Job loss has got to be one of the least sexy topics out there. We all know it is there, of course. Every day we hear the news tell us about the Dow Jones and economists peering into their crystal ball telling us how jobs and unemployment will do under different political and economic climates. But we all sort of tune it out, don't we? It can't happen to me. Right? Here are XY and Z reasons why I won't be sitting on the edge of my bathtub wondering why a successful career went up in smoke when the board of investors gets jumpy. This is what we tell ourselves when we hear truths that make us uncomfortable... it can't happen to me.
It is a little like being broken up with. Isn't it? Why me? Why wasn't I good enough to stay on with the rest of my colleagues? It is embarrassing and painful.
Job loss and layoffs are this perfect trifecta of the emotions of being broken up with (Without a chance at closure. While everyone else carries on happily frolicking in the field of paychecks and health insurance.), identity (What am I going to do now? Am I ever going to be good enough?), and money (Holy sh*t, how long can I make this savings last?!?).
Doesn't make for a happy topic, does it? Well, that is what I am going to talk about today. Yep. Going headlong into how we survived and navigated a horrible, scary, sudden, termination.
I think we need to talk about it for several reasons.
1. Is that this very easily could happen to you. Budget cuts. Economic downturn. Slow business. All of it ripples out. You are not immune from being one of those "several million" that Bernie Sanders talks about.
2. A chilling survey from the Federal Reserve found that 40% of Americans couldn't come up with $400 in cash (and even credit!) in the event of an emergency.
3. We need to break the stigma. It is a horrible thing to have to happen. It attacks your self-worth, value, identity, security, and life... this is not something that anyone needs to walk through alone. Ever.
We. Need. To. Talk. About. This.
Scott and I both came of financial age in the wake of the Post 9/11 and 2008 Recessions. We knew that jobs were as certain as your health. There were plenty of things you can to do protect yourself and reduce your risk of "something bad" happening, but it is certainly never a guarantee. We were very calculated in which career paths Scott went down and what levels of education he received. "Is this a solid industry? How likely are you to be pigeonholed? What about the health of the company? What is your 5-10 year plan? Is the conference a solid networking opportunity?" But just like a daily walk and spinach isn't a guarantee of a 105th birthday, so a series of prudent career choices doesn't guarantee immunity from the investor board chopping block.
We had seen the carnage that came about when people made terrible financial choices: both on Wall Street and on Main Street. We knew we never wanted that to be us if we could help it. With that knowledge in the back of our minds, we prepared for financial "what-if's" very early on in our marriage. And by early, I mean Wedding Day + 30. We are the financially conservative sort of people who paid off student loans early, had a retirement plan by age 25, took our jobs very seriously, paid cash for cars on Craigslist, and bought homes below the approved "loan amount" and yes, we had an Emergency Fund and a Crash Plan "just in case".
Now please know that this is not going to be a self-congratulatory post about how wonderful and wise Scott and I are. We are not here to parade around "good choices" and throw around smug numbers that would make Susie Orman kiss her fingers like an Italian chef. We married very young (21 and 24, respectively). It goes without saying that at that time we did not have any sort of high-powered successful careers with scads of money laying around. Oh no. There were times when we had $125 in our "emergency fund". And the reason why I know it was $125 is because we had an auto-draft of $25 taken out and put into that account every month and so the number was always tidy like that. We have put car repairs on a credit card and prayed we could pay it off one day. Emergency funds and crisis plans are not something that just appears. You have to work at it, fine-tune it, re-evaluate, re-evaluate, re-evaluate the plan to make sure it is still tracking and relevant to your current circumstances. We kept working, planning, and socking money away and man, are we glad we did.
This is our lay-off story.
Like I said earlier, our story actually begins fifteen or so years ago when Scott and I are were baby-faced idiots who were making their "future plans" together. Among our conversations of income potential, family size, retirement, and home buying we talked about the "what-ifs". We never beat around the bush that Scott was the breadwinner. It went without saying that if he were incapacitated or lost his income for any reason we would be decently hosed. While it seemed unlikely that a popular, successful, smart, seasoned, knowledgeable, well-versed, savvy, in-demand IT employee would ever be applying for unemployment we knew there was still a chance it could happen. And then what?
