What’s It Like Being Unemployed?

Unemployed Man On Dirty Beach In MumbaiMy name is Rachel, and I was unemployed for just a bit more than 6 months starting at the end of 2008, just when the “Great Recession” was in full bloom. The company I worked for was forced to close its office in my state and lay off all of its workers. I didn’t even qualify for severance since I’d started as a temp and was less than a month shy of the cut off date at the time of lay off.

The last thing I wanted was to be unemployed. The economy had already tanked, and now I would be forced to look for work along with 250+ of my coworkers with the exact same qualifications or better. I would have rather not taken unemployment, but the alternatives of moving cross country to live with my parents in the even worse economy of California or starve in the streets were unappealing.

I made about $500/week gross in unemployment benefits, which was the max benefit in my state. Had I lived on the other side of the state line, my benefit would have been reduced by $100/week. This matched my net, so I didn’t suffer any financial hardship being unemployed. The first $3000 you get on unemployment is tax free. After that, it is taxed at your income bracket. However, there is only a one size fits all option for withholding. It is a flat 10%. I decided not to have the government withhold anything, and it worked out well since my unemployment was spread out over two tax years. I got to take advantage of that $3000 tax break twice.

TRANSITION FROM EMPLOYED TO UNEMPLOYED

I didn’t actually have to go through the hassle of applying for unemployment myself since my former employer had to set it up for us due to the number of people being laid off. I just had to fill out a form saying I wanted it about a month or so before we were laid off and turn it in. Everything was ready to go the first week I called in to collect my benefits. I already had my card, and there was no break in pay or anything.

My understanding is that if you have to apply for it on your own it takes at least an extra week for your first check to come in, well balance transfer onto your card that is.

Collecting unemployment is a breeze. You have to be physically able and available to work for 4 days of the week and have applied for at least 3 jobs that week to be eligible. Then you either call in on the unemployment line or log in to the internet and answer the quick little 11 question questionnaire, and they load up the money on your card. You can then have that transferred automatically into your bank account. It’s the easiest money I’ve ever made.

When you first start collecting unemployment, they send you a statement saying what your max benefit is. This amount is based on how much you’ve paid into the system, but I believe it does have an upper maximum and possibly a minimum as well, although I’m not sure about that. My last unemployment check was actually short because I had run out of that benefit. I had applied and been approved for the emergency extension of unemployment benefits which would have started the following week. Luckily enough for me, I had just started my new job and didn’t need to use it.

UNEMPLOYMENT CHANGES YOU

Being involuntarily unemployed for extended periods of time did strange things to me. I don’t think I’ve ever killed more pixel monsters in MMORPG gaming. I also reverted to my college habit of staying up all night and sleeping all morning. Not really a good habit for a job-seeker, but with nowhere to go, I lacked the motivation to wake up early. I never have been a morning person. I was a virtual shut-in during one of the worst winters I’ve seen out here. I hate driving in snow. I became addicted to more Facebook games than any normal person should even know exist.

Unemployment does not resemble vacation. The first week or two, maybe even the first month, but after that it just sucks. My days were all the same. Daytime TV is terrible. They don’t even show good movies on HBO. I had a good thing going for me at the place I worked for. Before the recession hit, business was booming. I was a top performer. I was working my way toward a promotion. I had good benefits and bonuses. Then I had nothing. Now I’ve had to start all over again from the bottom. Such is life.

TRY NOT TO JUDGE IF YOU HAVEN’T BEEN THERE

Had I realized how hard it would be on my career to be unemployed that long, I think I would have started looking for work before the actual layoff happened so I could have had something lined up to start the following Monday. By law, they were required to give us 60 days notice of the layoff. Looking back, that time could have been spent much more wisely.

Keep in mind that not everyone on unemployment is a slacker. When a large business closes in even a small metropolitan area, it gluts the workforce with a large number of people with similar skill sets. There aren’t enough openings to take up all that slack. It’s even worse in a smaller city or town. The people on unemployment aren’t all there because they didn’t work hard or underachieved. Not all of us are gaming the system either. It would have been easy to lie and say I looked for work when I didn’t. All I had to do was check the box yes even if the answer was no. I didn’t do that. I still have the records I kept just in case I was ever audited.

