According to Fox News, the definition of poor has changed. A U.S. Department of Energy study shows that 99.6% of “poor” people in the U.S. have REFRIGERATORS. How poor can one be if you still have a perfectly good refrigerator? There is some truth to that, barring the fact that millions of dusty, decrepit refrigerators abound in barns and garages across the nation. People can’t them give away. Besides, an epidemic of botulism from unrefrigerated foods would burden the upper class with higher medical costs.
Newsflash: the dire chain of events that people find themselves in these days usually takes years to unravel. It happens very slowly, over time, like the slow-motion movie of the end of the world (play video), in spite of one’s education, abilities, ambition, and smarts. My situation has occurred in spite of (or maybe I’ve survived thanks to) my savings, my *stellar* platinum AAA credit rating, the fact that I rarely use credit cards, much less carry a balance, and only borrow at very low interest rates for short periods. Um…so far…knock on wood.
(Goodness, that’s really depressing. Ooh, ouch. My circumstances don’t feel THAT horrible. Some days are really tough, but the world keeps spinning and life goes on…)
The circumstances leading to my current situation make me quite an expert on job loss. I have been laid off, terminated, reorganized over, contract not renewed, position eliminated–whatever you call it, it still feels like FIRED–a total of eight times since I began working 26 years ago. I’ve been a single parent for 13 of those years. That is enough to shake anyone’s confidence, for sure. But how I’ve stayed confident (as opposed to assuming a fetal position in the corner) is a topic for another blog.
How did I get here? How does one find oneself in such a compromising position? And how on Earth does one survive (assuming Earth itself survives)?
After my Nov. 2008 layoff from my salaried-with-benefits position, like many people, I was unable to find another full-time salaried job. For two years, I applied for innumerable jobs (all career-focused writing/editing positions), sent hundreds of emails, and went on too few interviews. I did find some freelance work, which stretched out my unemployment income and made it last longer, but eventually my benefits ran out.
When I was finally offered a full-time job last year as a writer at a marketing directory company that-shall-remain-nameless, I was in debt. The job paid an entry-level salary doing stuff I was overqualified to do. I prepared for the interview with the enthusiasm of an Emmy-Award winner. I hesitated to take the position when I heard the salary–it wouldn’t stop my financial free fall into the black hole, just slow it down a bit. But I really didn’t have a choice. I negotiated an extra $5K/year thanks to my experience and took the job anyway.
I continued my enthusiasm on the job. The prospect of losing my salary AGAIN was enough to make me amenable to anything, no matter how unpalatable. Besides, I liked my boss and coworkers. The commute was only an hour a day. I thought it was odd that I never got a key to the office, and that the forms to start my 401K never materialized, but whatever, I didn’t have money to pour into a 401K anyway. I was happy to have a full-time salaried job–a desk, file drawers, a computer, a phone! I was eager to throw myself into the fray: to work long hours, switch gears every other week when my job description changed, and direct deposit that paycheck twice a month. Unfortunately, the company, a start-up, was unsettled in its modus operandi, which is only ever apparent in retrospect. After only two months I was laid off along with half the staff right after holidays (which, I can say with experience is INFINITELY better than being laid off just BEFORE the holidays!).
I opened an unemployment claim, but after only two months of work, the benefits were very low. Luckily, I hadn’t been off the freelancing market for long, and soon found some work editing market research reports.
Within a few months, the market research firm hired me full-time but with a temporary contract (read: no benefits). The salary was much better, the job a better fit for my experience, and I was glad to be working full time in spite of my hellish four-hour-a-day commute. When my contract wasn’t renewed after six months (in Sept. 2011), I was more than a little disappointed. But I was comforted knowing I had done my best, and that at least I’d be able to collect unemployment again while I looked for another job. However, I soon discovered that the claim I had opened earlier from my two months at the marketing company took precedence. Instead of upwards of $600/week (generous but commensurate with the cost of living in MA), I would receive only $216/week. The past six months of full-time salaried work wouldn’t count until the earlier claim was exhausted.
