Struggling financially is a very particular type of hardship that is equally beneficial and treacherous to the human spirit. If you happen to find yourself unemployed at any given time, you will need to master the dual art and a science of personal spending. The science part is all about budgets and living within your means, which is an inherently foreign concept to most Americans. The art is learning how to thrive even when you are significantly depleted of the building blocks of the American ego – “dollar dollar bills, y’all.”
I should have written this blog at some point last year when I was actually unemployed, or when the unemployment rate wasn’t slowly creeping downward for the first time in four years. But whatever; this still needs to be said. A few people have surfaced in my life that are new to this unemployment gig and I thought I’d put my personal experience and wisdom out there for them from someone who was professionally unemployed.
#1 Enjoy it while it lasts (the first two weeks, that is)
When I first got laid off, I freaked out. Then I took a breath, and then I got REALLY, REALLY EXCITED when I realized that for the first time since I graduated that I actually could take a break reminiscent of the summer vacations of my youth. And so I went along my merry way, imagining how much fun I was going to have sleeping in, watching The Price is Right, window shopping all day and doing basically whatever the hell I wanted, until someone who had been unemployed for the long-term said to me, “Enjoy it while you can. The first two weeks are the best.”
I took a moment to pause from my funemployment-induced glee to stop and consider what he was saying. Wait, what do you mean it’s not going to be like a non-stop summer vacation? How could it possibly not be the awesomest thing ever? I’m getting paid to basically do whatever the hell I want.
Turns out he was right. The first two weeks were the best, and everything after that was so soaked in doubt and heavily tainted with the sense of inferiority that comes with not having a job in this hyper-capitalist society. Plus there’s only so much Price is Right you can watch. Do not despair, however, just read on
#2 Put on some pants
This is a big one. While it is tempting to lounge around your house all day in pajamas (why not? They’re comfortable!), if you do it too many days in a row you will inevitably end up feeling like, a) an invalid, or, b) a homeless person. Pajamas should be reserved for sleeping, lounging around when you’re sick, and the first few days after a nasty break-up. Do not trick yourself into think it is OK not to get dressed and act like a real person just because you have no job. It is amazing the amount of confidence and competence you can glean from wearing a pair of pants that provide some sort of barrier from a windchill.
Plus, you need to go out into the world. This is important. As much as you thought your coworkers were soulless assholes whose solitary purpose was to piss you off, they did do something for you: they provided you with a sense of community. Even if they were backstabbing bitches who tried to get you fired or take the credit for your hard work, like it or not, they were your community. As social creatures we all need a sense of community to feel human and complete. So if you don’t put on pants, you’ll be less likely to run errands or go to the coffee shop and interact with actual human beings outside of your Neflix queue
#3 Learn to Be Cheap
I am constantly trying to unlearn the attitudes I adopted towards my personal finances while living in New York. There is something they pump into the air in that city that convinces tourists from Japan to buy the crappy three-inch $14.99 replicas of the staute of liberty from the bodegas in Times Square, and unfortunately, it has the same effect on the locals. It’s like how they dehydrate the air in the casinos in Vegas so you can drink and drink and never pass out, yet your judgment is impaired enough to keep you gambling.
Anyway, I really had to force myself to examine my budget, not once, not twice, but multiple times as I tried to get a grasp of this concept of money and personal wealth. I am and intuitive person, and while this helps me be creative and relate to people, it does jack shit when it comes to managing my finances. I really have no concept of the value of money, so much so that up until last year I never kept cash in my wallet because if I knew it was there I would spend it and come home with absolutely no idea what I had spent it on.
To help you become as cheap as I now am, I have made a list of things that should be considered luxuries to the unemployed person. You really have to wrap your mind around the fact that you can’t really afford these things on a regular basis if you have any hope of living hand-to-mouth or making the kind of life changes and sacrifices that often come with joblessness. Here is your list of new luxuries:
- Starbucks Lattes or any other coffee you don’t make yourself
- Shopping for any clothes other than socks
- Gifts (make ‘em wait til Christmas)
- Organic food (I know, but the shit is expensive!)
- Alcohol (a great chance to experiment with sobriety)
- Books (Amazon.com is an addiction. I speak from experience. Go to the library!)
- Cigaettes (a great chance to experiment with not smelling like ass)
- Mani/pedis or any other beauty product/regiment that costs more than $5
- Going to the Movies
This list is not as big of a downer as it seems. Since being forced to be more thoughtful about my spending, I have come to realize why the show “Extreme Couponing” exists. You get a similar thrill out of getting a great deal than you do from picking up that to-die-for dress you’ve been lusting after at Antrhopologie.
#4 Don’t go back to School
Speaking of being thoughtful about your spending, please avoid this trap. Ok, maybe you shouldn’t listen to me considering I haven’t gone to graduate’s school, but I don’t intend to unless I can really afford it (i.e. get an amazing grant) or I am more than 95% certain of the career path I want to take and know for sure that the only way to get there is with a master’s degree.
School is expensive. In my opinon, it is way too expensive. Education is important, but the higher education industry has taken advantage of the perceived value of education which the baby boomer generation has instilled in its children, who are eager to please their helicopter parents. I will say right here and right now that I predict that the education industry is going to collapse the same way the housing industry did. Schools are overpricing their product and eventually, just like the homeowners who defaulted on their loans, the people who take out these loans aren’t going to be able to pay them.
