Supporting Neurodivergent People in Personal Finance
People with learning disabilities are part of a neurodiverse community, which refers to the diversity and variation of cognitive functioning in people. Some learning disabilities are dysgraphia, dyscalculia, dyslexia, language processing disorder, auditory processing disorder, visual perceptual/visual motor deficit and other nonverbal learning disabilities.
Financial tasks, such as budgeting, investing and calculating money, can be difficult — both doing and understanding the tasks. To help neurodivergent people, start with developing their independence on how living on their own will be like. Introduce what needs to be paid first — such as bills and mortgage/rent payments — and common financial concepts and terms — such as how credit card interest work or how quickly debt can accumulate over time if not paid off.
Understanding Types of Learning Disabilities
Learning disabilities run the gamut from trouble processing language and math to auditory and visual deficit disorders. Dysgraphia, dyscalculia, dyslexia, language processing disorder, auditory processing disorder, visual perceptual/visual motor deficit and nonverbal learning disabilities are the most common learning disabilities.
- Dyslexia and dysgraphia are language and writing processing disorders.
- Dyscalculia encompasses learning disabilities related to numbers, math concepts and reasoning.
- Auditory processing and language processing disorders result in people having difficulty processing sounds and spoken language, respectively.
- Nonverbal disabilities refer to difficulties in interpreting body language, facial expressions and other forms of nonverbal communication.
One in 10 people has dyslexia, which is the most common — and commonly known — learning disability and is a language-based learning disability. People who are dyslexic can have trouble reading, spelling, writing and with word recognition.
According to the International Dyslexia Association, dyslexia is defined as being “a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede the growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”
Another type of learning disability is dysgraphia, which is when people have trouble with writing, such as handwriting, typing and spelling. People who have dysgraphia might write more slowly than others and have trouble expressing themselves via the written word. These challenges typically are caused by motor skills impairment as fine motor skills are necessary for holding writing tools and for writing and spacing letters properly.
But these challenges can affect the way a dyslexic or a dysgraphic understands their finances as well by paying more than something is worth, not understanding how credit works or incorrectly estimating the costs of groceries.
Dyscalculia refers to learning disabilities related to mathematics and people who have dyscalculia have a hard time reading clocks to tell time, counting money, seeing patterns, solving math in their heads and struggling with numbers and reasoning.
According to Dyscalculia.org, signs of dyscalculia include:
- Inability to do mental figuring.
- Using fingers or marks to calculate.
- Struggles with money handling such as making change; calculating tax, tips, discounts and conversions; poor financial planning and budget management.
- Avoiding cash.
- Insufficient working memory and imperfect sequential memory.
- Visual-spatial processing difficulty.
Addressing Challenges in Personal Finance
Learning disabilities like dyscalculia, dyslexia and dysgraphia can make managing finances and financial literacy difficult for people. Not understanding how to create (and track) a budget, overly relying on family members for help in financial matters, being victims of fraud and not understanding the terms of loans and credit can be real financial challenges for people who have learning disabilities.
According to the 2018 academic paper “Financial capability and functional financial literacy in young adults with developmental language disorder,” some young adults with developmental language disorder lack functional financial skills and require support to successfully manage their finances: “Compared to typically developing age matched peers, young people with developmental language disorder report less extensive engagement with financial products and lower competence in functional financial literacy.”
Neurodivergent people seek family financial assistance.
48% of people who have developmental language disorder (vs. 16% of age-matched peers) reported that they draw on support, primarily from parents, in various financial tasks including paying bills, choosing financial products and taking loans from family or friends.
Budgeting can be difficult.
This can stem from people with disabilities not understanding how much goods and services cost. Dyscalculics, in particular, creates math reasoning skills challenges, such as budgeting, which makes it difficult to assign money to recurring expenses and conduct calculations.
Not understanding loan terms and costs.
Understanding loan rates, points and APRs for various loans can be tricky, especially with dyscalculic’s difficulty with mental figuring. This can make it challenging to understand the ultimate cost of a loan.
Some jobs and responsibilities can be difficult.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in 2020 decreased for people who have disabilities from the previous year: 17.9% of persons with a disability were employed in 2020, a decline from 19.3% in 2019.