In fact, I am haunted by a happenstance meeting I had in the year that followed 9/11. Some friends and I had ordered a pizza and were lolling around outside waiting for our order to arrive, as 20-somethings do. A well-spoken, distinguished-looking gentleman walked up to us wearing a red polo shirt and carrying our order. His gray coiffed hair and posture stood in stark contrast to the job he was doing. One thing led to another and we asked what a guy like him was doing in a place like this... he told us that he was a successful businessman a few months ago, but the recession that followed 9/11 left him jobless and his career went up in smoke. So here he was, delivering pizzas to earn money. A job that was so clearly beneath him, that he was overqualified for, the shock of his circumstances still registering on his face... judging by the look of him he wasn't far from retirement either. All of it was gone. Gone. Nothing to do but adjust and carry on. While I realize there isn't a lot a person can do to anticipate a devastating terrorist attack, greedy Wall Street Turds, a pandemic, a global recession... the truth is we would be wise to plan for the worst... as best we can.
There were lots of reasons why Scott and I have chosen to be financially conservative, but one of them certainly is that we wanted to be able to weather the storms that the world threw at us. We read a lot of books about investing, financial stewardship, and spoke with individuals whose financial health we respected. Ultimately we became comfortable with a 3-pronged approach to managing our money and lifestyle- which yes, wove and intersected with retirement plans and what-ifs.
The first was to practice Financial Minimalism.
At its heart, the idea of Financial Minimalism is to not commit yourself to any sort of contract/payment/financial obligation that you otherwise could not easily get out of. This meant things like contract TV and phone subscriptions, car payments, credit card debt, gym memberships, house payments, etc. We wanted to keep our commitments and overhead as low as possible so that should a sudden loss of income occur, we could easily shut down all excess spending and focus on the essentials.
Yes. It meant we lead a less-flashy life than that of Scott's colleagues. We also didn't care. Not having to stress when the Dow Jones got fussy was worth it.
Furthermore, we were always very shrewd about not buying more "house" than we could afford and making sure that whatever house we bought was something that was a sound investment that would appreciate in value and sell quickly. Read: We did not buy a behemoth McMansion in the Sacramento suburbs- despite massive pressure to do so. Instead, we opted for homes in solid neighborhoods that were modest in size and maintained them so we could sell at any point in time.
We never ever had a car payment. Old cars off Craigslist. We stick with dependable brands like Honda and Toyota: parts are cheap, maintenance is cheap, doesn't give us any sh*t.
Our lives have been structured this way for so long it simply feels like second nature. And now in the wake of the 2008 Recession as well as the COVID Recession people make fun of us a lot less for our frugal choices.
The second prong was The Crash Plan.
Scott has obviously been the breadwinner for the entirety of our marriage. I've worked odd jobs and when the kids came around I became a full-time stay-at-home mom. We knew we were taking somewhat of a risk in me not having some rollicking successful career, but we were comfortable with Scott's income potential and felt that it was worth the trade-off. Be that as it may, we weren't naive to the fact that we were more financially vulnerable living on a single income. So we worked hard to shore up our financial position. From the get-go we had a plan for what we would do should something happen to Scott or Scott's income (whichever came first). For us, personally, that would be me re-entering the field where I had actual hard skills which was/is Healthcare. Wherever we lived I knew where to get my license renewed and how close we lived to the nearest hospital. And of course, the salary I earned would be nowhere near what Scott earns(ed) but, it was something. And something is surely better than nothing.
The Crash Plan also involved axing all extraneous spending (See Financial Minimalism) and go into a sort of money hibernation where we only spend money on food and keeping a roof over our heads- more or less.
The third prong was The Emergency Fund.
The spooky Emergency Fund. Most financial advisors say to have 3 to 6 months of living expenses saved up. Like I said our "Emergency Fund" has varied wildly from our early days of a few hundred dollars to now which is more, ahem, shall we say Susie Orman Approved. The point is that we kept working on it. We have continued to save and prioritize. Don't feel shame about a $25 Emergency Fund. Keep at it. Keep saving. No normal person from a normal family with a normal job just wakes up at the age of 18 with $50,000 resting comfortably in a bank account for a rainy day. It takes time and effort. The point is something is better than nothing and honestly, awareness is half the battle. There are some cool saving resources HERE.
As with keeping emergency water bottles in the back of your car: It is better to have it and not need it than it is to need it and not have it.
I'm really glad we had it. And we actually never ended up needing it (more on that later). But also know that an Emergency Fund will only get you so far and you can't live on savings forever. This is why we felt comfortable with a 3- pronged approach to managing our finances.
The Crash Plan, Financial Minimalism, and The Emergency Fund were the three things we carried with us throughout our adult life. And life was good. We were vaguely aware of what the Dow Jones was up to, contributed to our 401K, kept up on what was going on in Silicon Valley, and generally felt like we would probably never actually need our emergency fund.
Then it happened... one terrible, terrible fateful morning Scott delivered The News.
