Monday, February 8, 2010

Getting through tough times

Until recently, my whole working-aged family was unemployed, and in fact, although I have a new job (which OMGILOVEIT), we haven't gotten our first paycheck yet. And my benefits don't kick in for 3 more months, so we're still living kinda close to the bone. I was pleased to find, though, that the lifestyle towards which we've been moving was very, very helpful to our ability to cope with unemployment. I suspect I'll ruminate on this occasionally for many months to come. But here are some of my initial thoughts on the matter. [Edit: now that I've done a draft of this and am re-reading it, I see that this post has little to do with out lifestyle adaptation per se, but is still important info IMHO.]

First, to optimally prepare for unemployment, or any interruption in your regular income, having a year or more's warning is highly recommended. This is another way of saying that we had a really unfair advantage with respect to unemployment--I've never seen anyone with more warning than we had. Since my husband is an academic, and they hire on annual cycles, cutting his position was a known early on. Further, due to the wording in the standard contract (also a result of the annual academic hiring cycle not lining up nicely with the annual academic firing cycle) we had a little over a full calendar year to prepare. And further still, because of the way my husband's pay was structured, we were payed for two months after we had technically become unemployed (this included benefits). Even allowing for this, we were without income for six months, and we are still without benefits (except for our children, who are on state aid). So what's the message here? My take-home is that everyone pretty much needs to assume that you're going to lose your job, and plan accordingly. Let me be clear here--I don't think we would have been able to keep our house, stay in our town, avoid moving in with parents, etc., without the warning we had. If you have no reason to believe that you will get one year's warning (and crap, who could expect that?), the only way to cope with the situation is to assume you'll be fired soon. Sorry. (You probably won't be fired soon, so try to avoid the attendant fear and nausea that goes with imminent firing--compartmentalize, ya know?)

Second, find and USE every single state or federal benefit you possibly can. They are there for a reason. Too much pride? Swallow it. Maybe if it's just you, make your own decisions and suffer or not as suits you. But if you have a family, I genuinely believe that there is a moral question about how one will deal with a lack of income when your family may suffer as a result, and my response to this question is that pride can take a back seat (or get shoved in the trunk). Without sufficient income, children are at risk of malnutrition and all of the attendant issues, including behavioral and educational problems, which even mild malnourishment can bring. A lack of insurance can cause families to avoid needed doctor's visits, often exacerbating otherwise simple problems. And this is not just for the children--families are not improved by a parent being out of commission (or worse) due to an illness that could have been dealt with by early care.

There are also the penumbral problems of the stresses brought about by losing one's income. Can you stay healthy through the constant stress? How's your blood pressure now? How's your immune system--can it make it through the added stress? How will you deal with job-hunting when you are constantly getting sick due to an AWOL immune system fleeing from all the stress? Can your marriage or partnership survive near-nightly battles over money? Jobs? Income? Spending? Even if your partnership is very stable, a money crisis can spell doom--don't let it (or at least, do everything you can to not let it). Social safety net programs are there to help people keep from falling too low, and to give you some breathing room, so that you're not panicking every time you think about needing to buy groceries, or when your kid wants to go roller skating and you know you can't afford the soon-to-follow leg break and treatment. They help keep you and your family healthy and whole--not sick and divorced. Use them. And if someone gives you flack, tell them to fuck off, you are taking care of your family.

I would strongly suggest finding all of the programs that are even vaguely applicable to your situation now--yes now--while you still have a job and an income. Consider this just another part of the "assume you'll be fired" scenario above. Speaking for my own state, there is a morass of programs available, complete with attendant paperwork, all of which is very difficult to sort through. Don't try to do this when you're on the edge of losing a job, or worse, have already lost one. From my own experience, once we knew we were going to lose our jobs, I got very panicky and depressed. Panic and depression can lead to many places, but rational behavior is rarely one of them. So even though I knew we would soon need these programs, I didn't research them. I just couldn't bring myself to do it. And so I put them off and off and off until holyshitweNEEDthemnow--whatdoIdo?!?! That's not the best head-space to be in when attempting to navigate government bureaucracy. Really. So do it now, when the biggest part of your brain can truthfully say "Dude, I'm not actually getting fired, I'm just doing this as, like, an academic exercise--maybe in case one of my friends gets fired or something, so I can help them. Yeah!" I don't care how you have to trick yourself, but find a way to do this work now.