Some jobs may be difficult for neurodivergent people. If they have difficulties managing money, then financial-related jobs, such as financial advisors and accountants, may also be difficult. In some cases, even handling money could be a difficult task. Some positions that may require money management are retail cashiers, sales representatives and receptionists. These positions are still qualified positions for neurodivergent people, but they will need to consider the specific tasks and responsibilities before applying.
People who have any kind of disability can be victims of fraud.
Adults who aren’t financially savvy are more at risk of becoming victims of fraud in general and those who have learning disabilities can be especially susceptible. This is especially true if their finances are being managed by family members as many scams target credit cards.
Personal Testimonies: Neurodiversity and Managing Finances
MoneyGeek spoke with several neurodiverse people to share reflections about managing personal finances.
- How has being neurodivergent or your learning difference affected your personal finances?
- Are there any specific situations you remember where your disability may have hindered you financially?
- What words of wisdom would you have for the neurodiverse community about their finances?
- How can people better support those who are neurodivergent manage their money?
- Did you have any mentors or organizations that helped you through your journey that you're willing to share with others?
Chartered Financial Consultant and Founder of AskFlossie
Tax and Elder Law Attorney at IQMOP
Founder of iliketodabble.com
Money Management Strategies for Neurodiverse People
Managing finances can be one of the biggest challenges for neurodiverse people, especially for people who have dyscalculia. But, without learning the ins and outs of finances, you’ll be unable to budget effectively and live within your means, purchase a home, a car or save for retirement.
There are some key steps to take toward becoming a savvy financial consumer: understand your needs versus wants, build good money habits and better budgeting, learn how to save and invest, keep your money safe and embrace technology.
1. Understanding Your Needs and Your Wants
When looking at your finances holistically, the first step is to identify your needs and wants so you can build a budget. One effective tool to start thinking about how to divide up your money is to utilize Elizabeth Warren’s 50/30/20 rule, which stipulates that 50% of your net pay should go to your needs, 30% to wants and 20% to savings or paying off debt.
Expenses that you can’t live without fall into the “needs” category. These items include:
- Mortgage/rent payment
- Utilities (including internet service)
- Cell phone
- Automobile insurance
- Child support or child care
- Student loan payments
- Health insurance
- Credit card payments
- Gas, car payment or transportation
In the “wants” category are unnecessary splurges that you’ll want to consider spending money on if you’re living on a limited budget, such as:
- Dining out: Take-out and restaurant meals
- Streaming subscriptions
- Leisure travel
- Discretionary clothing beyond the basics
- Gourmet groceries
- Take-out coffee
2. Building Better Money Habits
According to the National Disability Institute, people who have disabilities must build healthy money habits just like anyone else. Their financial toolkit has resources like worksheets for tracking weekly spending, building budgets, vetting banks and creating shopping lists. Tracking daily spending through a diary is a great way to help people with learning disabilities manage their finances by seeing how they spend their money.
Ways to Build Better Money Habits
The first step to building better finances is to see where you spend your money. Track each purchase using a worksheet or by writing it down in a diary or on a spreadsheet and review it at the end of each week and again at the end of a month’s time. This will give you an accurate view of how you spend your money.
Build a budget
Once you understand where you’re spending, you can build a budget according to the 50/30/20 rule, starting with expenses and creating buckets for wants like eating out, coffee and travel. Don’t forget to pay yourself first through saving or paying down debt.
Tracking your spending will start to give you a good idea of how much things cost, which will help you shop for the right items at the stores where they have the lowest prices. Additionally, when it comes to bigger purchases like car repairs or appliances, make sure to call or research several companies to make sure you’re getting the best price.
Set up automatic payments for recurring bills
Set up as many bills as possible on automatic payment so you don’t have to remember to pay them every month, which will save you money on late payment fees, which can affect your credit and ensure you never forget to pay a bill.
3. Budgeting Strategies
Building a budget you can stick with helps people who have learning disabilities manage their money effectively. There are several options: a pen-on-paper budget, building a Excel or Google Sheets spreadsheet or using an app or software like Quicken’s Simplifi or Fudget. The pen-on-paper method is the cheapest option and apps typically have nominal costs. However, the best budget is the one you’ll stick with.
