one girl’s guide to surviving unemployment

counting pennies

Seriously.  This should go without saying, but if you’ve been living high on the hog (or even medium on the hog) you’re used to spending.

Get un-used to it.  It will take discipline and will force you to make choices, but it will save you considerable heartburn when you need to pay bills.

The money diet will be easy at first – chances are that in the first week or two, you’ll be too petrified to spend anything.  The key to success in this endeavor is to be stringent for the long term.

An easy way to do this?  Write down EVERYTHING you spend money on.  If possible, take out a small amount of cash from your bank account for incidentals. When it’s gone, you’re done.

Also, watch out for what I call the “creepers:” cups of coffee, songs on iTunes, magazines at the grocery store, etc.  Yep, they’re low-cost purchases.  But they can get out of control VERY quickly.  (Two lattes, one People, two new iTunes: about $15.)  Read the mags at your public library, make coffee at home, and write down all the songs  you want to buy and then reward yourself with a kick-ass music collection to listen to when you get your new job.

And hang in there.  You’ll be employed soon, I promise, and then you can go back to spending as usual (although with the economizing habits you’ll adopt during this process you will likely spend less when you do have the dough again).  

Next up?  Controlling spending on food, without subsisting on Ramen noodles.


creative spending: options for health care

The drug companies have done a nice thing and issued a discount card for their meds – it’s called Together Rx Access.  It provides good savings on most medications.  Also, many major retailers including Target, Wal-Mart, Safeway and others are now offering $4 generics.  These discounts don’t cover ALL generics, only a certain subset, so be sure to check their sites or at the pharmacy to see what’s eligible. 

Along the lines of generics, consider that store brand antacids, pain relievers, antibiotic creams, allergy medications contain the EXACT same active ingredient as the brand name.  Flip both over and compare side by side.

In addition, talk to your doctor.  Does he/she have any samples that could help offset your prescription costs?  I know that many physicians are cutting back on the freebies they take from the pharmaceutical companies, but it’s always worth a phone call to your doc. Is there a generic alternative to anything you’re taking?  Can he/she work on a sliding scale?  Can you get on a payment plan for any ongoing care?

As far as immediate care is concerned, look for low-cost options for the things that aren’t major: sinus infections, colds, sore throats.  CVS has a discount clinic that may offer a considerable savings in comparison to a traditional doctor’s visit. Wal-Mart has a health clinic as well.  Planned Parenthood is an amazingly low-cost resource for womanly issues: PAP smears, vag infections, UTIs, etc.  If you’re just not comfortable with Planned Parenthood (no judgement here), there is likely a women’s clinic in your region that can help you for cheap.

Lastly, definitely check out an organization called FACT.  The membership is nominal (less than $10) and they offer fantastic discounts on medical, dental, vision care and more.  

caveat shoppor: I’m not a doctor.  Nor do I play one on TV.  Only you can determine what makes most sense for you and your fam.

Post-publishing update: Apparently Target has a few medical clinics as well.

10 things to ask hr

You’ve conquered the mean reds, filed for unemployment and dealt with health insurance.

This clearer headed time is a good opportunity to revisit your exit paperwork and loop back in with your former company’s HR person.  (Any decent company will give you a few days to mull this over.)

Before I get started on the questions, I’ll just ask that you have a little sympathy for the HR person.  There’s a 99% probability that they had nothing to do with the decision to can you.  So, think compassionately and approach thusly when you drop them a note or give them a call.  While you don’t have a job, it still sucks to have to fire people and deliver bad news, which HR peeps are doing more and more of these days. 

Onto the questions that you need answered:

1. While you’ve given me a lump sum severance, how long does it “officially” last?  (This will be important to understand as far as budgeting.)

2. Will my severance come in the form of a check or via direct deposit?  If it’s a check, is it coming via registered mail / FedEx / UPS, or will I need to pick it up?

3. Am I being paid for unused vacation time?

4. What happens to my stock options / 401K / other profit-sharing benefits?

5. How long am I covered under the company’s health insurance plan?  How long is my Flexible Spending Account active?

6. Can you send me a copy of any non-compete or other pre-employment agreements?

7. What address and phone number do you have on file for me? (important for tax and other purposes)

8. Can I come by to pick up any personal items left in my office / cubical / workstation / locker ?  Or – when should I expect to receive my personal items by mail? 

