Adaptation: Lessons learned from being unemployed

Almost three years ago, I quit my 9-to-6 job to "take a break."

I quit not because I hated that particular job, but because I hated the 9-to-6 part. It also didn't help that my commute was three hours round trip and I didn't get paid very well. I thought I just needed some time to figure out what I wanted to do. I was still under the assumption that I should be able to find something I loved to do and get paid well to do it. Hell, I was even quoted in the LA Times saying something to that effect. Something about my generation demanding more from a job than just job security. We want the works: good location, cool coworkers, fun duties, excellent pay. I suppose I was naïve to think that I could be different and settle for nothing less. On the other hand, I've yet to go back to that life, so perhaps that dream is not so elusive after all. Only time will tell.

My "break" that was supposed to last a few months turned into this perpetual state of getting by, surprisingly with a growing financial cushion. I started out with a three-month cushion (a loan from my boyfriend). Now I have a year's worth of cushion (I haven't paid my boyfriend back yet, but I haven't borrowed any more either). This means that if I don't make another penny for the next year, I can still get my bills paid. I have more money now without a steady job than I ever did working full time. Aside from picking up the skill of saving money, there were a few other noteworthy lessons I've learned these past few years.

1. Saving Money Is Easier When You Don't Have a Choice

When I had money, I spent it, knowing that every two weeks I'd get a paycheck. In fact, I felt justified spending it because I worked hard for that money, why shouldn't I be able to enjoy it!? It was the type of paycheck to paycheck living where I had to time the payment of my bills because I only had a window of a few days between getting my paycheck deposited and being late on the bill.

Now that I don't know where my next dollar will come from, I always have money in the bank. I have $10K in a savings account that I don't have to touch, and enough cushion in my regular checking account that I can pay my bills any time without worry. All this in less than three years, with no full time job. I can't even imagine what I used to spend my money on. When I buy things now, I know I can pay for it at any time. It's all about priorities. Mine is not having to get a full time job. So I prioritize saving whatever money I have so I don't have to do that.

2. Leftovers Are Good

When I used to eat out, I never took food home because I knew I wouldn't eat it. It was much easier to buy food during lunch. I always went out to eat with coworkers too, so even if I ever brought lunch, most of the time it would go uneaten when a coworker and I decided to grab lunch. I also bought coffee every morning and picked up dinner on the way home. Now, I hoard leftovers and make coffee at home. Having to go out and buy meals is the bigger hassle now.

3. Shopping Compulsions Can Go Away

Since my M-F outings are limited mainly to the post office, grocery store, and the occasional visit to the mall or meal with friends, my daily outfit consists of a tee and jeans. I no longer stare aimlessly at my full closet saddened by the fact that I have nothing to wear to work that day. I don't get tired of wearing the same thing.

I believe my shopping compulsion in the old days had a lot more to do with my unhappiness with work and needing to do something that made me feel good about having to go to work — buying clothes for it. I'm sure it also has to do with the fact that I simply can't afford to nurture a shopping habit now, but I really just don't feel the need anymore. Once in awhile, I'll buy a few things, always at a good value, and it'll just feel the same as if I picked up milk at the grocery store. And if I come home feeling like I spent too much money, I will always go back and return it.

4. Eating and Sleeping Are Important

This sounds like a no-brainer, but when I was working full time, I ate poorly and slept little. I ate poorly because I didn't have a lot of options (limited places to eat for lunch and to pick up for dinner, plus snacking throughout the day to keep myself from falling asleep at work and on the drive home). I slept little because the last thing I wanted to do when I got home was sleep. I wanted to watch TV, read, talk with friends — all the things that work deprived me of.

I was determined not to let my weeks go by in a haze of wake up, get ready, go to work, get ready for bed, and do the whole thing over again. Now I eat well and listen to my body when it tells me to go to bed and wake up. Because my motivation to work is no longer based on being in a different environment, encouraged by those around me doing the same thing, how my body feels has a much bigger effect on my productivity. If I'm tired because I didn't get enough sleep, I don't get anything done. If I'm sleepy because I gorged myself on lunch, I can't get anything done. If I'm hungry between meals, I reach for nuts or fruit because that's all that I've made available to me in the pantry. I can't blame a crappy job for my bad mood. I can only blame the way I've treated my body.

5. There's Never Enough Time

When I used to daydream during work hours about quitting and staying home all day long, I imagined all the things I could get done everyday. I would go to the gym, grab lunch with friends, run errands, clean the house, write a book, and cook dinner, everyday. But errands end up taking an amazing amount of time. Lunch with friends will take up half the day. This is what happens when you don't have a limited amount of time to do these things.

If you need to run an errand during your lunch break, you're in, out, and done with time to spare. When you're running an errand in the middle of the day with no time restrictions, you drive slower, walk slower, browse more, take longer. Grabbing lunch with friends takes forever because you have to get ready, drive there, then spend an hour or two over lunch, drive back, and when you get home it's already 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. There's always traffic no matter what time of day so traveling takes up so much more time than taking a slight detour on your way to or from work.

6. There Has to Be a Line Between Work and Home

By far, this was the hardest lesson for me to learn. I'm not a workaholic — but I found it difficult to stop working. I didn't want to be away from the computer. The wake up call came when my relationship almost ended because of it. It took many, many fights for me to realize that I needed "work hours." I needed to be able to put my workload down for the day and spend time away from it. It's so easy when you've got an office to go to. You're there at a certain time, and when it's time to go home, whatever that's not done will have to wait until the next day. There's nothing more you can do.