And while keeping cash in envelopes is a good option for people who don’t mind doing quick calculations, it might not be an effective budgeting tool for someone with a learning disability who has a hard time calculating quickly in their head.
List monthly expenses
This goes back to the needs vs. wants step — list all your monthly expenses and put them into two columns: variable (changes every month) and static (the amount doesn’t change, such as your rent or mortgage).
Create a budget
Figure out which budget method to utilize and create your budget using the 50/30/20 rule, which will help you understand how much fun money you have for wants every month.
Track cash flow
Track how much you have coming in every month and how much you have going out. Be honest with yourself and use credit cards as a last resort.
Adjust spending to meet goals
If you find you’re spending too much every month, go back to your tracker and see where your money is going. If you’re spending too much on groceries, start giving yourself a weekly budget. Too much on restaurants? Save them for special occasions.
4. Start Saving Money
The first thing you’ll want to do to create a cushion for yourself is open a savings account. Traditional savings accounts typically offer a very small level of return – around .05% – but transferring money out of your checking account is an effective way to save. One thing to consider here is which bank to open your account with – consider banks that offer a higher return on investment in terms of a higher interest rate.
There are several easy ways you can start saving money, including automatic transfers, using financial apps and utilizing financial options your employer offers.
- Set up Automatic Transfers to Savings. Once you’ve built your budget and you have a good understanding of when your major bills come out of your account every month, schedule an automatic transfer monthly to your savings account. This is a way of paying yourself first and is especially important for building an emergency fund or saving for a large purchase such as a house, car or vacation.
- Use your phone. Apps like Digit can help you save money by showing you how your savings, checking and investments all work together. Digit can even save money for you so you don’t have to think about it.
- Maximize your 401(k). Match your employer’s contribution to your 401(k) at the very least. If you can, invest 10% of your income into your 401(k), as this type of retirement savings is pre-tax income, which means it reduces your annual tax bill.
- Use a Health Savings Account (HSA). A Health Savings Account (HSA) is another employer benefit you should take advantage of as they’re pre-tax and another source of savings for large medical expenses. The money in the accounts rolls over from year to year (unlike Flexible Spending Accounts) and can be used for medical bills and prescription.
5. Keeping Your Money Safe
According to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, neurodiverse individuals are at a higher risk for identity theft, financial exploitation, fraud or financial abuse.
“Financial exploitation is the illegal or improper use of an individual’s funds, property or assets. This can occur through fraud or scams, or when caregivers, family members, or others improperly use an individual’s financial resources,” the CFPB report said.
There are several ways people who have learning disabilities can secure their finances: using apps to track accounts, enabling biometrics on banking apps, appointing a trusted contact, monitoring their credit, avoiding scams and shredding important documents.
Use apps to track your money
Use apps to see where your money is at any moment and to keep everything in one place — bank accounts, investments, credit cards, etc. Your bank likely has an app with an interface listing any account there and you can add external accounts as well to keep a snapshot of your accounts together.
Enable biometrics on your phone
Use fingerprint sign-on or facial recognition to ensure that you’re the only person able to log into your bank accounts on your mobile device.
Appoint a trusted contact for accounts and investments
This person is the most responsible and trustworthy person in your life who is listed on bank accounts and investment accounts. It also could be an attorney, accountant or fiduciary.
Monitor your credit
Services like LifeLock protect your identity and watch for threats to your identity, notifying you via phone, email or app. Order a free credit report by calling (877) 322-8228 or visiting annualcreditreport.com.
Another option is to put a security freeze on your credit at the major credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — and remove it when you need to access your credit for a home or car loan or to open a new credit card. Typically, you can remove the freeze from one bureau — whichever one the bank you’re working with uses — and keep the freeze on the other accounts.
Be wary of phishing and smishing scams
Fraudsters use email and SMS or text messages to click links to malware or to fake websites where their personal information can be stolen. Be wary of anyone trying to get you to send them money, anyone threatening you with law enforcement action or threatening action from the IRS.
Shred sensitive documents
Opt for paperless delivery of bank and credit card statements and shred any paper documents you must receive.
6. Learn How to Invest & Save for Retirement
Saving for retirement is important for everyone. On average, a person needs 70% of their annual pre-retirement income for each year of retirement.
