Background Prior to the antiretroviral (ARV) drug roll out in 2004, people living with HIV (PLHIV) in South Africa received disability grants when they were defined as "AIDS-sick". In the absence of available and effective medication, a diagnosis of AIDS portended disability. The disability grant is a critical component of South Africa's social security system, and plays an important role in addressing poverty among PLHIV. Given the prevalence of unemployment and poverty, disability grants ensure access to essential resources, like food, for PLHIV. Following the ARV roll out in South Africa, PLHIV experienced improved health that, in turn, affected their grant eligibility. Our aim is to explore whether PLHIV reduced or stopped treatment to remain eligible for the disability grant from the perspectives of both PLHIV and their doctors. Methods A mixed-methods design with concurrent triangulation was applied. We conducted: (1) in-depth semi-structured interviews with 29 PLHIV; (2) in-depth semi-structured interviews with eight medical doctors working in the public sector throughout the Cape Peninsula; (3) three focus group discussions with programme managers, stakeholders and community workers; and (4) a panel survey of 216 PLHIV receiving ARVs. Results Unemployment and poverty were the primary concerns for PLHIV and the disability grant was viewed as a temporary way out of this vicious cycle. Although loss of the disability grant significantly affected the well-being of PLHIV, they did not discontinue ARVs. However, in a number of subtle ways, PLHIV "tipped the scales" to lower the CD4 count without stopping ARVs completely. Grant criteria were deemed ad hoc, and doctors struggled to balance economic and physical welfare when assessing eligibility. Conclusions It is crucial to provide sustainable economic support in conjunction with ARVs in order to make "positive living" a reality for PLHIV. A chronic illness grant, a basic income grant or an unemployment grant could provide viable alternatives when the PLHIV are no longer eligible for a disability grant.