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lucky13 womanI have been too busy to update my blog in many, many moons. I feel badly about that, but allow me now to remedy that, because today was a huge landmark day–indeed an awesome day–in the story of my life.

Back in October of 2012, my mortgage servicer Homeward Residential basically entrapped me with the Home Affordable Unemployed Program (HAUP) forebearance program.  I managed to pay my full original mortgage amount within the grace period during the first month of this federal program, to save my credit from being dinged. But Homeward rejected my check because “my loan was in a special status.” I paid it again immediately and wrote to them explaining that I had paid on time, but they had rejected my check, so in the future, they must stop rejecting my full mortgage payment if I’m able to make it. I was told before accepting the HAUP terms that I could pay as much as I wanted every month. I requested that they credit me the $36.60 late fee.

I received a letter in the mail merely reiterating back to me the situation I had already spelled out, without any mention of accepting my checks in the future or crediting me the late fee. Just…no help at all. Apparently, once I had accepted HAUP, I had signed up for full-scale destruction of my excellent credit, monthly late fees, and more! The absolute worst part? The twice-weekly collection calls from “robo-callers” denigrating me in Indian accents with insults about how “I entered an agreement when I obtained a mortgage” and “this is an attempt to collect a debt.” I couldn’t screen these robo-calls because I had canceled the $10/month Caller ID service on my phone to cut back on expenses. Every time I answered the phone, I spent twenty minutes confirming my personal identification, and explaining where in their system the robo-caller would see that I’m on a federal program called HAUP, and no, I don’t actually owe them money and would they please stop calling me!? (No, they wouldn’t stop, they informed me, “until I came current on the loan.”)

I put aside as much money as I could every month over the next six months to enable repayment of the $8400 that Homeward estimated I would have to pay at the end of the six-month forbearance program. Mostly I just paid down my debt, knowing I could tap it again to save my home if I had to. And I tried to avoid answering the phone.

“One and a half more years,” I told myself, until my son graduated from his high school and I could move somewhere warmer and less expensive.

Six Months of Hating HAUP

Here’s what happened next and over the next six months:

  • The “late payment” subsequently appeared on my credit, as it did every month, even though I pre-paid the $5/month set forth in my payment agreement. This brought my FICO score from a 793/850 (excellent) to a low of 632 in December 2012 (not good). But I expected this.
  • To add insult to injury, Homeward socked me with “collection fees” to pay for the privilege of being harassed.
  • Homeward added $500 in fees for “property inspections” that never occurred, and late charges.
  • Instead of $8400 at the end of the program in April 2013, Homeward claimed “Past Due Amounts DUE IMMEDIATELY” of $10,800. The statement added up. It seemed correct. The mistake seemed to be in their earlier estimation of what I would owe at the end of the HAUP period. Oh, they were just kidding! I owed much more!
  • Near the end of the six-month HAUP forebearance plan, Homeward Residential sold my mortgage to another mortgage servicer, which effectively eliminated any option to dispute the charges.
  • My unemployment benefits ended unexpectedly when Congress shortened the federal extension Tier. Without proof of “unemployment benefits”, I didn’t qualify for an extension of the HAUP program.

This was all horrible, no good, very bad news.

The Good News

  • The good news is, I found more work. Here’s the meat of the matter: Because my unemployment benefits were so low (based on a two-month stint of employment in 2010), I never stopped for a minute looking for a job, and selling my stuff on eBay, and looking for ways to get by. I didn’t find a full-time salaried position with benefits that would replace more than about 50% of my pre-recession income. What I did find was more freelance work. Gradually over the past 1.5 years, the infrequent science-and-technology writing and editing assignments grew into a bit of regular recurring contract work, and those contracts grew into recommendations for more work, which grew to another contract, and now I’m hopefully negotiating another.
  • Over several months while the new mortgage servicer, OCWEN, reviewed all their new mortgages, my inflated Past Due Amount grew, but only by my original monthly mortgage amount. OCWEN respected the intent of the HAUP program even though it had technically expired. They did not begin foreclosure proceedings. Collection calls stopped.
  • OCWEN informed me that without unemployment benefits, I couldn’t continue in the HAUP program. They would consider me for the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), they said, but I was wary. I’d been rejected four times in that program for insufficient income.

Nevertheless, I applied in March 2013 for HAMP. AGAIN. Sometime in April, an OCWEN rep told me, “You don’t qualify for HAMP. You make too much money.” I almost spit at him, “I knew it!” until the second part of that sentence kicked in. “Wait. What? I make too much?”

“Yes,” he said apologetically. “But you may qualify for in-house refinancing.”

Sure enough, at the end of May, I qualified based on my income (a self-reported “Profit and Loss” spreadsheet for three pretty-atypical but good-looking months) for a new mortgage with OCWEN. They rolled all that extra nonsense money I owed (grr…which I had no power to dispute) into a new mortgage, with no closing costs or money down. Sure, the new mortgage came with an annual percentage interest rate 1/2% higher than it used to be, and my monthly payment increased by about $100, but it’s better than foreclosure. I looked into other mortgages, but other banks required $8000 down, and here was my chance to maybe catch up! NO MONEY DOWN!

And yesterday, I signed the agreement, and requested that my bank wire my first payment on the new mortgage.

Today, OCWEN told me I’m all set. They have received my agreement, the wire has been received, and I can pretend none of this ever happened.

More good news:

  • My credit score started upward again in April when OCWEN bought my mortgage and stopped reporting me as delinquent. The rest of my loans and credit cards are in great shape, of course, so that helps. I’ve been told by a used-car dealer friend that even at its lowest point, my credit score would have still been too high to justify the type of buy-here/pay-here loan his lot offered. Surprisingly, as my credit dived, I began to receive more daily credit-card offers in the mail than ever! The credit card companies love to give money to people to whom they can charge interest and late fees!
  • My debt is paid down. I still don’t have much if any disposable income to speak of, but I believe I can keep my house until my son graduates high school in … less than a year! My mantra has become “Less than a Year! Less than a Year!”

The best news of all is something my friends and family already know. I now have a special someone in my life, besides my son and my great support network of family and friends. I met this “someone wonderful” years ago around town when he was unavailable. About a year ago, I saw him out and about and he was, luckily for me, available. And interested! While he has some means to have possibly “saved me” or at least helped me in unhealthy rescuer fashion, setting us up for rocky interdependence, I said no. I *do* let him pay for “dates” where ever we go, and travel, which he loves (and who doesn’t!?), but as much as he is generous, I am convinced that my happy ending depends on *me* saving *myself.* I believe in Cinderella being a co-ruler with the Handsome Prince, not another dependent on his tax return. We’ve been very happy, had a lot of fun, and have many more fun things planned together. Including moving someplace warmer and cheaper. Together.

