The first month of unemployment forced changes in me. Staring at my computer in my home's nursery-turned-office, the first change showed up as anxiety attacks. I was overwhelmed with the problem of how to use my time. The choices raced through my head in an infinite loop: "I should be fixing up the house in case we have to sell it." "I should be combing through the career Web sites." "I should be digging through the newspaper and phone book looking for work." "I should be going business to business looking for a job." "I should be spending more time with my wife and children, because this is only a season I am going through and I will regret it if I've fretted away this time." "I should relax and trust God because His promises are unwavering."
Wait 2 milliseconds and repeat. My wife's composure frequently helped me to break the loop.
One struggle we've had for more than eight years is living so far from our families back in the Midwest. The reason we came to Richmond, Va., was that I took a new job. Now that reason no longer exists, but we love our life here. I finally excised my reluctance to move from my job search criteria and began having Monster.com deliver a daily list of Midwest job openings. The opportunities have been slim and replies to my inquiries nonexistent.
I've always thought of Silicon Valley as a career safety net for me. If I can't find a job where I am, then the motherland of my profession will have a spot for me, or so I thought. A quick tour through Homefair.com's cost-of-living calculator showed me that Silicon Valley was no haven without some significant concessions from me. According to the calculator, to maintain an equivalent lifestyle there, I would have to earn almost $200,000 a year! Even if that were possible, I could not handle the self-imposed pressure to justify a salary like that. Thus, we're staying put for now.
As an alternate income, my wife could return to her previous profession as a court reporter, but then child care would be needed. I couldn't do that and be responsive to the small jobs I had been finding. Though I was collecting unemployment checks each week, it took four checks to make a mortgage payment. If I earned any money, my unemployment check was reduced by that amount. Unemployment benefits were not helping the way I had envisioned.
This realization forced the next change: restructuring our budget. Like a commercial jet dumping fuel when in trouble, we cut our expenses overnight by at least $1,000/month. I stopped contributions to my 401(k), life insurance policies, our savings, the kids' savings and their 529 plans. And my wife's monthly budget was cut by $400. Other savings came because there were no school tuition costs during the summer. Frugality became imperative.
Yet there were new expenses to deal with. Payments for Cobra, to continue our medical insurance coverage, negated almost half of our gain from the monthly expense-cutting efforts. Then, unexpected expenses frustrated us, stemming from the death of a fairly new washing machine, a head gasket failure on our minivan and major repairs to my 1991 Jetta, which I've had since graduating from college. These occurred in the first two months of my unemployment, yet somehow we staved off crushing debt.
Where did the money come from? Like manna from heaven, there was always income just when we needed it: Gifts from family, overdue paychecks from my previous employer, income tax refunds, surprise prepayment from a small job to reward my efforts, the child tax credit check, a property tax refund and last-minute financial aid for my oldest son's schooling all kept the checkbook in the black. Also, I started landing a few more small jobs.
What would turn out to be the smartest financial move I've made buffered our finances the first few months. Back when I was gainfully employed, I opened a home equity line of credit and did not use it. Drawing a monthly amount equivalent to my previous salary would sustain us for nine months. Because of belt-tightening and unexpected income, eight months later we still have eight months of reserve left.
Being unemployed has many subtle blessings, too. I now had opportunities to drive my oldest son to school and walk my younger son home from preschool, listening to their concerns about why Daddy is home all the time. I could let my wife get out of the house while my daughter napped. I've been able to take on home improvement projects and keep the lawn cut. And I've been able to dream about what is next for my career.