Foreword & Preface

Foreword by Bob Friedman

I will never forget meeting Ed Roberts, founder of the World Institute on Disability (WID) and the first Center for Independent Living (CIL), among many other firsts.  Then again, I suspect few people who met Ed ever forgot the experience.  He was a force of nature, and like FDR, all you really noted was his enormous vitality and determination to change the world to the way it ought to be; he might have been in a wheelchair or an iron lung, but his spirit and vision filled the room and flowed beyond.

I remember also when he returned from visiting the USSR, which had more than 20,000 people with disabilities running their own businesses, and made me promise to work with him to ensure that Americans with disabilities had the same option.  I agreed with alacrity, figuring that Ed with his incredible energy would make it happen.

I remember too, five years later, turning on NPR and learning that he had died.  I remembered the promise I made, and have to thank the authors of this book – and particularly, Thomas Foley, Anita Aarons and Neil Jacobson for helping me keep my promise to Ed, and to people with abilities everywhere.

There are really two meanings to that funny word, “assets,” and the attached strategy of asset-building.  John McKnight and his colleagues in the Asset Building Community Development field following philosopher Ivan Illich and Paolo Freiri, emphasize treating economically excluded people as assets, possessing strengths, skills, energy, and dreams to be built upon.  Then there is the definition Michael Sherraden and our colleagues in the US asset-building field use, that revolve around the ownership and growth of savings, businesses, education, homes and other financial assets.  In fact, the two definitions are joined at the hip: development is something people do, not something done to them; and the way to mark their progress is to follow the increase in business, physical, social, psychological and financial assets on their journey – the product of their own efforts and the supportiveness of the institutions and structures in the larger world. There are not many paths to greater economic well-being – education, entrepreneurship, home ownership, saving and investing are the usual suspects – but I think we would now add assistive technology and citizenship.

EQUITY: Asset Building for People with Disabilities is a long time coming, the product of at least two or three decades of work by scores of people. This is an essential, clear and practical guide for people with disabilities who want to move forward economically and bring the system along with them.  It reflects the larger theory and academic work, financial planning and budgeting, the practice of debt and credit repair, work on asset limits, retirement savings, home ownership and entrepreneurship and so much more.

I love the double meaning of the word “equity”:  fairness and ownership. We must work to include people with disabilities in the mainstream economy, not just because it is fundamentally wasteful and inhumane to exclude people from the economy, but because it is stupid: it shrinks the economy rather than expanding and growing it.  This book is an important step toward building the Opportunity Economy – an economy where everyone can play.

Preface: Getting Started

For people with disabilities, money is a tricky subject. We tend to have lower incomes than the general population, we’re more concerned with short-term survival than long-term investment, and those of us on benefits have to deal with ridiculous income and savings limits. All of this can be overwhelming, but it’s not the problem we make it out to be. See, it’s actually plenty possible to be financially successful if you have a disability. All you have to do is lock down the basics of smart budgeting and investment, then learn how to navigate the various programs to help with things like homeownership and keeping benefits.

This book was written to show you all of those skills, and more! And, after reading it, you’ll be able to build a plan that lets you manage a job, pay the bills, invest for retirement, own a home, and build a solid financial future. When you lock those things down, your life becomes more stable and secure, and so does your peace of mind.

OK, so I’m sensing that you might be skeptical. But here’s the first thing you should know going into this book: We get it. We know what it’s like to have a disability, because the EQUITY team has experienced it firsthand. We know what it’s like to try and live on SSI or SSDI. We know about and have lived and navigated the myriad labyrinth of work incentive rules. We know about asking a seemingly simple benefits question and receiving three different answers from so-called experts. We get that disabilities are expensive in significant countable and uncountable ways. We get the frustration of trying to improve our lives, seemingly two steps forward and often one step back. We get the institutional disincentives, continuing social bigotry and fear of trying to do anything too different.

Every person, every single person who’s touched this book, who helped edit, write, create, illustrate, spell check, and designed or commented on it, has a disability and gets it. But we’ve learned how to use financial tools and smart planning to build a successful life. We even wrote a book about it… That counts for something, right?

So hear this now: It doesn’t matter if you have a disability. You — the person reading this right now — have the power, opportunity, and ability to significantly improve your personal financial future. If you want to build a personal budget, you can. If you want to pay off credit card debt, you can do that! Buy a home? You can do that! Fund a retirement account, save for your kid’s college education? Anything you want to do, you can; and this book is here to help you.

