Breaking free of the pension

Uni team.jpg

Pictured above: Grant and his University of Sydney colleagues

By Grant J Everett

Eighteen months ago I was on the Disability Support Pension, with all the positives and negatives that entails. I also worked a part-time job at Panorama magazine to keep things comfortable, but I didn’t earn enough to get by without government benefits. And as much as I’ve always liked the idea of being financially self-reliant, I assumed that I’d be getting help from Centrelink for a long time to come.

In early 2015 I unsuccessfully applied for a job with the University of Sydney. As I was competing with people far more experienced and qualified, I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t get the job. The University said that they’d keep my details on file if anything came up, but I assumed the lady was just being polite and didn’t expect to hear from her again. I wrote this off as a failure.

Centrelink has a safety net for people who cancel their DSP. They provide a two year “grace period” where you can get back onto the DSP without needing to do any paperwork.

Then, a couple of months later, something huge happened: Sydney University approached me with an exciting employment opportunity, and my life changed. The job was a twelve month research contract, and the pay was (for a guy without a HSC) phenomenal.However, a big shift like this meant I really needed to figure out my financial gameplan. My first instinct was to work as much as I could while still retaining the pension. But then another thought occurred to me: what if I cancelled my DSP altogether, and became financially independent? It was a scary prospect, but something I really wanted to experience. My self-esteem ballooned just at the thought of it!

I was legally allowed to keep using my Concession card for twelve months.

Rather than allowing fear to stop me, I discussed this with both of my bosses before deciding that I’d work both jobs – three days at the magazine and two days at the University – and cancel my DSP ASAP.

Too long

Calling up to cancel my Centrelink payments was a moment of total pride. I felt like a champion when I explained to the support person how my circumstances had changed (though “bragging” might be a more accurate word than “explained”). Then, as of 10:45 am, August the 21st, 2015, I ceased to be a pensioner for the first time in my adult life.

It was jarring, to be honest. If you’ve been getting a pension for ages and ages like I have, then the idea of saying “no” to Centrelink support may not compute. Sure, a lot of people don’t have any choice but to rely on the pension to get by, but I decided that choosing to stay on the DSP when I had a real opportunity to get off it basically meant choosing to live in poverty.

I need to note at this point that being on a pension isn’t just a question of maths. I’ve found that working gives me pride and purpose, it shapes my identity, and it gives me a reason to wake up in the morning. As we are defined more by what we do than by who we are, we should do all we can. Our futures are steered by where we want to go and what we’re willing to do to get there.

Breaking the cycle

Like I’ve already mentioned, I only had a temporary contract with the Uni, and it finished in June 2016. Even though I’m not earning those big bucks anymore, I’ve been provided with a lot of other valuable things: I have something great to add to my resume, I’ve sharpened my writing skills, and I’ve also gained the knowledge that I can survive without the pension.

Originally, my plan was to go back to working four short days a week at Panorama magazine, as I found five full days tiring. Such a big reduction in my working hours would pretty much guarantee that I’d need to go back on a small pension to make ends meet. However, my boss at the magazine, Warren, talked me out of it by making a really good point: I’d been doing five days a week for a whole year without anything catastrophic happening, so why would I want to choose to go backwards? So many options! This all required some thought…

Soldiering

Although working full-time is exhausting and I’ve had some anxious feelings spring up here and there due to the extra workload, I took Warren’s advice. Before I knew it I’d adjusted to doing 80 hours a fortnight without any problems.

I’m very glad I left my comfort zone, even though it was pretty nerve-wracking, and I definitely want to encourage all of our readers to do the same. After all, even if things don’t work out, Flourish Australia is always there if you need supported employment. I’m sure many people let pension worries or relapse worries hold them back from attempting to build the life they want, but we can’t and shouldn’t let this stop us from trying for a better future.

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