But that’s a whole ‘nother blog.

No help, no hope from HAUP.

In my last post, I described how I was hanging on by a very thin, frayed thread to my excellent credit score and barely able to pay my mortgage during my period of un*employment (a term I coined to represent a combination of unemployment and underemployment). Since February 2010, I have been working to stay in my home. In the first attempt, I applied directly with my mortgage holder for a mortgage modification, which was denied for lack of stable income. Next, I moved on to working with government financial advisors and/or directly with my mortgage holder to apply for the Home Affordable Mortgage Program (HAMP) and the Home Affordable Unemployed Program (HAUP): I was denied four times for various reasons.

Pile of paper

HAUP gives hope to the mortgage company, but otherwise has wasted my time and a lot of paper.

I figure it’s my duty to other Americans in similar straits to relate how HAUP works. I couldn’t find much about it online except eligibility guidelines and how to apply. Here’s what you should know about how the program works — or doesn’t, in my case.

I started my fifth application process in July 2012. After supplying them with reams of paperwork proving my lack of income, dozens of calls back and forth, and dozens of form letters in response, I finally got the letter accepting my HAUP application in the mail today! The letter was from my mortgage servicer, Homeward Residential, previously American Home Mortgage–a simple name change facilitated the shedding of their bad image as a recipient of American tax dollars as bail-out money. The letter said Homeward approved a forbearance plan through HAUP. This means that they are willing to postpone or forbear from initiating any foreclosure proceedings for (in my case) six months (the minimum term is three months), and that my new monthly payments will be reduced to $5/mo for six months.

“YAY!” I said in my kitchen to myself. “FINALLY! YAY!”

But then I read the terms of the three-page letter. This is how HAUP works: Interest will continue to accrue during the forbearance period. I must continue to pay the taxes, which are in escrow with Homeward. Among the key provisions: the principal and interest that the bank suspends (in my case, for six months) will accrue as an unpaid balance of approximately $8440.77 — which will be due immediately upon the end of the forbearance period. In other words, in six months, I will be in default to the tune of $8440.77, which will be reported monthly as delinquent to any credit reporting agency. This would obviously shred my good credit.

At that time, until any “Default is fully cured and all amounts due and unpaid have been paid, the loan remains delinquent.” The mortgager “may continue to report the loan as delinquent” every month. So even if I pay that balance off eventually, say at the end of my loan term in another 20 years, I will have been “delinquent” for 20 years.

I called my “relationship manager” and she confirmed that not only will the bank call all my deferred payments due after the six-month period, that during that six months, the bank will be reporting me as delinquent, even if I make the $5/mo payment they’ve set up for me.

So, let’s say I get a lovely, high-paying salaried position (just go with me) at the end of the HAUP forbearance period. Anyone who has been un*employed even briefly knows it takes months, even years, to get back on your feet after you start working again. My first priority would be to get back to paying things on time. With any extra (extra?) income, I would need to pay down my home-equity line of credit and stop using my credit cards. I won’t suddenly have enough money to pay a delinquent $8440!

Furthermore, if I can’t pay that $8440 immediately when it’s due after the six-month forbearance period, the agreement says that they’ll be able to start foreclosure proceedings against me.

The letter says that after the forbearance period, the bank will consider me for a modification under HAMP. They do not guarantee that I would be eligible for a modification under HAMP or any other program. As a matter, of fact, we both know I won’t qualify for HAMP. I’ve been rejected four times because my freelance income is too unstable and irregular. HAMP has been a useless program (for me) because if I made enough money to qualify for a modification, I wouldn’t need the program– I’d already be making my mortgage payments on time. If I don’t make enough money, I won’t qualify for the program.

How does any of that make sense? Who does HAUP help? The only person that would be helped is someone who is already in foreclosure; and all it does is buy them six months before they’re in foreclosure again. Thanks but no thanks!

This HAUP program was set up to help unemployed people, but it is clear that HAUP is no help, and doesn’t give homeowners any hope.

It’s hard to say much, if anything, good about HAUP, except to say that for a few people, it may buy them some time while destroying their credit. Perhaps, if they already have terrible credit, HAUP is just the thing. The letter from Homeward does specify one way to skate on the loan, the forbearance plan, and your home–that is, if you can’t make the payments in the forbearance plan, you are off the hook if you obtain a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Either way, forbearance via HAUP gives you no hope to save your credit score. And it only delays an inevitable foreclosure.

A couple of friends (who have stable jobs) have told me they’ve had success with modification after trying and trying, and not to give up hope. Knowing a couple of people whose persistence paid off has motivated me to apply for modification five times so far. Although I don’t have a steady income that qualifies me for a more useful type of modification, the minute I obtain steady income, I’ll be reapplying for a much more helpful modification plan!

The good news for me is only that Homeward promises not to start foreclosure proceedings on me for six months, as long as I make that $5/mo payment. I’m planning to continue to pay my mortgage in its entirety over the next six months–somehow. But if I can’t make my payments, I’ll pay what I can above the $5, and hopefully get back on track with owing a much smaller amount when the forbearance period ends. Either way, I dread what that will do to my heretofore stellar credit, which I will need if I have to rent an apartment after losing my condo. What a pain!

The other good news is that my son has now begun his junior year in high school. In another two years, I expect he’ll be in college (with help, I hope, from scholarships, grants, and student loans), and I’ll be moving someplace–preferably warmer–where the terrible schools don’t matter.

Wish me luck!

The audacity of my tenacity

Abby Bulldog

I can relate to the bulldog: the definition of tenacity. This is Abby, who I happen to be dogsitting this week. She’s just as loveable as she looks!

Since my layoff from my last full-time salaried-with-benefits position in November 2008, I’ve had the audacity to continue to pay my mortgage, taxes, and condo fees on time, in spite of my inability to do so. How I’ve done it is complicated, and is the subject and motivation of this blog, which best reads from the beggining.

But last month was the first time I was late <***SOB***>. It was horrible to see that invoice from my mortgage servicing company with a late fee of $36.30, which has been tacked on to what I owe, accruing at a low interest rate of 3.375%.