There are alternatives to enrolling full time in graduate school, like internships, on-the-job experience, or my favorite, taking continuing education classes that will get you the skills you need to get your foot in the door.
#5 Don’t listen to anyone who hasn’t job-hunted since 2008
For that matter, don’t listen to anyone who has never gone been unemployed for more than three months. They won’t understand the depths of despair that come with being, what seems to them, on an endless vacation. It is murder out there. Employers are so flooded with job applications they can’t even sift through the majority of them I have applied to at least two jobs which I heard back from a year, a whole friggin year, later. One of them said no and the other one said “sorry, we’re still reviewing your application.” Do you see now how hard it is?
When you explain to people who haven’t been unemployed that you are job-hunting, they are likely to say stuff like, “Just go out there and apply for jobs!” “Network!” “Really focus!” “Go back to school!” I will tell you right now that you can do all these things and still not find a job. That’s because these people have no idea how hard it is right now to find a job regardless of your experience, skills, qualifications, or bull-dogish tenacity.
Take it from someone who spent a long period of time wading around in the pool of the 9% unemployed: the water is cold, dark, and the life rafts are few and far between. It’s not a reflection of you, it’s a reflection of the times, and those who have not suffered through the jobless ranks simply do not know what they are talking about. Don’t listen to them.
#6 Work Outside Your “Type”
Working is a lot like dating. When you first get a new job or new boyfriend, you’re initially excited as everything is new and unexpected. They are both potentially long-term commitments that will dictate the major course of your life, regardless of how long you stick with them. Eventually the monotony sets in for both, and you are no longer charmed by the nuances of this exciting new person/job in your life, you are tortured by them.
Sometimes we limit ourselves to a certain type of guy. My friend Ann Arbor will only date men who are over six feet tall, for example. But when we limit our choices based on preconceived notions, we don’t always allow ourselves to grow in different areas, or learn about strengths and weaknesses we didn’t know we had . For example, the job I am working right now is not my dream job, but it has taught me a few things: 1) My empathy and desire to please make me kick-ass at customer service 2) everyone should be forced to work in the service industry so that they learn to have compassion people who do these necessary jobs, and 3) My brain no longer has the capacity to be sharp and functional after 10pm.
My generation has a particularly bad rap (justified or not) for feeling entitled to work only kick-ass jobs that look good on paper. But when you’re unemployed for a long time, you have to be flexible about what work you’re willing to do or you will starve to death when your unemployment eventually runs out. There is no job beneath you, just skills you have yet to master. After all, you don’t have to marry the job, just date it for a while 😉
#7 Read Some Self-Help Books
About halfway through serving my time in the unemployment line, I had a moment of desperation that led me to type into google: “What Should I Do With My Life.” This led me to a gem of a book that was actually titled that by Po Bronson. The book really heartened me and broke down this idea I had that everyone else who every lived was catapaulting themselves to career super-stardom.
In the gap between jobs, one subject that you should definitely ponder is your relationship to work and jobs. In general, I think Americans have a pretty fucked up idea about what work should be. A lot of people spend too much energy getting caught up in office politics or achieving professional milestones that, frankly, don’t matter. When you die you can’t take your money or your job title with you, though you will be forever linked to this world through the people you’ve loved and left behind, and the mark you left on society. So now that you have the time, why not take the opportunity to soul-search and pinpoint the job or field you might actually have influence in, and better yet, might give you the work-life balance everyone else is at a loss to find?
Here are a few of the self-helpy career books I loved:
- What Should I Do With My Life by Po Bronson
- I Could Do Anything I Wanted If I Only Knew What It Was by Barbara Smith
- Do What You Are by Paul D. Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger (this one is fun because it will help you kill time by taking personality tests)
#8 Insist on being paid in actual dollars
This is a big one. This ideology can work against you if you can’t find a job and fall into the “working for experience” trap. The truth of the matter is the shitty economy has been hard on workers and employers alike. Employers need workers and have had to without paid employees because of financial restraints. Laws were passed in New York after the financial crash restricting employees from taking on unpaid interns to do the work that people were doing full-time. People can smell the sweet stench of desperation that is exuded only by the unemployed and dying-to-work and try to get you to work for them for “experience” instead of pay. However, these opportunities will not pay your rent, and unless the economy takes a drastic turn for the better, they may not even help you land your next job too much.
So unless you are fresh out of college and living off a fairly large trust-fund, or you are switching careers and desperate for on-the-job training, you should insist on being paid. If you’ve been in the work force at all, you have valuable experience that you should be paid to use to help benefit someone else’s company or endeavor. Regardless of how much you believe in their cause or their project, don’t let anyone take advantage of your financial hardship for their economic gain: it’s not fair.
If you do find yourself tempted by a real cool internship/work-for-free scenario, make sure you put a time limit on it. You should be up front and tell your pseudo-employer how long you are willing to work for free before you expect to get paid. I recommend going no longer than three months. If you wait any longer, you will likely end up disappointed, without that full-time job they promised you all along, and seriously set back in your search for a paying position.
#9 Cross something off your bucket list
Why not? Unless the next item on your list is “buy a jumbo jet.” If it is, skip that one and go to the next one that won’t cost you money, but will take up some time. Time is commodity, perhaps more so than money. And regardless of how guilty society will make you feel for not having more of that other commodity, money, you are rich with free time, something the employed wish they had. Go chase down a dream or a spare desire or two.