According to FINRA’s 2019 report “Investors in the United States: A Report of the National Financial Capability Study,” individual stocks (74%) and mutual funds (63%) are the most commonly owned investments. Notably, 61% of neurotypical investors let a professional choose their investments and 65% discuss investment options with a professional advisor. There are some other ways you can invest in your future, including utilizing your employer’s contributions, diversifying your portfolio and contributing extra to your retirement.
Hire a fiduciary financial advisor
A financial planner or advisor will help you invest your money, but a fiduciary is legally bound to act in your best interest.
Pay yourself first
Using the 50/30/20 budgeting tool, figure out how much of your income you can afford to save each month for retirement.
Max out your employer contribution
The easiest way to save for retirement is to take advantage of employer-sponsored retirement plans, such as a 401(k), as this is a pre-taxed way to divert money to a retirement account.
Diversify your portfolio
If your employer doesn’t offer a retirement plan, you can open a private retirement account, such as a Roth IRA or traditional IRA.
7. Embracing Assistive Technology
Assistive technology tools can help people who have learning disabilities process information in an innovative way. For example, auditory processors can listen to audiobooks rather than reading text.
Neurodiverse people who have writing challenges can dictate messages and emails into their phones and tablets or use support tools that read text aloud and proof written work. Browser extensions like Grammarly can help dyslexics and dysgraphics check text for spelling and grammar, as well as tone and syntax.
There are various tools, some listed below, that can help individuals budget, read, write and access information.
- Goodbudget: Goodbudget is a budget tracker that allows you to utilize the envelope budgeting method without having to carry around envelopes of cash.
- Mint: Mint easily connects all of your accounts, from bank and credit cards to loans and investments.
- Speechify: Text-to-speech reader.
- Read&Write: Literary support tool that reads text out loud and proofs written work.
- Microsoft Accessibility Products: Microsoft offers Reading View to clear distracting content from web pages, typing text suggestions, Tell Me, which assists with formatting and more, as well as Editor to help with grammatical mistakes and Dictate, which converts speech to text.
- Order groceries for pickup: If you order groceries from Walmart or another retailer using an app on your phone, you’ll be less likely to impulse buy and you’ll understand exactly how much you’re spending as the app has a rolling tally while you’re shopping.
Finding Help and Support to Navigate Your Personal Finances
The challenges of becoming financially literate are twofold for neurodiverse people. Firstly, someone with a learning disability’s family might have handled their money for them in an effort to help them instead of educating them about how money works. Then, when it comes time to emancipate, neurodiverse young adults haven’t had as much experience as others in making change, sticking to a budget, paying bills on time and understanding cash flow.
Getting Help From Financial Advisors
Financial advisors might not understand the additional challenges that clients who have learning disabilities face. Neurodiverse clients might need additional check-ins and more consistent monitoring from financial advisors as well as very clear communications on the clients’ goals and risk tolerance.
According to the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA), a fiduciary is a “professional entrusted to manage assets or wealth while putting the client’s best interests first at all times. Fiduciaries will also adopt a code of ethics and fully disclose how they are compensated.” In short, a fiduciary must act in your best interest and disclose any potential conflicts of interest.
Using Credit Counseling Services
Consumers should be wary of credit counseling services. According to the Federal Trade Commission, most reputable credit counseling companies are nonprofits, but they can be unscrupulous. Seek recommendations from friends or family for companies that offer in-person services, which typically are free, at military bases, credit unions, universities, housing authorities and U.S. Cooperative Extension branches.
The FTC recommends working with companies that are licensed in your state, offer free educational materials, offer a wide range of services such as budget counseling and savings and debt management classes. Ask companies the following questions about debt consolidation:
- What are your fees? Get a specific price quote in writing.
- What if I can't afford to pay your fees or make contributions? If an organization won't help you because you can't afford to pay, look elsewhere for help.
- Will I have a formal written agreement or contract with you? Make sure all verbal promises are in writing.
- What are the qualifications of your counselors? Use an organization whose counselors are trained by a non-affiliated party.
- What assurance do I have that information about me (including my address, phone number, and financial information) will be kept confidential and secure?
- Are employees paid more if I sign up for certain services, if I pay a fee or if I make a contribution to your organization? If the answer is yes, go elsewhere.