Now don’t get me wrong: I am grateful for this “free” unemployment income from the Commonwealth, even if it is equivalent to the income of a gypsy in post-communist Romania in 1969. So many people in impoverished countries and even in this wealthy one are starving, homeless, destitute, and have lost everything. People laid off from minimum-wage jobs may collect less than that. Waiters, construction subcontractors, and freelancers do not qualify for unemployment benefits. I am very familiar with this, having been a freelancer for much of the past four years. After my benefits ran out, when I was out of work, I had no income at all. But I really thought the safety net would catch me after working at salaried jobs for 3/4ths of the past year.
I called the unemployment office to check; how could that be? I worked at companies that paid unemployment insurance. It’s unfair, agreed the phone agent at the unemployment office, but that’s the way the law works. “Your previous claim takes precedence. Besides,” said the rep, “it’s not supposed to be enough for you to live on, it’s just supposed to be enough to help you get by while you find another job.” I’m not sure why anyone would think that $216/week was enough to help two people “get by” for any length of time, unless you live with your parents. But whatever.
Once the old claim was exhausted, which could take 4-5 months, I could file for a new claim at the higher amount. I knew from experience I would quickly find something–that’s the full time job of the un*employed. But what? And how quickly? On that income, I would be so far behind in my bills in 4 months, I would be on my way down the slippery slope of losing everything I had managed to keep the past four years. What a tragedy to have poured all your savings, as well as some of your friends’ and family’s savings, into keeping your home, only to lose it to the mortgage lender later–especially when that lender accepted our tax-fueled bail-out money!
After the panic passed, I reviewed the worst-case scenario (cue above video again). Which bill will I skip when the time comes? The mortgage? The condo fee? The car? THE CABLE / INTERNET?? (*Horrors!*) I began the process of trading in my car, and looked into short-selling my house. My dear family members vowed to help.
But something surprising made me feel better within 24 hours: selling my stuff. With the price of gold, copper, and silver at record highs, I quickly made a couple hundred dollars on some broken jewelry, my wedding band (I don’t need THAT), and some coins. I took the stuff to a local coin collector shop. I didn’t miss it a bit. It felt great! Next, I registered for an eBay account to start selling stuff at auction. And if not salvation, I hit upon something very satisfying indeed.
Selling stuff is much more rewarding than borrowing more money or skipping a bill. If you have anything of value you can ship, eBay is an unemployed person’s best friend. The first time someone suggested to me that I should buy stuff on eBay and sell it at a profit, I scoffed. But I started collecting things into a pile, I didn’t realize how much unwanted stuff I had stored away that I could sell immediately.
I used my digital camera to snap a staged photo of my item, and the Windows photo editor to crop, brighten, and/or combine two photos into one. I drafted an ad highlighting the best features of my “product,” established the lowest “Buy It Now” price, and set the lowest starting auction price I could stomach. If an item didn’t sell, I re-posted it, adjusting the price. The first month, without even trying, I made nearly $300 getting rid of unwanted costume jewelry, shoes and accessories, electronics, and sports paraphernalia, reducing clutter in the meantime. Now that’s not enough to pay the bills, but it didn’t take much time, and I collected shipping & handling fees as part of the price. Next up, I might sell some items too big to ship, for which craigslist is going to come in handy. Craigslist is a great source for jobs too.
Of course, this can’t last. I will eventually run out of stuff. The bottom line is, I haven’t yet had to beg or steal. I am not on track to sell my appliances any day soon (they’ll just go with the house). If on the other hand, if you could use a second-hand Linksys WRT110 router, a Canon ink-jet color printer, a Jabra Bluetooth binaural headset, or a pendant/earring set of green Brazillian amazonite, let me know. They’ll be on eBay as soon as I have time to list them.