Most of the people on unemployment would rather be working.  (Sam’s note:I don’t understand why the employed are so smug about the unemployed.)  The squeaky wheel gets the grease, or in this case, the media coverage, but I would guess that most of the people collecting the money would rather be working. I was so happy when I got a job offer after six months of unemployment I almost jumped for joy. I was on cloud-nine for months. I was chomping at the bit to get back to work. I’m sure it’s like that for the majority of people.

I’m so happy that coverage was there for me when I needed. I realize that I paid into the system and that it was partly my own money coming back to me, but that doesn’t matter. With the financial management skills I had demonstrated prior to that point, it was better off in the government’s hands, and that’s saying something. That money kept me from moving back home with my parents, a fate worse than death for all involved. I would have done it, but we would all have hated every second of it. We love each other so much more with personal space.

A Few Other Things I Learned Being Unemployed:

* It’s hard to find enough places to apply for whom you’d actually want to work and jobs for which you are qualified. After about 3-4 months, I had applied to just about every company that was hiring for jobs I was qualified to do and actually wanted to do.

* To keep collecting unemployment, I still had to apply for at least three jobs each week. Considering not a lot of places were hiring that winter, I had to get creative. I applied for jobs for which I wasn’t qualified and jobs I wouldn’t take just to meet this requirement. It was a huge waste of time for everyone involved.

* A single person collecting the max unemployment is not eligible to collect food stamps.

* It’s not worth it to work part-time. Really, it wasn’t. I could only gross $100 per week before my benefits were reduced. What job is going to hire someone to work only 12-15 hours a week? Is it really worth it to try to get such a job? Consider the time and effort used to apply for said job, as well as the crazy hassle of reporting that info to the unemployment office. Also consider, those earnings will be taxed, and money has to be spent commuting, etc. If you can make it on unemployment, it’s not worth it to get a part-time job.

* I could make more on unemployment than I could at a lot of the available job opportunities.

* A person can only sleep so much. Filling my free time was hard. Looking for jobs, filling out applications and tweaking your resume only take up so much time in a day. My house has never been cleaner. I never played so many video games. There’s not very many free outdoor activities available in the middle of winter, and it snowed a ton. Trying not to go stir crazy was a full-time occupation.

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Photo: Unemployed man on the Queen’s Necklace beach in Mumbai, SD.

Sam started Financial Samurai in 2009 during the depths of the financial crisis as a way to make sense of chaos. After 13 years working on Wall Street, Sam decided to retire in 2012 to utilize everything he learned in business school to focus on online entrepreneurship.

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Comments

    • says

      No, thank YOU for sharing your insights! I think it’s so important to learn about various situations that could very well happen to all of us.

      I don’t know why there are so many smug employed people against the unemployed. If they’ve never been there, they need to just stop with the condescending attitudes.

      Thanks again!

      • Valerie Ling says

        I so agree with Rachel. I am on Unemployment for the first time as i have worked for 32 years consecutively. After the first six weeks, i started going nuts. As I am now approaching the end of my 26 weeks initially given, I pray i qualify for an extension. Finding a job to pay me the equivelant or close to $45,000 yrly has been quite the challenge. Fnding a reliable roomate without children is another one!! A prayer from each one of you readers is what i can wish for at this time…..Thanks

  1. says

    Rachel- Thank you for sharing your experience. So glad you were able to get a new job after 6 months. I remember how nervous I was, waiting for the first approval for extended benefits. If that approval hadn’t come, we could have lost everything.
    C (my husband) is one of the so called 99ers- in that he collected the full 99 weeks of unemployment (we actually got it for two full years because he worked the census during that time as well) and people really don’t understand what it’s like.
    We were lucky in that we were able to use his layoff as a financial wake up call, and we’re now in a better financial situation than we had been when he was working. But by no means is everyone able to do that.
    And, he still isn’t back at work, but he is now a full time student.

