Extended unemployment is one of the more challenging things that life can throw at anyone. Six months after we married, Scott and I found ourselves facing just that. The aircraft company we worked for in Northern Idaho was hit hard by the tanking economy. Along with dozens of other employees, suddenly we both were unemployed. Neither of us saw it coming and we were completely unprepared.
Our Unemployment Story
Two weeks before, our most reliable vehicle was totaled in an accident and the timing of being unemployed couldn’t have felt worse. We were just getting going in life and had little to fall back on. Living in a small, rural area meant that the extensive job layoffs oversaturated the job market. It was almost impossible to get any kind of job, let alone one that would pay our rent. And with the economy struggling nationwide, it was a bleak time to be looking for work.
Six months later, and with no prospects, we decided to leave. We celebrated our first anniversary in the middle of a small pile of boxes. The next day we started driving across the country with the promise of work and the hope for good opportunities and a better chance of making it back on our feet again. I’m glad I didn’t know then that a few weeks after we arrived, the job would fall through, though it was out of anyone’s control. I’m glad I didn’t know that we’d be more or less unemployed or without enough or steady income for nearly two years.
Those were hard years, and we shouldn’t have made it. There was more than one time I would find myself with a $20 bill to live off of for an entire month. I can’t tell you how many times I was sure we were days away from living in our car. However, in spite of our circumstances, God took care of us. Somehow we always had just enough to pay the bills.
I’m in no way eager to repeat the strain of living literally on pennies for extended periods of time. But I am grateful for those years and for the opportunities I had to learn to be even more resourceful, careful and to trust that God is Jehovah Jireh. I’m glad that I got a chance to learn that we are stronger than we think. And more importantly, I learned to never give up.
Being Frugal is a Lifestyle.
I’ve always believed that being frugal was a lifestyle and not a quick fix for hard times, though it certainly helps to have strategies to batten down the hatches when you need to! I’ve always tried to be careful about how I used our money, but our unemployed years took thriftiness to a new level as I learned how to make a little go the longest way possible. I found that it was often all the small ways we saved money that made the bigger difference than simply cutting out one or two big nonessentials.
Scott and I both ended up eventually getting work that made it so we could pay the rent and put better food on the table. Later, I took a leap of faith and started my own business so I could work from home. That meant surviving on one small income for a while until my business started to gain traction and continuing to live as frugally as we could.
The frugal lessons that I absolutely relied on to make it day-to-day during our unemployment are now lessons I use to stretch our income so instead of just making it every month, we can save for the future and be better prepared for unexpected curve balls that life may throw at us. This is still a challenge as cost of living rises and our income has still remained close to the same. I’m still always on the lookout for new information or new tips I can use to reduce our expenses even more so that we have more to save and more to share.
Find Your Strategy for Surviving Hard Times
Life is really unpredictable, I know that much. Things can change overnight and make an adjustment in how we approach our finances and money spending habits necessary. Having a strategy for making it during difficult times is important. It helps avoid feeling blindsided, which is one of the worst feelings ever! I want to share a couple of things that helped me while navigating our extended stint with unemployment. If nothing else, I hope this helps anyone who’s out there struggling with limited financial resources to know that you aren’t alone. We’ve been there, and we made it through the worst. You will too!
Start by cutting out nonessentials.
This is one of those obvious things for most people. But it’s really important to sit down and be really honest about what’s essential and what isn’t. Make a list of the things you absolutely can’t get by without (Rent, Electricity, Water, and Food for example.) and then prioritize what’s left. It can be surprising how much that feels “essential” can be cut out when push comes to shove. Depending on how dire your financial situation is, you may have to cut out more or less. I didn’t have a cell phone for years, and we ate beans, $1 pasta, cabbage and potatoes almost solely for months at a time during the worst of our unemployment. It was tough, but it kept us going.
Reduce Necessary Expenses.
Finding ways to reduce necessary expenses is definitely where it has been at for us. This is what got us through those very lean years of unemployment and then working jobs that just didn’t quite make enough to cover everything, even after cutting out every possible extra.
I may not have to count every cent at the grocery store so that my total doesn’t go over $20, but being careful to compare prices means I have a little extra to put away or to stock up on sales with. But there are so many surprising ways to cut expenses beyond careful grocery shopping that you may or may not know about. Finding resources to help you know what and how you could reduce is such a big deal for me! I was pretty glad when my friend Kalyn finally wrote a book that made it easy for me to make sure I was taking advantage of as many reductions as I could. It’s just the sort of information that I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of hours digging for over the last 10 years. She’s taken her own years of experience and study and compiled into a book that’s so easy to read. I highly recommend it! Even though I think I’m pretty frugal, I still picked up some new tricks to try (hello, gas price reducers! I’ve never taken time to try to figure those out.)
Make a realistic budget, and stick to it.
Budgeting…yay! I know budgets aren’t always fun, especially when they are extremely limited. But having one is really a good idea, especially when things are tight. Using cash helped us be more aware of what we were spending and we avoided needless debt by knowing exactly what our unavoidable expenses were each month. There are so many resources out there to help you set up a budget for almost any income level. Take advantage of them!
Don’t be ashamed to accept help.
One of the most humiliating moments of my life was calling the electric company to ask them what would happen if I couldn’t pay the bill that month. They were kind and helpful, but it was difficult to have to admit to someone else that we were at that point. In fact, I couldn’t bring myself to find out if we qualified for any sort of assistance for so long that we were in a pretty scary place when I finally got the guts to make those hard calls. If I ever found myself out of work again, I’d immediately start finding out what I could do to give my family a buffer until we got on our feet again. If people asked, I would be more open about how hard it was. I wouldn’t be embarrassed. Because for a little while, I swiped a EBT card instead of my own debit card and every time I felt such shame. Yet if it weren’t for those assistance programs when we needed them desperately, I am not sure we’d have had any food at all.
When you are in the middle of it, it is so hard to believe that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Survival mode is exhausting and hard. But do whatever you can to keep your chin up and your heart believing. It helps.
Not having a lot of money is a great way to find your creative side. Even though you may be slogging through a season where there’s little or no wiggle room for “fun” expenses, there’s still ways to take a break and enjoy a little rest and relaxation. Being careful with money doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy fun times or celebrate events. Stay within your means. If that means eating PBJ sandwiches at the park, enjoy it. If it means splitting a subway sandwich for your birthday, do it. But look for ways you can add a little fun into your life, even if it’s not fancy. And if you are able, plan for these things in advance. I think sometimes I focus so much on penny-pinching even now thatI forget that it’s okay to plan for and save for little splurges too.
Everyone’s journey is a little different. What worked for me might not be exactly what works for you. But I hope you’ll take a moment to share your story with me and tell me what keeps you going when things are rough. I’d love to hear from you!