“How do you DO it?” people ask me all the time. How do you keep paying your bills as an un*employed single parent? (un*employed is my shorthand for unemployed or underemployed, similar to how ve*gan includes vegans and vegetarians–groups that have much in common). The answer is what I call the full-time “job” of the un*employed.
When you’re out of work or underemployed, how to supplement your “unlivable wages” becomes the problem du jour in your life. Part of my secret to getting by is that how to pay the next bill consumes my every waking moment, my every thought when I am eating, showering, using electricity, paying bills, looking for work, considering an invite from friends, writing this blog, or driving to the food pantry. My full-time job was (and still is) figuring out how to stem the tide of money going out and increase the amount coming in.
Woe is the person who asks an un*employed person, “What do you DO all day?” If you’ve ever been without work, you know finding it consumes your day: networking, searching for job openings, sorting through email, applying, drafting cover letters, customizing your resume for each position, registering for job services, dealing with recruiters, and attending job fairs. Work not forthcoming, you have to find the money for rent and mortgage: can you borrow it from your home equity line of credit? Refinance your home or car? Use your income tax refund? Cash out your kids’ college savings funds? Take it from your retirement (never a good idea)? Each one of those choices takes days of work during business hours to deal with banks, creditors, and retirement account agents.
I have spent weeks on the phone with my mortgage lender to try and qualify for mortgage refinancing or modification via the Home Affordable Mortgage Program. Hey, how about that? A program for people like me in danger of foreclosure! For five months, I filled out paperwork, faxed documents, and responded to more requests for paperwork, only to be told that I don’t qualify because 1) I am not behind in my payments and 2) I don’t make enough money to pay my mortgage even if it were refinanced. Ridiculously, I have never missed a payment in spite of the fact that my mortgage lender says I don’t have enough income to do so. They would rather foreclose on my home than risk giving me a mortgage. So I rebel and continue to pay it. If I am late or miss a payment, the fines and fees will begin, and so starts the process of me losing my home. I don’t feel like being late is an option: if I lose my home, and I don’t have a job, I can’t get another one. I can’t get another mortgage or even rent an apartment because I don’t have a job! I don’t have family I can move in with nearby, so I am dedicated to paying that mortgage.
You can spend hours a day on the phone with the unemployment office or the health insurance office, asking what happened to your check, or disputing a mistake. In both NH and MA, you are usually stuck for an hour waiting on the phone for a real person while you listen to terribly repetitive synthesizer music with the oft-repeated message: “Your call is important to us. Please remain on the line for the next available agent. Your call will be answered in the order it was received.” You may wait on-hold for hours, only to reach a robo-message telling you the office is now closed so you’ll have to call back later–meaning a week from now because Tuesday is the only day for social security numbers ending in “2.” I’ve waited on hold for an hour, reached a person, only to be disconnected and have to do it over again! I swear, the tune of the on-hold music in the unemployment office haunts my dreams–a synthesized baseline of two notes going back and forth with an occasional cymbal crash. I am not kidding!
The last time I opened a claim, I had to go in person to file because I missed my designated day to open a new claim by phone that week. I drove for about half an hour only to found that my local unemployment office was permanently closed due to state budget cuts. It hadn’t moved–it was just shut down, transitioning all services to “phone only.” Oh joy. Nothing sucks up your day like dealing with the unemployment office–or any government agency–by phone.
Basically, the unemployed must spend all day on the phone to find their next dollar. My 15-year-old son, bedeviled by our lack of discretionary income, got a work permit and now has a job bagging and stocking at the local supermarket. Amazing how many video games you can buy when you work six hours a week at $8/hr. While it isn’t what I’d prefer him to spend his hard-earned money on, it helps the mood of the teenager in my household a lot.
Promotional specials are my best friends. I regularly call the cable company, the power company, my internet service provider, and the phone company to negotiate a better deal, take advantage of economic specials, or cut back on my services. There’s only so much you can cut back before you have to do away with TV altogether, but when you’re unemployed, TV is your only entertainment after dark. So I kept basic cable by using a promotional deal. I can’t cut off phone and internet service if I want to freelance or be available for an interview. So I kept my phone and internet by using a six-month promotional special. In New England, shutting off the heat isn’t an option, although utility companies do offer state energy assistance for customers receiving certain types of state aid (none of which I qualify for–would you believe at $216/week, I make too much money?).
So I network my ass off, work at cut-rate freelance work, and coupon-cut almost every waking minute. But the shiny side of the coin is that unemployment also has its rewards. I can pick up my son from an after-school event instead of leaving him to the wolves-of-chance that he’ll find a ride or have to walk home several miles, partly along a dangerous highway with no sidewalks. I can sleep later in the morning. I try and do something productive to earn some piddling money every day (yay, eBay!), but at least all my closets are cleaned out. I can go to the doctor or take my car in for service during business hours (I got promotional deals for free oil & lube services for a year too). I consider going to the library a guilty pleasure–nothing like reading the memoirs of people who have survived tragedy to make one appreciate one’s own circumstances. Plus, I am always home for dinner! (An unemployed single parent has no choice but to always be home for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When you can’t afford to eat out, you get to cook and do dishes for every meal, every single day! Yay!) A huge thanks to all the friends who have hosted us for meals!
Sometimes I even have work! Like today…after posting this blog, I have some part-time temp work to do from home while my son is working. It doesn’t pay much, but later, I’ll sell some stuff on eBay and maybe even facebook–if I have time.