      • says

        It was because of the timing. He was laid off in May 2009, so we came upon our first emergency extension that November. Pretty much every federal extension after that was big news. We had to apply for the first emergency extension, but after that it just got extended automatically.
        He did have to job hunt (and he did, generally 10+ jobs a week if he could find them). He got audited once. They wanted to make sure he was applying for jobs that were at the right level (not too high, not too low) for him.
        He took the census test and passed, then was kept on for a second round of the census, when most people were let go. (And that’s hard work.)
        Despite everything, he got a total of 2 interviews in those 2 years. So it was not a difficult decision for us to send him back to school once I got my promotion and was making as much alone as we had been together when we bought our (current) house.

        • says

          Gotcha. I do indeed remember the economic Armageddon quite clearly. It’s when this site was born!

          Getting a Masters sounds like a good idea. He’ll be graduating as we go well into the upswing.

  2. Darwin's Money says

    Thanks for sharing your personal insight; I can’t help but notice based on this and so many similar stories though how the system is set up to reward complacency (or I guess not motivate people to get a job). You highlighted how you were better off on unemployment than working a part time job. This is true for a ton of people. So in effect, the US taxpayer is subsidizing able-bodied people with ample income opportunities to sleep late and watch daytime TV instead. Sure, I know, can’t judge, but the system itself has the wrong incentives.

  3. David M says

    I was unemployed for 3 weeks over 20 years ago – this was the first and only time I was unemployed. I absolutely hated being unemployed!!!! I know this may sound crazy but I think I was getting depressed and even though I had lots of marketable skills I was worrying about how long it would take for me to get another job.

    I totally agree with you about not judging people that are collecting unemployment. Yes some people are gaming the system but I think the vast majority of people that are unemployed would much rather be working than collecting unemployment insurance.

    Thanks for sharing you story and I wish you good luck staying employed!

    • says

      Do you think if you had a blog to write on those 3 weeks it would have made that time more fun? One of the reasons why I must believe people can’t “enjoy” unemployment is b/c of finances, but also because folks haven’t thought out what they enjoy doing.

      • David M says

        Good question – it was over 20 years ago and thus blogs did not exist – thus I will answer as of today.

        Having a blog would have/would help for sure. As it would give me a release for my thoughts. Additionally, in a blog when you are writing about a problem – you can get lots of advice from others.

        • says

          I feel a blog is a life saver for anybody who enjoys writing and connecting with people. Even if you don’t like to write, it’s an amazing way to feel a part of the world. Very cathartic!

  4. says

    I worked in the real estate industry and I lost my job around 2005/2006. The real estate market in these parts had peaked and the tiger turned around on us overnight. We went from feast to famine. I have not worked for a corporation since and blogged recently that I didn’t know it at the time, but effectively I was retired when my job evaporated.

    I am now placing myself in the ‘retired but not tired’ mindset. I will probably start up my own business later this year ~ I have some ideas.

    I have to say that were it not for my spouse being a high earner, we would’ve been completely screwed. I have no idea what would’ve happened to us. As it was, we had to file BK and lose two properties to foreclosure. After that, we took advantage of the poor real estate market and purchased another foreclosure for pennies on the dollar at auction. It was the smartest move we made in years because we almost have enough money saved in a ‘mortgage payoff fund’ to pay the house off this year hopefully.

    It sucks to be unemployed. I felt completely useless, depressed and on the scrap heap. We had to learn to live on one income much sooner than we ever thought but, thankfully so far, we are doing fine now.

    • says

      Quest, thanks for sharing your story. I’m curious, how did you muster up the courage to buy new property after you foreclosed on two properties? How much time passed you by? And, did you pay by cash since I’m assuming your credit was hurt due to the foreclosures?

      I’m glad you are back on your feet now. Were you able to get unemployment insurance?

  5. HMI says

    I spent a few months painting houses while looking for a job. I was lucky, my brother ran that business and generously agreed to hire me short term. I’m an engineer by education and while I was not unemployed I pay more in taxes now (a year later) with my current job then I made as a painter. It’s a terrible feeling, I can’t imagine doing it for sixth months without generating income.

