’m fortunate enough to only carry the burden of loving, *mostly* supportive, partner.

Financial independence allows us to be prepared for medical expenses. If we didn’t have such a high savings rate we would feel trapped by pain and work. Since we can’t control the pain, we choose to influence the work we do.

Simplifying our lives has freed up our time. Now, we don’t run around checking off massive to-do lists. We try to enjoy our weekends and evenings, pursuing our passions slowly.

Life is short and the good pain days are too few. Hopefully, FIRE will give us back as many of the good days as possible. We don’t want to spend the good days trapped in a cubicle.

The journey with chronic pain and seeking financial freedom has taught us:

To accept that it’s not going to be perfect, but have the courage to try something.


What motivates you to seek FIRE?

*Please remember I’m not a medical doctor, this is not meant to provide medical recommendations. Please talk to your doctor about your specific needs. Every case is unique and what works for us may not work for you.

10 comments on “Chronic Pain Challenged us to Build a Simpler Life”

  1. Wow! I had no idea….our plans were kind of put on hold or derailed for the exact same reason eleven months ago. We were always planning on working until a certain time then retiring to Hawaii. Now its tougher to think about what we want to do post retirement. I was very happy she had already retired before her onset and we’re already at FI and doing a little padding. I really appreciate this post.

    Has your husband explored the possibility of a Spinal CSF leak? My wife was misdiagnosed for months included NDPH before we got the correct diagnosis. She is still in pain every day, but its getting better each week and we’re nine weeks out from visiting Duke University. Feel free to message me if you want any help.

    1. Reply

      Wow, thanks for taking the time to reach out. He has not looked at that. I will definitely reach out! (And I love the name of your blog! Even though I’m too lazy to iron now.)

  2. Reply

    Sorry to hear what Mr Kiwi has go through every day. I get headaches and migraines more often than I would like but at least it’s not daily.

    Good to see you guys have been able to pull through and even got yourself on a FIRE path! Rooting for you!!!

    1. Reply

      Thank you so much!

  3. I’m so glad that Stop Ironing Shirts shared your link! I’ve lived with chronic pain for about 20 years and it’s DEFINITELY had a huge impact on my life path – changed majors, changed career path, changed life expectations, etc. It has absolutely led me to be better about taking on commitments, stop saying Yes to everyone, being ruthless about prioritizing my health so that I can actually be present for my family. It’s also led me to stop being a workaholic and embrace the idea of FIRE. Ten or so years ago that was unthinkable. I even blogged about how I’d never stop working – clearly I was still in the denial phase of my illness šŸ™‚ Please do keep talking about this. More of our voices need to fill in the PF space.

    1. Reply

      Thanks! And I’m sorry to hear that you are also a chronic pain sufferer. Denial is real! Thanks for the encouragement, I will definitely write more about this!

    • frances
    • 2017-11-09

    I came over here from a Gai Shan life, first time reader. I am gonna do what I did over there and just mention something you might not have heard of before for the next time you are in a ‘try new treatments mode!’ for pain (and you can ignore this comment if you’re not in that mood šŸ™‚ — alexander technique. changed my chronic hip pain, though it requires tooons of practice and patience, and often I don’t have those… here’s a link to a chronic migraine sufferer’s experience:

    …now I feel like the ‘random commenter who is always recommend Alexander Technique šŸ˜‰ But so few people have heard of it, I figure I’m at least not being pesky suggesting things people already know about šŸ™‚

    1. Reply

      No I have never heard of the Alexander Technique! Thank you for sharing and I think it is definitely something we will explore! We seriously appreciate all ideas, but definitely move at our own schedule for pursuing them, since it can be overwhelming and stressful (stress triggers worse headaches).

      Thank you so much! And I’m glad you came over here and commented!

    • Trace
    • 2017-11-12

    Thanks for this post, I have a chronic illness (Fibromyalgia) which is really changing things for me and has focussed my mind on FIRE! Not sure if you have access to a person who does Orthobionomy – this is what I use as part of my treatment plan. Google it, quite random but this treatment has really made life much more bearable. Also I am from New Zealand, we call ourselves Kiwis… Iā€™m intrigued by how you came up with your names, you appear to be American… it was your name which drew me to you. Best wishes on your journey

    1. Reply

      Sorry about the name confusion! We get a lot of Kiwis reading our blog, apparently I was too tricky! I chose the blog name based on where my husband and I met (the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan). It is pronounced “Kiwi-naw” and we named our first dog Keweenaw, but he also answers to Kiwi. We also try to eat healthy and love kiwi fruit, thus the name.

      I am so sorry you are also struggling with a chronic illness, but I’m glad to hear you have focused on FIRE too! It looks like there’s nobody within 100 miles of us who practices Orthobionomy, but we will mention it at our next doctor’s appointment this month to see if our specialist knows of anyone! Thank you!

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