Don't believe me? Feel confident about how you would access aid programs? Okay. Do you know what the income cutoffs are for food stamps? What kind of documentation do you need from your employer in order to claim unemployment insurance? Does your doctor/family healthcare person take state insurance? Is there a medical insurance program available for adults in your state--and if so, what are the requirements? What are the requirements for WIC? What is WIC? Can you get both TANF and WIC at the same time? Which state departments handle TANF, WIC, unemployment and Medicaid? Are there prescription programs available to avoid interruption of needed medications? If you don't know the answers to these questions, you need to find them. It is too, too, too easy to miss out on an important program that could have genuinely benefited your family by just not being familiar with the offerings. And moreover, it is even easier to accidentally screw yourself out of one program by not knowing its details and either missing a deadline or putting something on an application to program A which would cause issues with program B. Oh, and by the way, all of this paperwork will take you at least a month to get through, even if you know what you're doing, so familiarizing yourself with this stuff now is really not a bad idea. Have you ever heard someone say "It's a good thing that I'm unemployed, because claiming unemployment insurance is a full-time job!" Well, that's not actually a joke.

True story: our state offers adult health coverage for families under a certain income level. After having been on unemployment insurance for months, with children on medicaid and making applications for numerous other programs, I had absolutely no idea this was available. Now, it's not the best insurance in the world--"cadillac" it ain't--but it's a damned sight better than my husband's leg going gangrenous because he refuses to go to the hospital for care because we can't afford it. Now, as it happens, we have not missed the window on this, and that's lucky for us. This is what comes of wading through welfare programs when stressed out--don't do it! Start now! Trust me!

Okay, for my next post on this, I will actually address how our lifestyle helped out. Promise! =]


  1. Great Post! We are anticipating a job loss this Spring. My husband is a music teacher and his school district is expecting 1.7 million dollars in cuts this year. We will get all of our check-ups, eye exams, dental cleanings before hand. He will have these benefits and pay check until September so we are fortunate to have time to prepare.

    WE have been very diligent about saving money and have many other ways we can earn income at least for the summer. We are planning to grow a huge garden, grow a pig and add some layers.

    But we know that we will need some extra help because our income is not going to be what it is now.

  2. There really is something to be said for the academic world, isn't there? At least you get notice before you're fired. (I wonder sometimes if that's all to be said for it, though.)

    We'd saved around $15k by the time we stopped getting paid. A substantial portion of that ended up going towards my husband's schooling costs for teaching certification (ironic, no?)--probably around $6k. The remainder we lived on, along with UI and medicaid. We didn't qualify for food stamps because of our retirement accounts (which is probably fair, since we would've cashed those in soon if I hadn't gotten this job). We've still got a small bit left, but I'd say we only had one more month befor things got rough... (and/or we cashed in accounts, if we were allowed to).

  3. Very good advice.

    Luckily, for us, while we haven't had to deal with unemployment, my husband's employer (our primary income) hasn't been terribly stable over the past several years. They've gone through all sorts of lay-offs and pay cuts and furloughs and a buy-out - during which our income was affected (he was never laid off, but his salary has fluctuated - in both directions ;). I say "luckily", because it was the realization that his job was unstable that got us thinking about the need to live on less. There aren't very many jobs in his field at his income level where we live.

    We still spend too much money, but we're living at or below our income level, and reducing all of the time. Most of the "extra" (above basic living expenses) that we're spending is for things that make a lower- energy lifestyle easier, and we have plans for things like an alternative energy system and a "garden" well/outdoor kitchen. These things will cost us money, but in the end, save us thousands, and if the worst case happens, we're set.

    So, again - very good advice, and for us, as long as my husband has a job, we're able to invest in building an infrastructure that will allow us to be more comfortable should we find ourselves without a steady income.

  4. Wendy, that's a great point about overspending in order to make a lower-energy lifestyle. I think that might be a good topic for an upcoming post, because I spent a lot of time weighing whether or not various expenditures were worthwhile, versus saving the money. Like you, I often decided that while we had the money, it was a good idea to spend some of it in ways that would benefit our overall lifestyle.

  5. I'm glad you found a new and likable job. May you have it for a loooooooooooong time, too.

    So many people everywhere,all over the US and I'll bet around the world, too, seem to be preparing for the "great something not so good" that is happening now and will extend for so many years to come.

    I'm a reader of Sharon Astyk, too, and some of the other blogs you list.

    Happy Preparing!


  6. "Assume you'll be fired" is the ground of What Color Is Your Parachute as well, an oldie but goodie. It treats job search as the ground of all being, kinda like hunting and gathering ...

  7. Thank you so much for this! I can't agree more on preparing for the lean times ... I haven't been as much as I should (or um, at all really), but I'm fixing that now. It's good to know that there are so many programs out there if things go south!