Contact a Center for Independent Living
One way to go about finding a financial advisor is to first locate your community’s independent living center through the Administration for Community Living’s Independent Living Services (ILS) Program to seek guidance prior to hiring a financial advisor. Make sure to meet with several advisors prior to hiring one. It might give you additional peace of mind to name a person as a trusted contact and have them accompany you to any financial meetings. They can act as an advocate on your behalf if needed.
Financial Assistance for People With Learning Disabilities
There are federal and state programs to help neurodiverse individuals find and afford housing and assistive devices. Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income may help financially, and you can review eligibility requirements to see if you qualify.
- Administration for Community Living’s Independent Living Services (ILS) Program: Search for your local center for independent living here, which can assist with financial programs and advice.
- Alternative Financing Program for assistive technology: You may qualify for a federally- funded Alternative Financing Program that provides affordable financing to purchase assistive technology. Contact your local Department of Rehabilitation or visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Community Living website for details.
- Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Housing Counseling office: For details about public housing and eligibility, call the HUD Housing Counseling Office at (800) 569-4287.
- Financial help for assistive devices: If you need help to pay for assistive devices, call the Administration for Community Living at (202) 401-4634 or visit the website or Administration for Community Living for support and information about assistive technology alternative financing programs.
- Governmental programs that help with bills: For assistance with medical bills, review state and federal programs available online.
- State and local housing resources: See what aid is available in your particular state or local government.
Expert Insight on Financial Literacy for Neurodiverse People
MoneyGeek spoke with industry leaders to provide expert insight into how to help people with learning disabilities best achieve financial literacy. Here’s what they had to say.
- What are the biggest challenges that neurodiverse people face when it comes to financial management?
- What should someone look for when hiring a financial advisor?
- What are the best resources for neurodiverse people when it comes to managing their finances?
- How can families help people with learning disabilities build financial literacy?
Certified Financial Planner and Founder of Sonoma Wealth Advisors
Expert Relations Associate and Subject Matter Expert at Understood
Director of Operations at Florida International University's Embrace
There are many resources available to help neurodiverse individuals understand financial matters, including topics on accessibility, ways to protect your identity and find legal services.
- Consumer Finance Protection Bureau: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a U.S. government agency that makes sure banks, lenders and other financial companies treat people fairly. Submit a debt collector or bank complaint at cfpb.gov/complaint.
- Federal Trade Commission: The FTC has an online toolkit that includes a detailed guide for protecting your personal information with instructions and sample letters to help spot and respond to identity theft.
- Legal Services Corporation: Find out if you are eligible for legal assistance and services.
- MoneyGeek’s Compound Interest Calculator: This tool shows how savings and investments grow over time.
- National Foundation for Credit Counseling: For assistance with debt management, call the National Foundation for Credit Counseling toll-free at (800) 388-2227.
- Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act: Section 504 is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people who have disabilities and ensures equal access to education. Learn more about this law and what it covers.
- The Understood Podcast Network: Four podcasts featuring real talk and personal stories from people who learn and think differently, brought to you by Understood.org.
About the Author
- Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. "Your Money, Your Goals: Focus on People with Disabilities." Accessed February 1, 2022.
- Federal Trade Commission. "Choosing a Credit Counselor." Accessed February 3, 2022.
- FINRA. "Investors in the United States: A Report of the National Financial Capability Study." Accessed February 1, 2022.
- Learning Disabilities Association of America. "Disability and Criminal Justice Reform." Accessed January 25, 2022.
- Learning Disabilities Association of America. "Types of Learning Disabilities." Accessed January 23, 2022.
- Learning Disabilities Association of America. "The State of Learning Disabilities Today." Accessed January 25, 2022.
- National Center for Learning Disabilities. "What We Do." Accessed January 25, 2022.
- National Disability Institute. "Financial Wellness Tools." Accessed January 30, 2022.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics Summary." Accessed January 30, 2022.
- USAGov. "Financial Assistance and Support Services for People with Disabilities." Accessed February 3, 2022.
- Winstanley, M., Durkin, K., Webb, R. T. And Conti-ramsden, G.. "Financial capability and functional financial literacy in young adults with developmental language disorder." Accessed February 1, 2022.