How to Do Money When You Have Dyscalculia

Photo by Antoine Dautry on Unsplash.

As far as I can remember, numbers have meant absolutely nothing to me. I’m frequently late to social events, meetings, and nail appointments. I get lost at my place of work, at least once a week. When I pay for things in cash, there’s a good chance I under pay. Some may read these behaviors as a reflection of poor character, but the reality is I have a learning disability called dyscalculia.

Dyscalculia is a neurological disorder that impacts working memory and the ability to understand mathematical facts. I come from a family with high prevalence of dyslexia, which functions similarly. In my case, I flew under the radar for the first 24 years of my life, and wasn’t diagnosed until my last year of college.

While I excelled in a lot of areas, I could never understand math. The neuropsychologist that diagnosed me told me that because I was quiet, female, and otherwise grasping concepts, my teachers probably just believed that girls weren’t good at math and left it at that. This diagnosis has helped me in a big way, but I’m still working on skills to deal with it, especially with money.

Since I’ve been diagnosed, dealing with money has been a long, expensive, and confusing journey. While I struggle (like many other Millennials) with student loans and rising housing costs, I lack financial awareness. If I have a basket full of groceries, I can’t guess how much I’m spending. If I have an emergency, I have no idea how much it’ll take from my account. Having to make fast-paced financial decisions gives me intense anxiety. The years I spent faking my math skills in school have led me to say “yes” too many times to things I haven’t factored into my budget. After years of trying to convince teachers that I knew what was going on, I learned that numbers are not data to be analyzed, but something to react to. And I always tried to react positively.

When it comes to student debt and savings, it has taken me too long to find a less emotionally driven method. After college, I suddenly had to discover a new way to do money. I qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness from the federal government, which puts me on an income-based repayment plan. For most of my first year in repayment, I was so paranoid I was underpaying my debt that I overpaid every month to make sure I didn’t mess up. It’s as if I missed the “income-based” part of my plan. In hindsight, that is money that could have been put into savings for future housing or health issues. Technically there isn’t anything wrong with being overzealous about paying debt, but I wasn’t bothering to learn about how to use my money; I was reacting.

This emotion-based method to personal finance caused me to have a binge-and-purge relationship with my savings account. I would anxiously put money away and then drain my account to anxiously pay off a debt. I wasn’t learning how to budget; I was learning to constantly act like I was in a crisis. It never occurred to me that debt can be something you chip away at, and that I can both save money and repay my debts at the same time. I didn’t look at a savings account as an emergency fund with a goal to reach, but as a comfort tool to help me deal with my money fears.

I’ve made a lot of big changes in how I cope with the confusion that surrounds money. I’ve figured out budgeting and how to manipulate information so I can comprehend it. That means I’ve stopped trying mental math, and submitted to using technology or asking for help without feeling ashamed.

Admitting that mental math is a non-starter created a lot of forward motion for me. I’ve stopped trying to shame myself for a skill I don’t have, and started relying on calculators instead of trying to guess (or fake) numbers. I also use an app from my bank to stick to a budget. I’ve set my current budget a little low so that I can start to develop an idea of where my money goes every month without accidentally overspending. It’s still a challenge to understand the additions and subtractions of larger things, like rent and paychecks, so I put it all into my calendar to keep track.

Most importantly, I’ve learned to admit when I feel my limit. That means I no longer automatically say “yes” to expensive social events without looking at my finances. And if I struggle to visualize a concept at work, I ask for someone to break it down for me in a different way.

Along the way, I’ve made a lot of poorly informed choices, like choosing over-priced gyms, not questioning a high cell phone bill, or buying things without budgeting for them. A lot of the financial issues I face are no different from anyone else in America, but I have had to learn how to find solutions that work for someone who barely understands multiplication. I had to shed old ideas in order to grow, and to discover that I am not alone in my learning disability—or my financial life.

Elizabeth Bennett lives, works, writes, and watches the Celtics in Boston.

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