  6. says

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I can see why it’s so difficult to be unemployed when you have the drive and energy to do more. How do you document the applying for 3 jobs/week. Do you just fill out the questionnaire or do you need to show more paper works? I always thought I wouldn’t mind collecting unemployment for a while, but perhaps it’s not all that great.

  7. says

    I can certainly relate to Rachel. It’s not easy being on unemployment. I was there about 10 years ago for a lengthy period of time and had applied everywhere I could think of too. It can be a very discouraging place to be.

  8. Andrew says

    No wonder people who are unemployed and currently receiving unemployment compensation get such a bad rap. There shouldn’t be “jobs you wouldn’t take” when you’re unemployed. Even jobs that are beneath you should be gladly accepted until something better comes along. Receiving $500/week free money prevented you from accepting any job or applying for any job. Unemployment compensation should not be straight cash. Instead, the program should provide job training assistance, education financial assistance, and food vouchers. There’s a huge disincentive to work anywhere and everywhere when you’re getting free money.

    • HMI says

      I agree, the system is flawed but it’s hardly the unemployed’s fault. I wouldn’t take a job that would pay me less then what I would earn from unemployment and likely significantly less than what I was earning a few short months ago.

      I think we all talk a big game, and for the most of us we will never have to prove it, but many wouldn’t accept jobs below them until the situation turned dire.

        • Andrew says

          One more flaw of the system is that those who earn higher incomes receive higher payouts than those who earn lower incomes. It’s usually the ones at the lower end who need the assistance the most. They have nothing else to fall back on. Perhaps unemployment compensation should factor in assets, income, and education level. One could argue that they’ve “paid into” the program, however the employers are the ones who actually paid into the system. It’s really supposed to be a “safety net” for those who really need the assistance. It isn’t “fair”, but this world never was “fair” to begin with, I suppose.

  9. says

    Rachel, The unemloyment now rivals that in the early 1970′s and is so debilitating. I’ve been unemployed and I remember looking at the grocery store clerk with envy and replying to myself, even she has a job. It is really hard, and I totally empathize with you. Thanks for the story.

    • says

      I agree. The day they told us about the layoff most of my coworkers went across the street and started drinking. It wasn’t even 11 am yet. I was so stunned I couldn’t even think straight.

  10. says

    @Andrew
    I would have been stupid and irresponsible to just take any job, especially one that would not allow me to meet my fiscal obligations. What kind of idiot decides to give up money that they’ve paid into the system to get so they can default on debt and not be able to afford food? For the record, I didn’t turn any job offers down. I just didn’t apply for jobs that wouldn’t let me meet my obligations.

    • Andrew says

      Actually, you didn’t pay a dime into the system. It’s the employer that pays into the system. You mentioned that you didn’t apply for jobs you wouldn’t take. This shows that you were unemployed and you were highly selective in what jobs to work in. That’s the flaw with the UI system. Perhaps, not necessarily a fault of yours. We’re human and we’re all bound to do what’s right for me. The system wasn’t designed to accommodate such large numbers of applicants for such long periods of time. Once the economy tanked, people started to take advantage of the system. In that sense, the system is in need of a major overhaul.

      Here, take a look. http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/federalbenefitprograms/a/ucprogram.htm

      • says

        Although it says employers pay into the system, the employer pays the employee, and all cots that are associated with the employee is baked into the employee’s salary.

        Can you provide us some of your background? eg have you been unemployed before?

        • Anna @ Good Cents Savings says

          I’ve worked for companies that hire subcontractors and employees for similar projects and generally the subcontractors are paid 10-15% an hour more because they don’t cost the company things like unemployment insurance, paid time off, etc. By taking a W-2 position you are accepting that UI will be part of your compensation.

        • Andrew says

          Right, but subcontractors are generally not qualified to receive unemployment insurance. Just letting you know. Taxes are also not factored into subcontractor pay. The subcontractor is responsible for taking care of his own taxes. “Less money” for regular employees or “more money” for subcontractors. It all comes out in the wash.