I would have missed the payment entirely if it hadn’t been for “A Friend.” Someone I know (apparently), or at least someone who reads this blog, sent me an anonymous money order drawn on the Bank of America in Billerica (a MA town) for $1000. It was post-marked generically from MA, and was marked from “A Friend.” A friend, indeed! To this saintly person (who I actually suspect is among my atheist friends), I thank you from the bottom on my heart. You bought me time while I wrangle with my mortgage company to qualify for help through the Home Affordable Unemployed Program. The HAMP program was initiated by President Obama to give incentive to mortgage providers to help struggling homeowners stay in their homes.

I call my bank every week, hoping to get all my paperwork in on time, and to receive a modification or a reduced mortgage rate while I’m unemployed / underemployed. But I’ve had no luck.
Here’s what I’ve been through so far:

Mar. 5, 2010: Home-Affordable-Mortgage-Program (HAMP) application DENIED. Reason: “Insufficient income / insufficient collateral.” (No $#!*!)

Aug. 16, 2010: HAMP application DENIED. This time, I got three different responses from my mortgage provider with reasons for rejection. Get this: Reason 1: “Your loan is current / not at risk of default.” (That’s right–they wouldn’t help me because I wasn’t late on my payments.) Reason 2: “Your debt to income ratio is too high.” (You think?? Duh!) Reason 3: “A HAMP modification would have resulted in excessive forbearance.” (Meaning: You can’t afford your crappy 2BR condo so we’d rather just take it from you.)

Oct. 2010: HAMP DENIED again. This time, the reason was a cryptic “Modification is not allowed under current Pooling Servicing Agreements.” After this, I just quit applying. And I worked for six months in 2011, so was able to continue to pay my mortgage.

June 11, 2012: DENIED. AGAIN. Since my last application, the government had added another program category specifically to help unemployed homeowners–the Home Affordable Unemployed Program (HAUP). My application was denied with a reason stating: “You did not provide documentation indicating that you currently receive unemployment benefits in the time period indicated.”

This was particularly frustrating, because I most certainly did provide my benefit determination letter (not to mention bank statements and a pile of other documents). But the mortgage service company identified an error in my lag period (a date range of “01-01-12 to 12-31-11”–an illogical range). Unfortunately, the state of MA says it wasn’t an error. Basically American Home Mortgage Servicing rejected my application because they wouldn’t accept my explanation (that I received from the state) saying a lag period starts with the end of the last quarter of your benefits, and ends with the end of the benefit year you worked in, i.e., I don’t have a lag period.

Around this time, I got the $1000 money order from “A Friend.” So I was able to pay my mortgage, albeit late.

I am now in my FIFTH application process. American Home Mortgage Servicing sold my mortgage (they probably made a solid profit and were ready to get out) to Homeward Residential. My paperwork “appears to be in order.” I’ve heard this before. As in the past, my account is “under review.” Around September 9th, I should have (another) final decision on whether they’ll reduce my payments and refinance my balance at a lower interest rate.

I hope (against hope) that all this effort and the $1000 from “A Friend” weren’t in vain. I try not to dwell on the fear lurking there. I really shouldn’t bother to go there, to my rather substantiated fears that in spite of that ridiculously generous gift, Homeward Residential will again determine that $216/week of unemployment benefits and a bit of freelance income is absolutely not enough for me and my son to afford this small condo, which I could easily afford when I bought it with tens of thousands of dollars of savings and a comfy salary in 2005. I don’t dig very deep into the terror and dread that we will suffer the loss of our home before my son can graduate (two years left!) via short sale or deed-in-lieu, or worse, foreclosure (as happened to my son’s father already. Isn’t one traumatic loss of a home enough for one kid in a lifetime??). I really have the audacity to believe that I will DENY the bank the pleasure of being the recipient of all my savings, all my efforts, all my goodwill, and particularly, all the good and generous donations I’ve received that have helped me stay in my home.

The audacity of my tenacity.

To the bank, I say:

DENIED.

______________

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The secret to my success, or playing on while the Titanic sinks

In my last blog, I shared an unfortunate series of events that affected this blogger, which led to several friends saying things like, “Good grief!” “Ugh! So sorry!” and “I don’t think it can get much worse for you! Things will get better!” and “Hang in there!” I bet many of you can relate. If you can’t, I hope your life looks better in comparison. Here, I share the secret number one solution to how I manage(d) to not fall apart completely on a sinking ship.

Oh, um, that. Yes. Ahem. Well, I did in fact fall apart completely while at jury duty when I got notice that my unemployment benefits would be reverting to less than a third of the full amount, for approximately the next year. If you call sinking my head into my hands and going through a box of Kleenex kindly provided to me by the courthouse juror staff “falling apart.”

There’s a scene in the Monty Python movie, The Holy Grail (my all-time favorite), where a medieval mob brings a “witch” to a judge and wants to burn her. As evidence against her, one villager (played by John Cleese) yells, “She turned me into a newt!” Everyone looks at him. He says awkwardly, “I got better…”

Monty Python's the Holy Grail

“She turned me into a newt!…I got better…”

And so did I. Here’s the rest of my story.

And the “secret” of my turn around.

Get dismissed

Wouldn’t you know it? If you are crying inconsolably and obviously distressed and emotional, they dismiss you from jury duty! I was in the first group called into the courtroom, and they called “Juror number 2” immediately. That was me. They brought me up in front of the judge, looked at my swollen red eyes, asked if my condition would make it difficult to serve, to which I answered, “God, yes!” Juror dismissed, thank you, for another three years. How about that? Within a short period, things were practically looking up.

But as I drove home, I didn’t know what I was going to do. What would I DO???

Find a life boat

Here’s what I did. I posted my most recent bad news status on facebook (adding it to the long list I’d already posted, for anyone paying attention). And I started calling friends. It was the middle of a work day on Tuesday. The first person I called was my friend Carol, who I worked closely with for several years at a previous job. She had also experienced a layoff from the same publishing company along with its subsequent unemployment claim, which eventually ran out, forcing her into early retirement. She follows my story closely, especially on facebook, where I obligingly (and/or rather self-absorbingly) post my general ups and downs. I had been talking to her on Friday about the second job I didn’t get. I call her Mama Settino because she has an uncanny way of following my situation as if I were her own kid. She tells me her family talks about me and what’s going on with me, which is touching, and somehow hilarious, like I’m a Kardashian reality show and they can’t help but tune in. I left her a voice mail.

