The coronavirus pandemic devastated our economy and caused tens of millions of Americans to become unemployed. A Financial Samurai reader shares what it was like being unemployed during the previous financial crisis.
This Is What It’s Like Being Unemployed
My 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.
The 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.
Being Unemployed 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. It was a virtual shut-in during one of the worst winters I’ve seen out here. I hate driving in snow. Facebook became an addition. It was terrible.
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 or Netflix.
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. Eventually, I would have gotten promoted. 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 The Unemployed If You’ve Never Been
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.
Having A Job Feels Wonderful
I was so happy when I got a job offer after six months of unemployment I almost jumped for joy. It felt like 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.
Here are some additional articles on unemployment for further reading.
- What To Say Or Do If You’ve Been Unemployed For A While
- How High Will Unemployment Go Due To The Coronavirus?
- Maximum Unemployment For Maximum Stock Market Returns
- Staying Unemployed: Why I’m Giving Up On Going Back To Work Before Even Trying
FYI: If you have investment income, you can still collect unemployment benefits. Unemployment benefits are tied to W-2 job income, and not to investment income.
Therefore, it behooves everyone to try and build as much passive investment income as possible for financial independence. It’s not good enough to just contribute to your tax-advantage retirement accounts. You must focus on building up your taxable investment accounts and real estate portfolio.
Engineer your layoff: Hate your job? Then you should negotiate a severance instead of quit. I negotiated a severance worth 6 years of living expenses in 2012 to be free, for good. If you quit, you get nothing. Please check out my book, How To Engineer Your Layoff: Make A Small Fortune By Saying Goodbye.
Start your own business: If you feel you’re not getting paid what you’re worth and want to boost your income, start your own business online on the side! It used to cost a fortune and a lot of employees to start your business. Now you can start it for next to nothing with a hosting company like Bluehost for under $4/month and they’ll give you a free domain for a year to boot.
Brand yourself online, connect with like-minded people, find new consulting gigs, and potentially make a good amount of income online one day by selling your product or recommending other great products. Not a day goes by where I’m not thankful for starting Financial Samurai in 2009. Here’s my step-by-step guide to for how to start your own website like mine in under 30 minutes.