When working from home, it's hard to put it down and leave it for tomorrow, because well, you have time right now. There's nowhere else to go for the night. The computer is right there. And when your productivity is directly related to your income, there is no motivation to stop working for the day. But I'm only one person and I only have so much time each day. I didn't realize how important it was stop and connect with people. I'm antisocial by nature, so being forced in a work environment where I had to interact with people daily was good for me. Working from home though, I get comfortable in my little zone and think I don't need anybody else in my life. But I do.

7. Things Always Work Out

A few months after I quit, around the time when my money should have run out, I had a really good eBay Christmas. When that was over, I started doing TV/movie extra work for a little cash. It was fun, easy, and they provided food. When I got tired of that, I applied for unemployment and got it. When unemployment ran out, I picked up a gig doing transcription for an entertainment company. When I seriously got tired of that, I stumbled on a big seller item on eBay. When I was banned from selling that item, I cashed out my 401K. My point is, every time my money started to run out and I thought for sure it was time to get back into the rat race, something came along to prolong my unemployment status.

I'm involved with two web projects now that have the potential to become my dream jobs (it will become my dream jobs when it pays, but right now I'm still having a blast), but in order to have the time to dedicate to it, I have to maintain my unemployment status. Now I have a whole year to dedicate to these projects without being worried about when to start job hunting. Things always work out. We adapt and we find ways to get by. So if you think you couldn't possibly spare any cash to put into a savings account because you're not making enough money, believe me, you can. You can live on less. It's just whether or not you want to. When you've found something you really want to pursue, the sacrifices in your spending become very easy to make.

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Andrea Karim's picture

This never really worked for me, but I'm glad that you are able to control yourself. When I was unemployed, it wasn't by choice, and I felt so rotten that I kept spending to feel better. Plus, I look dumb in jeans and a t-shirt. But it's good to read about nonetheless - since unemployment always looms as a possibility, I'd like to think that I've learned enough in the meantime to be better the next time something like that happens.

Guest's picture

A couple years ago, someone close to me passed away, so i started traveling and working around the world. I've spent the last year or so in Vietnam, and am trying to figure out what to do with my life. Just about everything you've written applies to me. As also the adage, "Frugality equals Freedom." The less I spend, the lower my expectations are, and easier it is for me to do what I want.

The problem is, everyone else is stuck in the 9 to 6, so I'm finding that my general frame of reference has changed. It's hard for me to relate to people who have regular lives.

Guest's picture

Yes, I agree that you spend less because you have no choice but to spend less when there is no income! I did that for a few years and now I'm very wise about how I spend my money.

Congrats on leaving the 9-5/9-6! I've been "on my own" for a year now and will never go back to a "regular job".

Guest's picture

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Guest's picture

Hi! :-).

I came here from today's Wise Bread blog, the similar entries link. I am in a similar situation, and not doing a quarter of as well as you and the other commentators are doing.

I have basically been full time unemployed since February 2003. I have held a couple of part time temporary jobs, the last ended in March of 2006.

I started a Masters degree in 2005, and finished this February. I now owe almost $40,000 in student loans, which I must start repaying as soon as possible, for large amounts at a time. Right now I have less than a 1% of that in the bank, and I'm completely unemployed.

I've been working on my beliefs/attitudes/etc., and one of the things that keeps standing out is to ask people who don't work an 8-5, 9-5, 8-6, or 9-6 job yet still have tons of money - how do you do it? what habits/beliefs etc. have gotten you there and keep you there?

I'm finding out that I don't want to be a regular 8-5+ worker, and I don’t want to work another low paying, full time job. I don't really know what I want anymore - my beliefs and ideas have/are being shaken and stirred and flipped. Plus I have those student loans, and others.

I appreciate the suggestions and advice.


Guest's picture

I live on the coast where it is cool, damp and gray. I have developed arthritis that, as this disease can do, gets worse every year. After a week in Mexico and feeling so good physically, I knew I could not do another winter here. Maybe nothing here at all. I love my job and like the people I work with but after nearly forty years of working, it is time for a rest. I gave notice and will retire in five months. I have expenses I may have to relieve myself of, but I am going to wait and see what I am able to put together financially (I am in the process now). I have a saying in my work cubicle that keeps me motivated: "create the world you want to see." I once lived on far less than I am now--thanks to inflation, I will need a bit more than I had, but I will in any case go back to spending a bit more "carefully." Another saying: feel the fear and do it anyway. These stories are an inspiration.

Guest's picture

I totally agree with you. You end up saving much more money when you don't have to do the 9 to 5 thing and if you really get your act together, you may never have to go back to work again.
I was forced out due to a disability. I had never intended to retire and expected that I would die with my boots on. An impinged nerve at L5/S1 put and end to that.
At first, I was devastated. Then after I got my act together, I found that there are some serious money-making opportunities on the web. In all honesty, all I initially found were scams or mlms which I was sure would be a total waste of my time and especially my very limited income.
About a year ago, I found one that seemed legit and the rest is history.
My advise is this. If you are looking for an online business, look for one that is a member of the Better Business Bureau. Of the millions of websites out there, there are less than 8,000 that subscribe to the BBB practices and very few of these legit websites offer any sort of business opportunity. But it is the BBB where I finally found my niche on the net.
Best of luck,

Guest's picture

How about an update! Are you still unemployed? Has your financial cushion continued to grow? I was inspired when I read this article a year and a half ago and would like to know how you're doing now.