The first person I reached was my friend Sally, also a past colleague (at the same company as Carol) and now a freelancer, who, like me, has seen plenty of her own difficulties. She knows the struggles of trying to find work after being laid off. I had just been in touch with her about the job I didn’t get. Sally was outraged and sympathetic and comforting in sufficient measure about the news of my unemployment income shock. She calmed me down, and I eventually stopped weeping. She gave me some ideas of what to do next.

Then I reached my friend Jill. Jill is also a past colleague laid off from the same company as Carol and Sally (hmm….a theme…many of my good friends are from work. And boy, did that company leave a lot of hurt people in its wake). She, too, has struggled to find work and provide for her young daughter in the years post-layoff. Jill did what a truly good friend does: she told me how awesome I am. She reminded me how smart I am, how professional, how good I am at what I do, and how much she looks up to me for getting by on nothing for so long and making do. She told me I was going to be okay.

Row, row, row

Soon I had racked up several sympathetic calls and posts on facebook from my friends and family. The next day, I received a call after hours from the MA Medical Security Plan that my application marked “RUSH” had indeed been approved only three business days after I submitted it (miracle of miracles)! I was given a subscriber number over the phone, just hours before I headed to appointments with my new physical therapist and my surgeon. Crisis averted!

Also on that day, I got a request for my resume from an HR contact at a local company. I sent it in immediately and got a call back within five minutes. I’m expecting a follow-up call, so that restored some hope.

I sat knee-to-knee with The Fixx lead singer, Cy Curnin (R) after the concert, a rare occurrence that gave me a significantly better outlook on life.

On Thursday, June 7, my friend Rick called to tell me he won tickets to see the 80s group The Fixx perform that night. He had an extra ticket; he knew I had a tough week; would I like to join him? Why, yes, I would, I said, sniffing and drawing the back of my hand across my tear-stained face. I put on my make-up and went. And I had a blast. Out of the blue, I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in a while who had some ideas on how to help me, so that was promising. And I got to hang out with the lead-singer and the drummer (Yes! of The Fixx!) after the concert and connect with my inner groupie.

Hit the beach

On Friday, June 8, my friend Pam invited me to join her at her time share on Cape Cod for the weekend. “It’s already paid for,” she said, “and we have an extra bedroom. Many of our friends from our ski and sports club are going down. Come on down!” Pam had also had her share of shoulder and neck injuries, which caused her to lose her job, and basically her story just makes me feel like I have plenty of company in my own situation. You know what? I had a great time. I got lots of hugs from long-time friends, danced a little, talked a lot, and met several new friends. On Saturday, we enjoyed a sunny, warm day at a gorgeous beach. All my problems (much like the sinking Titanic) seemed very far away, and as of Monday night, they still do!

Love your fellow survivors

Over the weekend, a friend pointed out to me that I had almost 500 facebook “Friends,” which he felt was a lot. “You may not have millions of dollars,” he said, “but you’re a millionaire when it comes to friends.” I love that!

Looking over my list of Friends, I realized, I do have a lot. And I don’t “Friend” anyone lightly. I have to know you to Friend you. And truthfully, I have to like you, too. I’ve come to the conclusion that no matter whether I can pay my bills, or keep my house, or my stellar credit rating, even if I can’t go kayaking or canoeing this summer, the one thing I can count on is friends. For getting through hard times intact, one of the most important things you can do is cultivate one’s friendships. Friends and facebook, man: my personal route to salvation.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that friends are my “secret.” Calling on your friends and family for support isn’t rocket science. It comes naturally to most people, and obviously many people (ideally) rely on their spouse or significant other for support in life. But if you’re single (and even if you aren’t!) it pays to have a support network as <-wide-> as it is high^ with people you can count on.

Of course, I don’t get to hob-nob with rock stars and visit world-class beaches spontaneously whenever I’ve had a bad week (much less for free). I wish! But the way this week played out was just an awesome example of a sudden turn-around that I had to share. It is great to know it is possible for a sudden turn-around, and maybe that should be the default expectation to cling to when we’re going through hard times. While I’m not looking forward to the fall-out that I must deal with ahead, I know I’m going to continue to cultivate opportunities to keep my attitude adjusted and my head on straight.

The truth is, as much energy as I’ve given to setting up a business, juggling parenting and bills, and staying healthy, it’s the energy that I have put into making friends and keeping them has really been the one thing that has saved my ass again and again from drowning in that freezing water.

That, and playing Bejeweled Blitz. ♦

———–

Related links:

Another great story of hitting rock bottom and recovering

JK Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination” is inspiring and funny, and is an instant perspective changer. How lucky we are to be free and safe. Thanks to my friend, Paul, for sharing it!

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Standing on the deck of the Titanic

Lately I’ve had a tough run of luck.Standing on the deck of the Titanic

I’m thinking that ticking off a list of my biggest troubles might comfort others going through a hard time. Need a little cheering up? Read about someone else’s troubles. It isn’t exactly a feel-good activity, but sometimes commiserating makes your life feel more manageable. So in case you’re going through a rough patch (and who isn’t?), I’d like to lay out my life of late. Misery loves company, right?

1. Health problems

Xmas 2011 in Las Vegas

The author (pre-injury) with her parents in Vegas for the holidays, 2011. As a former Nevadan, I have friends and family there, so I visit when I can.

I had an accident that tore my rotator cuff Dec. 31. It was New Year’s Eve, I was at the MGM Grand in Vegas (see image, right). My sister is an executive there. Lucky me! Around 3 am, a 23-year-old guy I just met asked me to dance. I was enjoying his attention. He was cute. Tall. Nearly half my age. So I said yes. He had been drinking (of course) and I thought it was a good idea to remove him to the dance floor, a few steps from his bottle of champagne. But on the way, he playfully tried to pick me up and carry me in his arms. I backed off a step and tried to hold him off, but I couldn’t prevent him from sweeping up my legs. He took about two stumbling steps and dumped me–quite an effective body slam, actually–onto the cement floor. My outstretched left arm was the only thing that caught both our falls, jamming my shoulder, and then he fell on me, causing an additional impact on the outside of my left shoulder against the floor. Nobody saw us. I actually continued to the dance floor but very shortly ran off to the bathroom to ditch the guy and take stock of my injury. I didn’t go to the hospital that night, but the next day, my shoulder was “crunchy” when I moved it. I knew something was wrong.

