When Carrie Oliver was suddenly diagnosed with a carcinoid tumor several years ago, she was thrust into months of debilitating treatment, including seven months of chemotherapy. As a result, the 35-year-old senior administrative assistant who lives in Golden, Colo., couldn't work for about a year. But because she had disability insurance, she still received most of her paycheck. "I could depend on having a check every month, and still be able to pay my bills and not worry about that along with fighting for my life," she says.
Disability insurance tends to be one of the more overlooked forms of insurance, particularly by young people, even though consumer advocates generally agree it's an essential way for people to protect themselves from unexpected illness, accidents or other problems that prevent them from working. According to The Hartford Financial Services Group, 57 percent of Gen Y workers, who are in their 20s and early 30s, buy life insurance, but just 45 percent have short-term disability insurance, and even fewer – 39 percent – have long-term disability insurance. Meanwhile, the Social Security Administration estimates that the average 20-year-old worker faces a 3 in 10 chance of being disabled at some point before age 65.
"As a young professional, your ability to work and earn a paycheck is your greatest asset, and you need to protect it," says Lindsey Pollak, a Gen Y career expert and spokeswoman for The Hartford. She notes that pregnancy is the No. 1 cause for a disability claim from women, and mental health issues, including stress, anxiety and depression, are among the fastest-growing categories of disabilities. But because signing up for disability insurance is often optional, many people don't bother to do it.
"In an ideal world, everyone would have disability insurance protection," says Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America. Only about one-third of employees currently have access to disability insurance at work, he says, and taking out insurance on the private market can be expensive. "Group disability insurance is relatively low cost, given that employers negotiate the price with the insurance company," Brobeck says.
Pollak says another option, particularly for those who work part-time or for themselves, is to go through a professional association, like the Freelancers Union, where she gets her disability insurance, since she is self-employed. Pollak says as long as the insurance comes through your employer or professional association, it costs an average of $250 a year and typically replaces 50 to 60 percent of your income – although the exact amount varies by policy and employer. "Probably the biggest misconception is that this is expensive. … People tend to wildly overestimate how much it costs," she says.
The SSA offers disability benefits, too, but they are for long-term disabilities that prevent people from working for at least one year or disabilities that end in death. For disabled workers, SSA benefits pay out an average of $1,129 per month – not a lot.
Twentysomethings without disability insurance risk financial hardship if they find themselves suddenly unable to work. "Many are living paycheck to paycheck and a large portion of their income is going to car payments, rent and student loan debt. It's more likely they would have to alter their lifestyle to cover their expenses if they lost their paycheck or move back in with their parents," Pollak says.
A 2012 Hartford survey found that one in three millennials say they would have to rely on savings if they weren't able to work for more than six weeks, and two in 10 said they would either take money out of a 401(k) or use credit. Just over two in 10 said they would ask friends and family members for financial help or move back home with their parents.
A report released in September from the Consumer Federation of America and Unum, an insurance company, found that among 400 disability insurance recipients surveyed, 77 percent said their benefits helped them avoid tension with their spouse or partner and 68 percent said their health would have suffered without the benefits.