I was twenty-four and on my sixth year of undergrad when I was diagnosed with dyscalculia. Dyscalculia is a developmental disorder that impacts a person’s working memory and ability to manipulate and associate values with numbers. It’s sometimes referred to as “number blindness” or “right brain dyslexia.”
I was shocked to find out I had it, but the signs were always there. I mean, when you’re twenty-four and everyday tasks like counting, measuring, and mental math give you anxiety, you probably need to get that checked out.
When I was diagnosed, a light turned on for me. I finally understood why dialing a phone number took so long, or why I couldn’t tell time confidently until I was about to go into fifth grade. Whenever I engage with numbers, it’s like someone has brought me into an empty room. There’s nothing going on in here, what did we come in here for? I was the first in my family to go to college. I was deemed the smart kid. I made dean’s list on multiple occasions. But when it came to math, it was like I was constantly trying to read a language I was never taught. Throughout elementary and middle school, I tried but could not get any answers correct. My teachers were either disinterested in helping me or made fun of me for my bad handwriting, which is a sign of working memory weakness, according to the neuropsychiatrist who diagnosed me. By the time I got to high school, I had checked out. I knew how to work a calculator. That’s about all I could ask for.
I spent so many years trying to fake like I knew what was going on, but my diagnosis made me realize I should stop shaming myself for not understanding basic math. I wasn’t going to be at Fenway Park anymore looking at the scoreboard for a more-than-sufficient amount of time, pretending I already read the score, while I’m actually still trying to figure out which number is larger. That’s right — a low-scoring game like baseball throws me for a loop.
But finally knowing I had dyscalculia helped me approach numbers differently and realize I needed to use technology to my advantage. I no longer had to put on a performance so teachers wouldn’t flunk me. I started using a calculator at all times. If I couldn’t read something, I would ask instead of pretending like I knew. I gave up trying to ever force myself to calculate a percentage, because please, tell me what whackjob on this planet can do that without technology?! I also learned that I would need to advocate for myself at work, at school, and in life a lot more than I had ever done before.
Since numbers are a haze for me, you can guess that this has created problems with money a whole lot. For me, money doesn’t really have any value attached to it. If I have two paychecks in my bank account, I have no ability to measure how far that money can go without assistance from technology. It’s not that I forget about rent or student loans — it’s that I never actually know how much money I have, even when I see the number. Sometimes, this gives me some healthy paranoia, and I put more money away. Other times, I give up on trying to attempt to measure how much I can spend before I even begin, and I end up make impulsive choices based on convenience. Between Amazon, ASOS, and rideshare apps, there are a lot of impulsive choices to make out there. Living a balanced financial life is a struggle for most people in their 20s, especially those living with debt. In my case, it comes with a complete lack of awareness about when I am actually making good money choices.
To me, time is relative, but so is money. I realized my money needed to be approached with the same frankness I was applying to my addition and subtraction skills because that’s all that money is. I needed to realize that I could not do this without technology, and dyscalculia will follow me the rest of my life. The biggest help for me has been picking the right app to learn how to budget my money. Working memory is impacted by how your brain reads visual images, so a multi-colored budgeting app helps me to be able to analyze information more easily. (I use the budgeting features in the Bank of America App, as well as Fidelity.) That way, I know I am spending too high in one category, or whether or not I have paid a bill yet. Even though lots of people will extol the virtues of auto bill pay, it’s not the best option for me. Instead, I set reminders to set an auto bill pay, so that I am certain that I have the money to pay and how much is left when it leaves.
Taking these steps has lessened the anxiety around money and allowed me to start thinking more critically about how I spend and how to plan for the future. There are a lot of people out there who live with learning disabilities for a long time and don’t know it.
Of course, some things do not show signs of stopping; I know I’ll still be coming up short on coffee money because of a counting error for the foreseeable future. But I hope writing this makes someone judge themselves less for confusing right and left on a regular basis. Learning how to take better care of yourself is an ongoing process. For someone who truly cannot see numbers, my learning disability has opened up new ways for me to begin to learn about money and how to use it.
Elizabeth Bennett lives in Boston where you can find her quoting 30 Rock deep cuts and watching the Celtics.
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