A few doctor’s visits and one MRI later, I was diagnosed with a rotator-cuff injury. The protocol was a month of physical therapy (PT) to see if the injury would improve. I was not allowed to ski or really do much of anything over the winter. But the PT didn’t help, so I required a surgical procedure, during which, the tear was found to be worse than originally detected, so they actually had to stitch the tendon through little holes drilled in my shoulder bone. Recovery was expected to be 100% after perhaps four months of physical therapy. But shortly after surgery, a rather unusual condition developed called adhesive capsulitis, where the planes of the muscle get stuck and won’t slide over each other. In my case, I have limited external rotation. In July, I’ll find out whether I need another procedure done under anesthesia to rip through the scar tissue. Ouch. The prognosis is still optimistic that I’ll recover 100%, but it may take a total of 12 months. I can see progress and a reduction in pain month over month, but in the mean time, my daily PT is tortuously painful.

So blah, blah, blah, I have a temporary condition affecting my mobility. It could be worse, and I’ll be okay. Whatever. It’s not the end of the world. Grab a life vest.

2. Insurance issues

Massachusetts has a state-subsidized health-insurance plan that is affordable, called Commonwealth Care. Thanks to “RomneyCare” and my low income, the office visits, lab fees, hospital fees, physical therapy, and medications since my injury have all been low cost–in most cases, free! Thank goodness, because I have no idea how to contact the young man who caused the accident to see if he had insurance. He has no idea what he did to me.

But on Wednesday, May 30, I received a notice that my son and I would no longer be covered on Commonwealth Care. After the annual review of my income, and with the increase in my unemployment benefits (I finally began to receive the full benefit amount in MA in January), we were ineligible. Our health-insurance benefits would be ending in three business days: Monday, June 4. We had to reapply for a different health insurance: the Medical Security Program for unemployed people in MA (and we are fortunate to have that option). But the application process takes 4 – 6 weeks! I require PT every week, twice a week for many more months; I had a follow-up surgeon’s appointment scheduled the next week for June 6–none of which I could afford without insurance (and my existing providers might not be covered). I was told with a letter from my doctor, I could rush the application process for the new plan. I found out that although my doctor was a provider on my new plan, I would have to find a new PT. I immediately got the required letter from my provider, and faxed in the application marked “RUSH.” On Friday, June 1, I hugged my physical therapist, thanked her for her care over the past six months, and said goodbye. And I made a new appointment with a PT who was covered under (what would soon be, hopefully) my new insurance plan.

Meh, so you move onto the deck with your children and wait for instructions.

3. Didn’t get the jobs

I had been really hopeful about two jobs I recently interviewed for. On Wednesday, May 30, I found out I was no longer a candidate for the first one. But I was 90% certain of the other offer; they valued my experience. I had worked for the competitor! They had even called my references! But on Friday June 1, they revealed I was not the only candidate, and they were offering a pitifully low salary–below entry level. Non-negotiable. The hope dissipated.

At least I still have unemployment benefits, I thought. There are lifeboats, after all.

4. Jury duty

I had put off jury duty last year when I was working as a temp under high-pressure deadlines. It was time to pay the piper and attend jury duty on June 5, without further delay. June 5 was a Tuesday.

Okay, no big deal. Wait, is the deck of the ship listing?

5. Schedule conflict

On June 2, my regular 26 weeks of MA unemployment benefits came to an end. The last check was only half of the usual full benefit amount for the week, which is nail biting. I had to file for a federal extension to continue to receive benefits, but as I mentioned in a previous blog, this can only be done in person or by phone, on a Tuesday, thanks to my social security number ending in “2.” As it happened, it had to be done on the Tuesday I had jury duty. June 5.

Is that water around my ankles?

Funny story. It’s coming. Wait for it.

6. Hope sinks

While in the juror pool that day, I was allowed an extra-long break outside the juror room to wait on hold with the unemployment office. I finally got a person on the phone after half an hour, who told me I had a previous federal extended benefit claim, and she would transfer me to …where ever…someplace else. This made me very nervous. The courthouse juror-pool guard waited patiently for me as I continued on hold.

I finally reached a person after another ten minutes, who led me through a familiar series of questions and answers, and informed me that due to my previous claim from the place I worked for two months in 2010, the federal extension would be picking up where that claim left off. I had exhausted 26 weeks of benefits at the end of last year (at $216/week, not very beneficial), as I described in a previous blog, which was the toughest four months of my life. I have been collecting a full amount since January ($678/week). But apparently, when you file for a FEDERAL extension, an earlier claim takes precedence.

This news effectively sank me into extreme poverty again, and effectively, sank me onto the tile floor right there in the courthouse vestibule. This time, it won’t be just for four months. I don’t even want to know how many months I’ll be “able” (able?) to collect that pathetic amount for my son and I to live on. I can’t get by on that amount of income for even another month, much less month upon month through three tiers of federal benefits. It’s barely enough for food (even after the food pantry), much less my mortgage. And last time I checked, that amount was TOO MUCH to qualify us for food stamps or welfare. The juror guard stared at me as I dropped my head, hung up the phone, and pretty much started balling my eyes out.

I had officially entered Crisis Mode. We’re standing on the deck of the Titanic in our life vests. The lifeboats are full. No rescue is coming. And the rising water is cold. VERY cold.

Feeling any better about your life yet? Well, if not, situations change rapidly, especially if you make use of my secret (not the Secret you may know as “The Law of Attraction”), which you can read about in my next blog post.

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Finding freelance work while unemployed, Part II

I have been able to write freelance science and technology articles from home for many academic and publishing clients over the years–sometimes I’ve done it as a sideline while I worked a full-time job. This is what I do best and can actually get paid an almost-decent amount for. It’s really the reason I haven’t lost my home yet (knock on wood). When freelance articles are few and far between, I’ve expanded into editing or writing any science-related content: coffee-table books on astronomy, websites, physics and astronomy textbooks, market-research reports, and dictionaries. I am listed in the new American Heritage Dictionary 5th edition as the physics editor–a credit I’m very proud of. How many people can claim their name is in the dictionary credits? I got to rewrite clunky definitions and add brand new terms–how cool is that? Recently, I have been editing a Japanese planetarium show script–work that pays alright for the part-time hours required and is right up my alley. My hope is that it might lead to bigger things.
Market yourself

My website didn’t have much traffic at first, in spite of my efforts to include search-engine optimization techniques like metatags and keywords. The only people that viewed my website, as far as I could tell, were people I sent there. I found that my hits increased when I posted my website on social media sites like Facebook, twitter, and LinkedIn.com. I try to come up with a legitimate hook to post my website so that my Facebook Friends and LinkedIn contacts don’t un-Friend and un-Link me. For example, a website overhaul can be a good excuse for posting a link to my website on LinkedIn.