Remember, personal finance isn’t bad; it’s not about greed or materialism. In fact, it kind of preaches the opposite. Personal finance is about responsibility, planning, and determination. It’s about security for you and your family’s future, control, and the freedom to make your own choices. You can tell yourself money isn’t important, but let’s face it: We all use it at some point. You might as well make it work for you, rather than just the other way around. So, here are a few things to consider.  Society has managed to convince many of us that if we just buy that next thing — the fashionable clothing, new sports car, stylish bag, exciting vacation, or particular beverage — we will be happier and more content. But here’s a little secret: Buying stuff does not make us happier.

What makes people happier and more content are options and the freedom to make decisions based on interest, rather than just economic necessity. So rather than that new car, designer jacket, or latest smart phone, what if we’d concentrate on improving our financial lives? Because you know who’s happy? It’s folks with enough in savings, who live beneath their means, and who have a financial plan.

Here’s another little secret: Small steps count, so just starting makes a huge difference! It also sets up a base and some momentum, so you can really get rolling. Because, let’s face it, it is always easier to add a dollar to an existing savings account than it is to open one up. By getting started, and slowly adding to your savings, you will also be forming a habit — a habit of saving and investing that can grow over time.

Maybe you can start by only saving $10 per month, and that’s actually a great start! Hey, it’s better than some of my friends, who have read numerous books on saving and investing, but never seem to get started. Just that $10 per month is the beginning, and then you never again have to take that first step. So now you have a base, and it can only grow from there!

So, let’s do this! Here are the basics for navigating and managing your personal finances and for taking steps to lock yours down and build a healthy financial future.

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery” — Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

  1. You can work and save, even if you’re on benefits! A lot of people with disabilities are scared to get a job because they think they might lose their benefits; and they won’t save money away because of silly asset limits. But there are plenty of programs that will let you work and build up savings and still keep things like Medicaid. So don’t avoid working and saving. Instead, learn the rules and go build a financial future!
  2. Budgeting is the key! There is one simple rule to building a financially successful life, and that is to simply spend less than you make! Aim to go above break-even, and above all, avoid debt at all cost! So, let’s give your money some direction and check out our chapter on budgeting and budgeting alternatives. Don’t worry, it’s not nearly as boring as it sounds!
  3. Pay down that debt! If you’re like the rest of us, you might not have gotten the memo on rule number one at first. Maybe you racked up some credit card or student debt that’s now holding you back? It might take some focus, but paying down debt is totally possible, and there are several super cool ways to do it in far less time than you think.
  4. Credit and your credit score are important! Now, we hear you, worrying about your credit score sounds like slightly more fun than watching grass grow (and sometimes more stressful). But it really is important and much easier to address than you may think and, most importantly, can save you a ton of money through future loans and other opportunities!
  5. Keep your financial life safe! Identity theft can happen to anyone, and people with disabilities can be particularly vulnerable. When it happens, people can steal money online or really harm your ability to get credit, housing, and more. We’ve included some easy strategies and tools to keep you and your financial reputation safe!
  6. Home ownership is for people with disabilities! Did you know that even if you’re on benefits, you can own a house? And homeownership can actually be one of your best long-term financial investments, building up a valuable asset that also improves your quality-of-life!
  7. Self-employment and part-time gigs can lead to real money! When you’re balancing a budget, cutting expenses is always a good idea. But let’s face it, sometimes you’ll need to bring in some more cash to pay the bills. Earning more money from part-time gigs or a side hustle to your nine-to-five is potentially unlimited, and there are plenty of ways to make it happen!
  8. Build savings and plan for retirement! Once you master spending less than you make, it is up to you to save the difference for the future and invest it wisely so that it can keep growing in value. Our savings and retirement chapter can help you save and even navigate things like silly asset limits!

These are eight super important points, and each has its own chapter in this book. What’s also extra-super important is that they all tie together. So you first need to balance your budget before you can save money away for retirement, and you need to build up a good credit score before you can take out an affordable mortgage. For those of you on benefits, navigating the ways to earn and save will be step one in the move to financial success. So as you flip through the chapters, think about how they all fit together, and how you can use them to build a strong financial future for yourself.

So here goes, it’s time to learn about EQUITY!


Though your mother or father probably taught you to avoid talking about money in front of polite company, talking about money is an important taboo to break in order to get yourself and your loved ones on the path to financial independence and smart financial decisions.

Starting the Money Conversation

Let’s face it: talking about money isn’t always the easiest conversation to start. This tool, thanks to our work with CFPB, gives very practical suggestions to having those discussions in an easy and straightforward manner.

Starting the Money Conversation tool (PDF)

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