        • Anna @ Good Cents Savings says

          @Rachel
          Exactly – I was using the subcontractor example to show that like Rachel said, the employee is “paying into the system”, though indirectly. Because she took a W-2 position she was eligible for unemployment benefits but she paid for them with reduced take home pay.

  11. says

    I can certainly relate to the unemployment woes. I actually went through the unemployment transition twice. Once back in 2000 when I was laid off and again last year when I voluntarily left my job. As Rachel said, after the first month or so it isn’t like a vacation anymore and you can become somewhat aimless.

    The first time I was fortunate that my company was part of an anti-dumping law suit and all of those laid off were offered 2 full years of unemployment provided we were attending school. Of course I immediate enrolled. In addition to the continuing benefits being back in school gave me something useful to do, but I also played a LOT of video games and go back into the college mode of staying up all night and sleeping until noon.

    The second time should have been easier since it was a voluntary termination, but I still took some time to get adjusted to being unemployed. Granted we also moved from the US to Thailand so I had the cultural adjustments to make at the same time. Blogging has played a HUGE role in keeping me motivated and connected to others. And considering that when I was in college the first time I had dreams of being a writer blogging has finally allowed me to realize that dream, even if somewhat amateurishly.

  12. Anna @ Good Cents Savings says

    Thanks so much for sharing your story – it is very interesting to hear the perspective of someone who has been through this. I find it so frustrating that a dis-incentive to work part time is built into the system. It would help the unemployed individuals feel productive, get out of the house, and could possibly lead to a full time position, and it would help the companies find high quality workers for part time positions.

    I was talking to a friend recently who said he has a really hard time finding part time help and a lot of people he talks to say they’d love to work for him if it didn’t mean they’d be bringing home less each month than if they just stay on unemployment.

  13. says

    Being unemployed is good and bad. You have more ‘free’ time but you have no income and no insurance! But, it can lead you to think outside the box and land something completely different that changes your life. That’s what happened to me!

  14. BusyExecutiveMoneyBlog says

    Very powerful post. Appreciate the candor and the willingness to share. I have unfortunately been on the other side of the equation and I’ll tell you while it is cleary horrible to be laid off, there’s a lot of sleepless nights that for employers that must lay off good people. I’ve personally never ever been able to get used to that discussion.

    • says

      I can see how it would be terrible to be the one doing the layoffs. In this case, they closed the whole building at one time. It was a huge meeting. They handed out packets and sent us home so we would be gone before the night shift came in, and they could do it all over again. That was just a bad day for everyone.

  15. says

    I could relate to a lot of Rachel’s feelings and experiences. I spent over a year collecting unemployment from Jan 2009 to April 2010.

    I would like to point out a couple of things…

    The first 3-Grand of unemployment is no longer tax free. I’m 99.9% sure that changed in 2010 and all UI benefits are now taxable.

    Also – I disagree with the concept of part-time work not being worth it. At first I had that mentality too. But remember, those benefits are there to supplement your household income and help you get by – it’s not a paycheck.

    If you can find part-time work you should take it. There’s a specific formula for partial UI benefits. While my benefits were reduced, I think I was actually making more money overall when combine with the income from a part time job.

    I understand the idea that looking for a job is a full-time job. However, many part-time jobs can be turned into full-time. That’s what happened to me. Plus, it looks much better to be working and many studies show long-term unemployment makes you less employable.

    So should you take a part-time job at McDonald’s? Probably not. But if you can find one in your desired industry…why not do it?

    • says

      The problem with that was that I was trying to change industries, and there weren’t a lot of part time jobs available. I could have earned about $400 more gross/mo, but that would have added tax and gas expenses, etc that I wasn’t paying before. Although it would have been more money overall, in the long run it didn’t feel like a net gain.

  16. Untemplater says

    Thanks for sharing all of those insights Rachel! I’m glad you were able to find work. That must have felt awesome. I can see how you would get cabin fever in the middle of winter like you did!