Network! Network! Network!

My second piece of knowledge to impart is this: If you’re looking for work, networking is KEY! You might even say networking is the ONLY thing that matters. I got that Japanese planetarium-show-script editing job (mentioned in my last blog) via my first boss, who I worked for in 1986, and who lives 6000 miles away in Hawaii now. He contacted me because we got back in touch and he knew I was looking for work. 

I’m an outgoing person, which is great for networking. Don’t shy away from a social opportunity to chat someone up, because inevitably the question comes up, “What do you do?” I sometimes joke, “Nothing,” but then I follow up by saying I’m an un*employed writer looking for work, and giving them my card. I end up handing out my card to (almost) everyone I spend more than ten minutes with. They may end up in the trash, but sometimes it results in a lead or a piece of work. If you’re un*employed, you probably have had the experience of someone sending you a job listing that is not a good fit. I’d rather have a friend looking for me and sending me misdirected job announcements than one who isn’t! It’s an opportunity to respond with “Thanks, that’s close, but it looks like this position focuses on ___________ (say, the healthcare field), when I have no experience in that. Something closer to ___________ is more likely to get me hired.”

If you meet someone who is also un*employed, this is a great networking opportunity. Ask them what they do, exactly. If you think you can help, ask them to email you their resume. I often ask people looking for work to send me their resume. Not only does that help me really understand what they do, I can offer to give feedback (since I’m an editor experienced with hiring and getting hired). That way, while I’m looking for jobs, I keep an eye our for that kind of job for them. So many great leads have come from past colleagues who were laid off at the same time who know exactly what my function was at my last company.

If you reconnect with someone you’ve worked with in the past or are conversing with someone you know well, ask them if they’re on LinkedIn.com–and if so, follow up by sending them an invite to connect. LinkedIn is simply the best, most valuable professional networking tool around. Period. If you don’t have an account, you simply MUST get one if you’re looking for work. Register for a free account and starting inviting your professional contacts to “link in” with you. Then join as many industry groups as you can find that relate to your profession. You might also want to join the unemployment groups. I set my account to send me weekly digests to keep in touch with colleagues and my groups without drowning me in email. I create a general post that I’m available for work and send out a link to all my LinkedIn colleagues every now and then. Another great function of LinkedIn is that if you see a job opening you want to apply for, you can use the supreme functionality of LinkedIn to search for someone you know who has a key contact at that company!

When I have job interviews (two in the past month–fingers crossed!), I like to follow up by sending LinkedIn invites to the people I met. I let them know that I’ll send them the invite so they can view my recommendations received from past colleagues and clients.

Sign up for freelance and job search alerts

This is my other secret. I thought everyone knew that you don’t have to actively go through a long list of company job sites and career sites to look for jobs every week–I find that’s a sure and direct route to having your time sucked into a big black hole, not to mention depressing. But lots of people don’t seem to know that you can create job search agents on numerous sites so that job alerts come directly into your inbox with a list of jobs you qualify for. I seem to be able to find new targeted job-search email alerts to sign up for every week on LinkedIn alone.

I receive personalized job search email alerts from CareerBuilder.com, monster.com, and LinkedIn.com, as well as several big employers, including Pearson Higher Education, MIT, Physics Today, and AVS. I receive quite a few leads and ideas for freelancing through LinkedIn groups, including Writeful Share, Science Writers, Publishing and Editing Professionals, and several Optics and Photonics groups. When I sign up for a new email alert with targeted job leads, I add it to my list of job-search activities that my state requires one to keep to receive benefits.

Pay your taxes

One thing that is difficult about being un*employed is that you still have to pay taxes on the benefits you receive. This goes double for freelance work. Besides the fact that after a certain point, freelance income reduces your unemployment benefits, you really have to be careful to set aside about half of your freelance income for taxes. In addition to federal taxes, which can take up to 30% of your income, you must pay a 15% self-employment tax, not to mention state income tax, which in MA is 5.25% for 2012. Self-employment income is determined by the collective forms 1099-G that your clients will send you in January, which you must account for by filing a Schedule C (Profit or Loss from a Business). You can write off your business expenses, but even so, the taxes owed can add up to a lot quickly! Quarterly, you must pay what you owe, or face possible fines and interest on April 15.

I keep an Excel spreadsheet that lists each unemployment check, the work I’ve invoiced and the date it was paid, by quarter, as a predictor of how much money I’ll need to pay each quarter. It’s ridiculously painful when you struggle to pay your mortgage and buy groceries to have to fork over your half your hard-earned cash to your state and federal government, but I have a healthy fear of the consequences.The IRS bills you and charges a whopping 24.99% APR on what you owe. I have seen people lose their homes, vehicles, and belongings when taxes go unpaid. So set aside time and money quarterly to pay your estimated taxes!

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More helpful links:

Keeping busy while unemployed

How to find and land freelance work

Get a freelance job

Tax Tips for the Unemployed

Business Expenses You Can Write Off

Starting a business of your own, Part I

Some readers have noticed I haven’t blogged much lately. I don’t have a good reason for this. I had some work keeping me busier than usual in the first quarter, which was good! But not enough so that I couldn’t find some time to blog. I could blame it on the fact that I tore my rotator cuff in a freak accident on New Year’s Eve (some young guy I barely knew tried to pick me up and he dropped me). I had surgery Mar. 29 and I’ve been recovering and going to PT twice a week, doing endless stretches and extensions, so it was difficult to get my left arm to reach the keyboard until recently. My recovery feels very slow, but it doesn’t hurt to type now.

I could blame it on the fact that my son has commandeered my laptop since early March, taking with it my flexible ability to write from anywhere. Then last month, the laptop died, so he has been on my desktop more. Also, it’s baseball season, so sometimes I go right from PT to one of my son’s games. The truth is, I can’t blame my absence on any of those things alone. I just had other things that seemed more important. But here’s a blog I promised to write and have had in draft stage for a while now: How to start a business while you’re un*employed.

Fill up that hole in your resume

To keep afloat during my on-and-off un*employment the past four years, I have been able to do a little contract freelance writing and editing work for various clients. Whether or not I actually had contract work, I decided that it was very important for my resume to appear as though I’ve never stopped working. This is my first real piece of knowledge to impart to the un*employed–don’t let an “unemployed” hole show in your resume. Fill it up with a consulting or contract business!