9. Can I have a copy of my personnel file?

10. How do I submit for expense reimbursement (if you have any outstanding expenses)?

Lastly, as pissed off as you might be, don’t burn your bridges on the way out, either with HR or your former boss.

The last thing that I said to my former boss was to follow up with the client, as they were expecting something done by the end of the day.  I’m not trying to imply here that I’m a saint — I had more than my share of less than stellar moments in the work place — but to hopefully show that a little class will make you feel better. 

This counts for the HR person as well.  They don’t need to be the brunt of your anger.  Remember your manners and don’t let the anger boil back up. 

Now it’s time to get crafty with that severance!

COBRA: the snake in the grass

Ah, COBRA. Look, you need medical insurance, there is no getting around that.

Make sure that you take a thourough look at the paperwork once it arrives. COBRA will keep you covered exactly as you were when you were working.

The downside to COBRA: how are you supposed to pay for it when you have no income?

The upside: Did you know that in the case of a lay off, your former employer is now required by law to cover 65% of the monthly premium. Makes the payments a little more manageable.  

In addition, COBRA can be (somewhat) retroactive in case of emergency – provided you DON’T decline coverage — you have 60 days to elect. Review your paperwork in detail to see if this is the best option for you.

At the end of the day, COBRA is awesome if you can afford it.

When when I lost my job, COBRA was far too expensive for me. (I was on the fancy-schmancy plan at work and wasn’t able to downgrade.) 

Recognizing that no insurance wasn’t an option, I looked into gap / short-term insurance. Many health insurance companies provide high-deductible plans for a reasonable cost. When looking into non-COBRA options, your first step may be to call your current/former insurance company and see what they can provide to you. The risk that you run with gap / temporary / short-term insurance is that often it does NOT cover anything pre-existing. This includes prescriptions.

Don’t panic – this an opportunity to get resourceful.

now that you’ve gotten that out of your system: filing for unemployment

Listened to all of your AC/DC albums and cried until all the tissues in your house were gone?  Good.  The second thing you need to do is to file for unemployment benefits.  Take cake of this as soon as you possibly can, as it will take time for your former employer to fill out paperwork and for your state unemployment board to review the claim.

Look, don’t be shy or embarrassed or bothered about applying for unemployment.  YOU paid into this fund when you were employed. It’s your money.

Filing for unemployment assumes a few basic things:

1. You weren’t fired for “cause,”
2. You were employed full-time,
3. You are physically able to work,
4. and you are not working under a temporary visa. 

I’m not a lawyer, so you will definitely want to check your applicable unemployment office for more details on eligibility.

As to applicable offices, according to the Department of Labor, when you file for unemployment it’s generally in the state in which you worked.  For example, let’s say that you lived in Pennsylvania, but worked in Delaware.  Chances are, you’re going to need to go through the Delaware office.

The good news is that most states now have online systems for applying for unemployment benefits, as well for as the weekly/biweekly check-in.  Don’t have regular Web access?  Borrow a friend’s computer or go to the public library. Worse comes to worse, you can also check-in via phone.

Even better than not having to trek out to the unemployment office to take care of all the paperwork?  Most regions now offer direct deposit of your unemployment funds.  No trip to the bank!

Don’t worry too much if it takes a few weeks to receive your first payment.  Given the state of today’s economy, many state unemployment offices are back-logged.  In some cases, you may actually receive retroactive payment – meaning one check for all the weeks that you were back-due.

Now, unemployment may not cover all of your expenses – I don’t know a single person for whom it does.  That’s OK, as you’re going to get creative when it comes to expenses. 

More on that later.

first things first

So, you got laid off.  Where do you even begin?

Cry, scream, get angry, get drunk, listen to loud music, eat a tray full of brownies, run until you physically collapse.  I’m completely serious – take a day to do whatever you need to do to shake the negativity.  You need to get this out of your system before you can begin to take action.

Yes, it sucks.  It’s unfair, uncalled for, and you can’t believe that the company for whom you worked would do that to you – especially after you were loyal to them — and in today’s economic downturn. 

Well, it happened, and there is nothing that you can do to change it. 

Spend a day or two – at most – to deal with the rollercoaster of emotions. You’re going to need energy to get (and keep) you motivated, and it’s best not to waste too much time on the negative stuff.