    • says

      It really didn’t help that it snowed like crazy that winter. I was crawling the walls and my Wii got a workout because I just couldn’t sit still any longer.

  17. says

    Hi Rachel,

    Your perspective of being unemployed is dead on! I was unemployed (laid off) late last year and it was shocking to me when it happened. I cried from the moment I walked out the door, on the way home, and most of the evening. It was devastating. And yes, I started staying up way to late, and then sleeping my mornings away. Depression maybe??
    I applied to a multitude of jobs and ….. nothing.

    As it turns out, my unemployment may have been a blessing in disguise. It was a time for me to rest and recover. In early December my mom was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I became a caregiver for both her and my dad for the next three months. She is better now. And so am I.

    I have started my eBay business again, this provides me the flexibility I need if and when my mom needs help/supervision again.

    • says

      I actually just started my blog about a month ago. I didn’t know anything about blogging at the time. It would have been great if I’d had this to do. Of course, that also assumes that I bring in income with my blog. So far not the case, but I’m doing it for other reasons, mostly my insane love of books.

  18. Lisa Jervis says

    Thank you for the thoughts that are in my mind also. Sure being unemployed is okay for the first couple of weeks, after that you wonder. About a year of my time went to my parents, my father was sick and eventually passed on, that was terrible. Before that my mother-in-law passed. I worked for a large company also, I was lucky to get a severance, now almost gone. I coupon, shop at Aldi’s and Target. We don’t eat out at all. I do my garden, watch every penny I have. My children pitch in to paying their car insurance. My mom buys me yarn to crochet baby afghans I crochet. I volunteer at a Nursing Home and even went back to school, luckily I received a grant, even for gas to get me to school. I feel depressed a lot, sad, angry, upset you name it. Hope something happens soon…

  19. says

    I enjoyed the first few months of my unemployment. Because my loans were in deferment and my credit card limits were high and I lived in New York City… Definitely not the smartest move, financially, but I did a lot of living in those months.

  20. Rye @PPI Claims/Reclaims says

    My hubby was unemployed for 9 months. But 6 months out of the 9 he wasn’t actively looking for a job. The three months that he was busy I was pretty much involved in it too. I felt all his frustrations and his excitement. And we both jumped ecstatically when he finally got the job. Being unemployed is terribly frustrating that’s why we should seek out other sources of income.

  21. TL says

    Great post about unemployment. I’m sort of in the same boat though my unemployment was of my own doing. I was discharged from my last position and unfortunately was not granted UB from the government.

    It’s been about 3 months since being discharged and I’ve been busy with projects but nothing close to sustaining my previous salary. I totally agree with your post, there’s only so much a person can do in a given day before they go stir crazy. I wasn’t giving much effort to looking for a job until about a week ago.

    I get up at my normal hours (before 7am) and go to bed around 10pm so keeping my routine hasn’t been hard, it’s just filling my days with things to do. Sure I have a lot of time and could be working on some stuff but at this point I’d rather be back working and making a real paycheck.

    Great post about unemployment!

  22. AnotherRachel! says

    Hi Rachel… this is funny, I am Rachel too, and I literally just got a new job after 6 months of unemployment! I realize your post is from last year, but the information inside is still dead-on true. I had to take a little bit of a salary cut for this new position I am starting this week, but I think my new job will be a step up in terms of title and responsibility, and it’s with a great and stable company. After 6 months with no other offers after 300+ apps, networking, etc, I couldn’t be too picky. I see this job more as a stepping stone, and will swallow my pride and enjoy the “ride” back to work. I am grateful, ever so grateful, that I am no longer unemployed. Now, I have my identity back! I can start to feel like me again!

    One thing I would recommend to those who have lost their jobs is to try to find small moments of joy in their life. Embrace friends and family, learn a new hobby, read, volunteer, etc. Being unemployed, long or short term, is gut-wrenching, boring, tedious, stressful, blissful, and so many more conflicting emotions. You have to keep at the applying- sooner or later, a job will come! Have faith. Good luck to all

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