Pick a name

The first step is to simply to pick a name for your as-yet non-existent business. I learned this trick from my father when he was laid off in the 80s and he set up shop as a geology consultant (I think it was American Eagle Geophysical Contractors). In the U.S., it’s legal to just label yourselfdoing business as,” i.e., “Jane Doe, DBA Fictitious Business Name.”  Picking a name is a powerful step for someone who has lost their job identity.

When I was laid off from from Sky & Telescope magazine in Dec. 2006, I had just obtained a custom “personalized” or “vanity” license plate that said, “STELLR” to celebrate my personal interest and profession in astronomy. My chances of finding another full-time job in astronomy editing were (still are) bleak, so I was kind of stuck with this plate on my car that sort of matched my personal identity but sadly, wouldn’t likely match my next job identity. But I really like the plate, so when I picked a business name for myself, I chose “Stellar Editorial Services.” Now my plate makes sense when people match it to my company name.

Build a website

Once you have a business name, you need to market yourself. A website is an obvious tool that you can send to prospects to feature your work. A website enhances your professionalism and gives you a link to place in cover emails to prospective clients and employers. You should do a little research on the best choice of a web hosting service to make your website accessible via the Internet. You must choose a web host (i.e., a server) unless you have your own server at home.You may be able to afford  pay a little, but I chose a host that was free; the “cost” is that they place their banner ad across my site. I picked www.GoDaddy.com as the webhost, and picked the domain name of www.stellaredit.com. The registration of my domain name is the one thing I pay for every year– so that my domain name remains exclusively mine. GoDaddy offers free hosting of my site on their server (although it’s expected to change to a small fee soon; I might be looking for a new, better free host if I feel up to the task of redoing my website).  Things change rapidly, but when I registered and built my website in 2006, paying an annual fee of about $11 included use of a website design-and-maintenance tool called Website Tonight. It was relatively true to its name. Within an evening, I had a pretty cool home page designed that reflected what my business would be about.

With another day or two of work (and a day or two every now and then to build out and update it), and I had a five-page website with a pageAbout Stellar Editorial,” a page with my “Curriculum Vitae,” and a page with a list of my “Published Samples.” Over time, I was able to add a “Testimonialspage, and in the future will add a page featuring a list of my clients. My webpage makes me look so successful, that in email correspondence with the Unemployment Office, they asked me about this “Stellar Editorial” that I used in my email signature, as in, “What’s this? Are you hiding employment?” It’s their job to scrutinize my claim. (*Note to self: delete the automated signature when dealing with the state unemployment office!) I had to explain that I wasn’t hiding anything; the website is just a marketing tool to help me find work. When I have part-time work, I report the income to the unemployment office. Mostly, creating this business “shell” is just me trying to look bigger than I am. It works–I look “so” employed that the unemployment office did a double-take.

I’ve been laid off from full-time gigs three times since starting my freelance business, Stellar Editorial Services, in 2006. I try to keep the website up to date and registered even when I’m working full time so it’s there for me when I need it.

Get business cards

Stellar Editorial Business Card

Vista Print allowed me to create my own personalized business cards for next to nothing.

Next I ordered 250 free business cards from VistaPrint. I paid $4.95 for shipping, but aside from that, they were free. Everywhere I go, I hand out glossy, color business cards proclaiming Stellar Editorial Services, Professional science writing/editing. I used a picture of a globular cluster and a cool design VistaPrint helped me create. The cards don’t even have a VistaPrint logo on them! One step, and presto-chango–you too, can look very official! It’s easy to make yourself look employed. The trick is actually getting work.

Reach out

Even if you can get some regular recurring work lined up, contract work is unstable and the pay for writers is still sometimes frustratingly low. I have had some limited success supplementing my unemployment income (or rather replacing it occasionally to stretch out the time I can collect), but I sure have had lots of experience trying because I’ve been laid off so many times.

It’s difficult to find freelance work or contract work that actually garners a full-time living wage–especially starting out. Unfortunately, making an actual living is critical if you are the head of household, like me, where the bills must be paid from my work alone. My first gig came within weeks of my layoff, when my ex-employer contacted me to finish a book-editing project I’d been scheduled for. That’s happened several times to me, actually: ex-employers contacted me right after my layoff, hoping I’d finish what I had been working on when I got my pink slip. If employers who are forced to conduct layoffs can get their recently “liberated” employees to complete prior projects as contractors, they get it done a fraction of the expense to the employer. You might be tempted to tell them to take a flying leap off the nearest tall building, but when you’re desperate, that isn’t wise. It’s my policy to never burn any bridges, and take whatever work that comes along, provided the compensation is fair.
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It may seem building a website and getting business cards are putting the cart before the horse. But the next step in getting work, marketing yourself, will be much easier if you’ve set yourself up for business first. In Part II, I discuss what you can do to get that working coming in.
More helpful links:

From plenty of pay to eBay

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.

Karen Walker as Megan Mullally

You want to pay me how much?? Emmy-Award winning acting required! Megan Mullally as Karen Walker in Will & Grace.

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.

When “desperation” leads to good things

December 2009: After a year of freelancing and stretching the unemployment benefits for as long as possible, I had to break it to my 13-year-old son again (in case it wasn’t obvious to him already), that our holidays would again be very small. Although I don’t have family in my state or even in my region, my sister, parents, and friends have been extremely generous in sending us more money than they can spare now and then, and presents to put under the tree for the holidays. (Our Christmas tree was a used artificial one I found at a yard sale that August for $10…the lights don’t all work, but with its best side forward it was still a great find!) However, it’s more than a little heartbreaking for my son and I to not be able to give something special back to our family members and friends in return, and to each other.

This particular year was feeling very grim financially. We had cut back on every expense possible–deep austerity measures were in full effect. The freelance work was hard to find and didn’t cover my basic expenses. I was deep into borrowing from my home equity line of credit, which at least had a low 4% interest rate, but borrowing when you can’t pay it back is a slippery slope. My credit cards, in contrast, were all high-interest rate cards, and using them felt akin to pouring gas on a simmering fire.