There are really no words to express how devastating it was to be laid off. I could get into the fact that this was clearly a dick move on the part of Scott's former company, but I won't. Job loss changes you. It just does. As much as inspirational speakers and little memes on Instagram fly around saying things like "Don't let this define you" there is no getting around the fact that we now refer to our lives as pre-lay-off and post-lay-off. It is a big deal, and it cheapens the entire trauma of that experience to say "it doesn't define you". Heck, yes it defines us. It defines us BIG time. And in fact, we have completely restructured our lives to protect us from this kind of thing in the future.
We felt conspicuous in the days following The News. Like we were marked, unworthy, a new statistic for people to blow off in favor of screaming "Stay home, save lives" on social media. I remember laying on the red rocks in Sedona fending off an optical migraine. Scott jumped into a pool of water. We stared blankly ahead of us wondering what we did to deserve this. Anger and resentment flickered in my periphery, much like the bright neon lights of the migraine that threatened my vision.
Big, heavy questions weighed on our shoulders. How long would it be before Scott could find a job? Would the pay be the same? What would we do about health insurance? It was scary and unsettling and while we never expected this kind of misfortune to befall us, we were prepared for it.
Within a few hours of getting The News, we immediately implemented our Crash Plan. Friends and family extended their "extra homes" to us should we need a place to stay. Knowing that our savings could go a lot further if we didn't have a mortgage payment (and ballooning property taxes) we decided to offload our biggest asset/liability: our home. Scott and I had steadily been cooling on the idea of the Pacific Northwest for several years. It was an expensive and impractical place to live. Having our governor lock us in our homes and close our beaches was enough to seal the deal for us. We were out. We called our realtor in Washington (we were Sheltering-in-place in Arizona, remember?) and told him we needed to sell as soon as possible. Thankfully our home had gained considerable value in the 3 years we had owned it, and we felt confident that we would easily be able to sell it for more than what we paid.
The next thing we did was cut all unnecessary spending. We canceled our gym membership. Took our grocery bill down to the bare minimum (no alcohol, deli meat, etc) and went to beans, rice, and peanut butter mode instantly. No more designer, fancy shampoo. No more impulse buys on Amazon. I even remember staring at this cool looking lip balm at CVS and telling myself "No. Not anymore. Use what you have first."
The truth is this kind of thing didn't really bother me. Living frugally is kind of a game for me. Shopping sales, hustling bargains is what I do best. However, suddenly being forced into this lifestyle without my consent bred a fair amount of resentment. I resented the "Former Company", the people who cheered on a recession feeling as if it would never affect them, the government leaders who were so caught up in their own pride they refused to honor the suffering they caused... it was horrible.
This was unprecedented. We had no idea how long this would go for. The whole world was a mess. The economy was shit. (Don't even get me started on "putting lives over economy". Job loss and economic downturn cause deaths. The hashtag should have been "Stay home, save some lives, end others" Don't believe me? Look HERE, HERE, and HERE.) We stared at our savings and saw just how finite it was. Sure, we could get by for 6 months if we needed to, longer if we could sell our house. But how long was this going to last? How long would the world be freaking out? Would Scott be delivering pizzas in a few months? And did we want to spend our savings just because public pressure caused economic fallout? We shuddered at the thought.
Scott was advised by his "exit team" to immediately apply for Unemployment. Under "normal" circumstances we would probably have held off on applying for social services. However, these were unprecedented times and we had no idea how long this would last. So he applied. I cried. My friend assured me "This is your money you've already put into the system. You're just getting it back now." Except we didn't get it back. No.
The severance Scott received disqualified him from Unemployment Benefits, and the great state of Washington decided that they could hold off giving him the money he had paid into until he had drained more of his bank account on beans and electricity bills. It didn't stop there, of course. While he wasn't eligible for any money, he was fully expected to regularly report to the state about which jobs he was applying for. So, no money- but feel free to use up all your job leads so you can stay in our system.
Unemployment is not designed for people at the top of their careers. There aren't scads of postings for a 15 year, highly paid, cybersecurity consultant, and even so these jobs are calculated career moves. Not a swift paper application in a dank back office that smells of french fries with OSHA fliers taped to the walls. These things are precious and take time and networking. And so every week Scott would report the three jobs he applied for, wondering how many more would be around in the coming weeks and months... with no money for playing the game.
The strategy we took is that Scott still had a solid chance at maintaining the status quo with his career. He could still make a lateral or even upward career move in the coming months. For the present, we held firm that he should try and find a job that was comparable or better to the one he had just lost. Obviously, as time went on we would be willing to adjust. In short, we agreed that now was not the time for him to apply at Pizza Hut.
