Tips for Living on One Income During Unemployment

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On September 28, 2012 (yes, I have that date memorized), my husband unexpectedly lost his sales job. With no warning, with no severance, and with no vacation pay-out. He told me at ten that night after our daughter had gone to bed, and we stood there in silence for a few minutes, our expressions mirroring each other: utter shock.

As would be expected, my first concern was money. After a year at his traveling sales job, we'd racked up a lot of his travel expenses and needed to save his last expense check for bills. The credit cards would have to ride, and ride at a nearly maxed level. Our savings account was less than $2,000. We knew we should have six months of expenses saved up, but since the recession hit, it's been tough all over, Ponyboy, and we'd been making paying down credit cards our priority (the irony!). It seemed like a cruel joke that he would leave that credit-card-slamming job with $4,000 of work expenses we'd have to eat so we could continue to, you know, eat.

As we re-enter the land of dual-income families with my husband's new job, I wanted to share what I learned during those three months of balancing a two-income life on one income + $320/week in unemployment. If this happens to you, take heart. You can make it through. Friend after friend called me and told me their unemployment stories -- one friend's husband (who was the breadwinner) was out for six weeks, and one friend (who was the breadwinner) was out for eight months. It helped immeasurably to hear their stories, because it convinced me that even if we had to take some desperate measures, I thought we could squeak by for about six months before things got really ugly. I tried not to think about what would happen when the unemployment ran out. 'Cause it does, eventually.

chopped vegetables

Credit Image: gfhdickinson on Flickr

Run, Don't Walk, to Sign Up for Unemployment Benefits

Unemployment benefits vary state to state and individual to individual. In Missouri where I live, you can be eligible for up to twenty weeks of unemployment benefits, depending on myriad factors. It's nearly impossible, despite the calculators, to figure out what a person will qualify for, so just go register. In many states like Missouri, you can do it online. It takes two-to-four weeks for the benefits to kick in. Ours came on a debit card, which didn't arrive for three white-knuckled weeks on one income.

Unemployment benefits also have a maximum. It's not like you're going to get some percentage of your salary -- no matter what you earned before, in Missouri, your weekly benefit maxes out at $320/week.

You should absolutely get unemployment benefits if you qualify. It's not a hand-out -- it's taxed, and you paid in. There is no shame in collecting unemployment -- it's more like collecting on your car insurance if you get in a wreck. You paid in on the off-chance something bad would happen, and because you were required to by law. Now it's time to withdraw.

You have to record your job searches and do weekly check-ins. My husband and I joked it was like the government version of making your teenager kiss you goodnight so you could smell her breath. My guess is that they want to get a visual on you once a week to make sure you still exist.

What happens after the 20 weeks? I'm not sure. It seems to be different for everyone. In 2009, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which extended unemployment benefits after state benefits ran out for some people. It's not guaranteed, and I find the whole affair really confusing. Apparently, your state unemployment agency is supposed to tell you if you qualify or not, and for how long.

It's crucial the unemployed person apply for way more jobs than he or she will be required to in order to collect unemployment. My husband spent six hours a day for three months rewriting his resume, applying for positions, searching for jobs, networking with ex-coworkers, taking webinars on Excel, PowerPoint, you name it. I've never seen a more organized unemployed person, and I respect him so much for getting up every day, getting dressed, and hitting it. I know his unemployment could've lasted a lot longer were he not so dedicated to his search.


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