This was the month that I broke down and found my local food pantry. I had always told my son that we are not cutting back on expenses by going without food. When he hesitated to ask for something he wanted in the supermarket, I would tell him, “Don’t worry. Food is important. You can get it–we have to eat.” Still, I felt that dark winter closing in on me right along with the inability to pay my bills. The holiday school vacation was coming and I didn’t have the money to buy groceries, much less gifts, so I ignored my embarrassment, marked the day on my calendar, and drove to the food pantry located in a local church annex (a church! And here I should mention that many atheists celebrate Christmas, yule, winter solstice, or “Festivus” but it’s an American cultural thing for me, a habit formed by family tradition

Xmas tree

What’s really important? Certainly not missing lights on my yard-sale-obtained artificial holiday tree! The gifts underneath were from family and friends.

to still call it Christmas). I knocked on the designated door at the back of the church, only to find out they weren’t open that day. The woman peeking out from inside the gate said they were closed the fourth week of every month (it was Dec. 23rd). “Is it an emergency?” she asked. I didn’t know what to say. (“My whole life is an emergency” came to mind.) One look at my face and she opened the door wide. I sniffled and swiped away tears as she took my driver’s license, registered me as a family of two, and led me through the aisles.

As I was leaving with my three bags full of supplies, I passed another lady on her way in, carrying an enormous cardboard shipping box. A moment later, she also discovered the food pantry was closed, and turned around and ran after me. “Excuse me,” she called, hoisting the box, “The lady inside said to give this to you!” She came to my car and as she placed it in my hatch, I could see the shipping box contained a giant, pricey gift basket of holiday goodies–cheeses, cookies, nuts, candy, coffee and too many other goodies to list featuring festive holiday packaging. I burst into tears. The basket, still wrapped in cellophane, was topped off with a gigantic red and gold plaid bow neatly tied around the handle. I couldn’t believe it: it was the kind of gift basket I used to see in the office when I had a job, that vendors would send to our staff. “We don’t need it,” she said, “And we thought someone else might appreciate it much more.” I know she could see from the tears flowing from my eyes that it was certainly going to be appreciated. I hugged her and thanked her again and again. It was a while before I could see well enough to drive home.

Thank you again, ladies, wherever you are. Along with the goodness shown to us from family and friends, you should both know that our holidays were very special after all.

un*em*ployed adj. 1. Out of work; jobless. 2. Not being used; idle.

The author and her son strive to maintain an excellent sense of humor in dire times.

I’m baffled as to how to answer the question I get most often, “How long have you been unemployed?” My answer: define unemployed. It might be when my temp contract ended (Sept. 20, 2011). Or the last time I had a full-time salary with benefits (Nov. 2008). Or maybe the last time I had a full-time salaried position without benefits (Jan. 2011)? Or depending on how you look at it, I’ve never really stopped working–I manage to bring in income every month–somehow.

You might say my unemployment started December 8, 2006, right before the holidays, when I was laid off from my position as managing editor of Sky & Telescope magazine. My wonderful boss came into my wonderful office of this dream job that I had only had eight months to enjoy, and said I would have to go. Advertisers had pulled out in great big chunks from the magazine due to the poor economy and because of the transition to everything being free and lovely on the web. He didn’t have to say print magazines were suffering. Everyone in publishing knew that. With many other wonderful colleagues losing their jobs that day and over the next year (including that boss), this is the layoff marked most indelibly in my mind as my biggest career heartache to date. Usually work sucks and a job is a job, but my family and close friends know my short time at Sky&Tel was admittedly the last time I was thrilled about my job. It’s like a lover that you don’t have time to tire of. It dumped me much too soon and I still pine for it.

To get by while I looked for another job, and to minimize the appearance of down time on my resume, I started freelancing as Stellar Editorial Services. I set up shop at home, built a little website to promote myself, and started networking. Before long, Sky&Tel contacted me to finish some book editing work on a freelance basis, and I began to think, “Maybe I could really do this full-time, not just as a stop-gap.”

But freelance work was (still is) hard to find and the pay was dodgy. I started substitute teaching at my son’s school for $65/day–an income so low, the high-school kids were making more at their after-school jobs. It barely reduced the amount of my unemployment check.

The Sky&Tel layoff was my not first time being unemployed, but looking back, that’s when I feel like I lost my upwards trajectory–like so many of us. Nonetheless, within six months I had another full-time salaried position as senior editor at Laser Focus World magazine (my second time around at LFW). It was solid income, although not the peak of my career or responsibilities. I had been an editor in chief before. But getting paid fairly (there was a nice bonus that year) and being able to go home most nights at a reasonable hour was a fantastic thing, even if the company did start to pile on the work. “We can’t complain,” said a colleague. “At least we have a job!”  Times were tough, we knew…and about to get tougher. After only year and a half, I was laid off of that staff position. It was November 2008. It’s been four years since I lost my health benefits, 401K, and paid vacation days.

After that layoff [Note: it was also my second time being laid off from Laser Focus World–the first was in 2003], I was even more panicked because jobs were even harder to find. So I filed a claim for unemployment in New Hampshire, where Laser Focus World was located. The unemployment benefit rate in NH is nearly half of what it is in Massachusetts, where I live, partly due to a lower cost of living in NH. I might have moved to NH if I didn’t have a shared custody arrangement in Mass. Instead of collecting between $600-800/week in benefits, I was able to collect only $427/week, which included a $25 child allowance and a $25 federal supplement.

Within a month, Laser Focus World hired me to write one freelance article per month for a fraction of the pay I had been getting. Score! But it wasn’t enough. So I started subbing again–always an act of desperation. I was very worried about losing my car. I was worried I would not being able to pay the mortgage on my 2-BR condo. This is when people started asking me, “How do you DO it? How are you keeping the car and your home? What are you LIVING on?”

I could claim it was the obvious: I never missed a week of filing for unemployment. It’s not a big secret: file early and file often! From the week after you lose your job, until you have solid work, keep filing that claim. You don’t know how long you’ll be unemployed. I know people who felt guilty or embarrassed to collect while they were waiting tables. What many people don’t realize that in many states, you can earn up to 30% of your unemployment income before it reduces your benefits. If you earn more than that, it reduces your benefits dollar for dollar until you are earning 130% of your benefits. This enables you to s-t-r-e-t-c-h your benefits over time while you look for a job. Some weeks I made enough money from a freelance project and didn’t need to collect. But even if you only qualify for $50/week–file!

When the benefits run out, that’s when life gets a lot more complicated. That’s where ingenuity, extreme frugality, and the “I WILL NOT LOSE EVERYTHING” mindset must continue on its own, without unemployment compensation. That’s when we join the uncounted millions of underemployed.