I went straight to work, tho. Healthcare settings were desperate for staff who had either been laid off or too nervous to return to work in the wake of COVID-19. So it wasn't hard to find a job for my skill-sets. Again, under "normal" circumstances I probably would have waited until our funds and job prospects started to dwindle before making such a major lifestyle change. However, these were unprecedented times. Who knew how long companies would be shy about adding on new staff, particularly "expensive staff". That coupled with the complete failure on the part of the Washington Unemployment Office we figured it was best to start bolstering that financial stockpile as soon as possible.
Scott's job was to find a new job and take care of the kids. His resume and references were fresh and sparkling on LinkedIn and other top job sites. He worked with recruiters, called old colleagues, and had several very promising job prospects within the first week of being "jobless". While this was all well and good, we were hurt and jaded enough to know nothing was worth celebrating until the ink was dry on the offer letter.
Going to work was actually a really great option for me. It gave me a chance to get away and to not be jumping with anticipation every time Scott's phone rang. I felt productive and like I was actually able to help the situation. I bought one pair of scrubs on Amazon and washed them every night. I couldn't/wouldn't bring myself to buy an extra pair. Putting a runway on savings certainly puts things like that into perspective.
We were also really grateful to be in Sedona, Arizona close to friends and family during this time. There was plenty of free entertainment with hikes and creek access in Sedona and our loved ones gave us all the love and support in the world. We knew we would never be alone. We knew we would never be homeless, per se.
The kids adjusted surprisingly well to all the changes. We were very open with them about what our circumstances were. That "Yes, dad didn't have a job. No, we won't be starving on the streets. We have money saved, just not any money coming in. We've got it under control and we are doing everything we can to get back to normal." The panic in their little faces was terrifying and heartbreaking to watch. However, we wanted them to be part of this season. Kids are smart and are far more perceptive than we give them credit for. We opted for the most honest and age-appropriate explanation we could offer. We also hoped that the kids would see our example as one of preparation, resilience, and grace that would hopefully carry them into responsible adulthood.
Two promising job leads were on the table by the end of week one. High-powered, fancy people were in Scott's corner fighting to bring him on board. And EVEN then... EVEN with fancy, high-powered friends and colleagues haranguing HR to get offer letters out the door it still took a MONTH before Scott started his new job. A month. As I said earlier, this was/is unprecedented times. This is why I went to work. This is why we immediately began to unload our home from our balance sheets. This is why we canceled our gym membership and ate simple foods. Everything was topsy-turvy. Unemployment failed us. Even with the Vice President of an international fancy-pants company beating down the doors of HR to get an offer letter signed and sealed it took a month before Scott was back at work. If that doesn't chill your "it would never happen to me" bones, I don't know what will.
I'd love to say that Scott went back to work and we all lived happily ever after. But I can't. Scott went back to work and we were angry, jaded, hurt, and nervous.
Sure, his new job was happy and healthy and paid beautifully. Sure he liked his colleagues and enjoyed his work. Sure, sure, sure... but you also don't go through what we just did and expect things to return to normal. There is no more normal.
Putting our "what if" plan through its paces was a great way to see if we had a reasonable plan, to begin with. Should we have more money saved? What about our monthly expenses? Could we trim those up a bit more?
Truth is, we feel really good about where we were before this all went down. You can only have "so much money" saved before you realize you'll need infinite amounts of money to feel secure. What if it had been months? Years? What about insurance? Housing?
The financial gurus advise their little 3-6 month trope (a trope which I absolutely agree with) based on normal circumstances- there was nothing normal about the 2020 Pandemic Response. Nothing.
So, we realized that we never want to be in that kind of position again. Ever.
For us, that means that we find additional streams of income so we aren't dependent on a single one. At the moment we are toying with several options ranging from short-term vacation rentals to me getting my butt in gear and making some actual money by writing.
I suppose you could say we've added a fourth prong to our approach of managing our financial security Additional Streams of Income.
We have some interesting irons in the fire with regards to all that, and I do plan to chronicle those adventures here as well. So stay tuned.
We did sell our home in Washington (over asking price, within 24 hours of being on the market) and we are holding on to that money while we figure out what our next steps exactly are. For now we are living in Arizona. The cost of living and lower taxes were an incentive to relocate here from the Seattle area. The reminders of these unprecedented times pop up daily as we chat with banks about lending and what our options are or could be in the near future. It is maddening, but also very freeing. We are free to sit out this psychotic behavior from Governors with a King Complex and major media outlets being people's main source of "science". Until people come to their senses we are staying in spare homes and MIL quarters for free for the time being. Digital hobos, if you will. Working, saving, strategizing... making sure that no hashtag or government response or greedy investor board will ever hurt us again.