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13 Tips for Surviving Financial Hardship and Unemployment

M. D. Jackson is a college psychology professor, author, family counselor, and a mother of nine adult children.

I believe that people want to rise up and have better days.

I believe that people want to rise up and have better days.

Coming From Hardship

At this moment, I am blessed to have a roof over my head and food. These are the good days, but our life was not always so good. There were several times in my life when we were unemployed and without the means to put a roof over our heads. Those were rough days marked by collection calls, threats of utilities being disconnected, moving trucks, storage units, bitter cold, and despair. My husband and I often talk about how we would have never dreamed in our early years that our life would become what it is today. We are thankful.

Through everything we have done to survive, I always believed that other people were just as resilient as we were. I believe that people want to rise up and have better days. Recently, through some of my follower emails, I’ve realized that survival is not something everyone knows how to accomplish. Through parent emails, I am seeing that people have lost the wherewithal to put their shoulders to the grindstone. If you are reading this, I’m sure your life has taken a bad turn, and you are worried. In the next few paragraphs, I am going to help you get through this tough time.

Luck is a very thin wire between survival and disaster, and not many people can keep their balance on it.

— Hunter S. Thompson

Initial Panic

Everyone reacts to hardship differently. Most people have an initial panic that causes them to make rash decisions that are counterproductive. Remember that you did not always have the life you have now, you worked for it, and you can rebuild it. In my experience, even in the roughest of circumstances, it has only taken two years to recover, and often when we recover, our life is better than it was before we had the hardship.

There are survival techniques that will get you through this time. The first thing you need to do is realize that everything you own is just a pile of things. These things are not “your life.” Your things are not who you are, they are merely a result of your work, and they can all be replaced. Do not panic. The important thing is to keep your family together and safe. Take a deep breath. It’s time to make tough decisions.

Rainy days, we all have them.

Rainy days, we all have them.

1. Ask for Unemployment and Food Stamps

The first thing you need to do is file for unemployment and food assistance. These take a while to be approved, so this needs to happen the very next day after you lose your job. In 25 years, we only needed assistance for maybe four months total. You might get a job quick enough not to need these services. If you don’t file first thing, you may be left without a way to eat. The process of filing for unemployment can be degrading and rough. This is still the first thing you need to do regardless of your feelings about filing.

A lot of people do not know that they paid unemployment insurance while they were working. As long as you didn’t do something to overtly end your employment, they have to pay you unemployment. This is even true in “right to work” states where you can be terminated for any reason. While assistance should be used only in emergencies, it is a service you paid for with your taxes; do not be ashamed to use it.

2. Find a Job

In today’s unstable economy, jobs come and go. The cure for unemployment is obviously getting a job. Sometimes people spend years working their way up in a company only to be laid off. This is a horrible feeling, not just because it creates instability but because it’s devastating emotionally. Here are your tips for finding a job as quickly as possible:

  1. Put in applications for EVERY job in which you are qualified EVERYWHERE. This is something that people often miss when it comes to job hunts. People want to stay in a certain area because they like their kid’s school, or they don’t want to move out of state. This is not the time to be picky. This is the time to take what you can get and figure out the rest later. This may mean a person in the family has to travel and be alone somewhere for a while until the family can move.
  2. Use every outlet for getting your resume out that you can find. Don’t be ashamed; let family and friends know you are looking for a job. You never know what could end up as a job offer. Use all the online resources available, Indeed, Monster, and even Linkedin.
  3. Put in applications every day. It takes the average human resources department three weeks to get through job applications. This lag can be painful. If you make “looking for a job” your job, you will find something faster.
  4. Pound the pavement. Where do you want to work? Drop off a resume there and talk to the Hunan Resources representative.
  5. Attend job fairs. Go to any and all job fairs around you. The state career sites will alert you to these fairs if you sign up for their services.
  6. Make sure your salary requirements are within the recommendations for that field. When I was hiring managers, I often passed over resumes with inflated salary requirements. The goal is to get into the interview, and then you can negotiate the salary.
  7. Always dress for success. You may think your resume represents you well. People hire on how you present yourself. In fact, most people hire based on how you relate to them.
  8. Take the first job you are offered. You can keep putting in applications if you don’t like the job. Any port in a storm is always true. The first goal is to get money coming back into your households as quickly as possible.

Rich or poor, a can of chili is still a can of chili.

— M.D.Jackson

3. If Necessary, Move to Find Work

In 2003, the owners of the house we were renting decided to sell the house. We moved closer to my husband’s job. Three months later, the owners of the new house sold that house out from under us. That was twice in three months, and if that weren’t enough, my husband lost his job the day after we found out the house was sold. We had three kids to support. In 25 years of marriage, we have moved 18 times through three different states. Sometimes we moved for promotions, sometimes for hardship, and other times for family. I used to say that my kids could pack in 15 minutes. Most of those moves were job-related.

The goal has always been to keep a roof over our heads. For some people, the goal is to keep the roof they currently have over their heads. Houses are not a permanent fixture in our lives. For those of you in a panic about losing your home, I can tell you, will all honesty, that home is where you hang your hat. In a crisis, you do not need to get caught up in the idea of keeping a house. Be willing to let that house go.

4. Lower Household Bills and Liquidate Assets

Cut out extras. This means no cable TV, change your sell plan to the minimum (so you can get employer calls) and cancel all memberships. You can reinstate these things when you are back on your feet. This includes any of your kid’s expensive extracurricular activities, such as dance classes or karate. Look at your bank statement. After you have gotten rid of everything that is not a necessity, how much money do you need a month to survive? Know that number; that number has become your short-term goal.

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Take stock in the resources you have available to liquidate. Your savings account, stocks, and 401k are all items you can look at as possibilities for liquidation. The sad truth is that your 401k plan doesn’t matter if you starve to death at the moment. Stock and other assets are tough to liquidate quickly, yet this is the time to take these types of actions unless they pay out dividends. If you do have these items to liquidate, use the money wisely. If you can pay six months of rent with the money rather than two months of a mortgage, weigh that carefully.

5. Talk to Your Children

Hardships are part of life. Children who are sheltered from hardships have a tough time handling life. Do not shelter your children from reality. Children under the age of seven will not generally notice you are having an issue unless you end up in an extreme living situation.

If your children are over seven years old, sit down with your children, and be honest with them. Explain your situation, and they will have to make lifestyle changes. Explain what those changes are to them. If they are going to change schools or move, prepare them for those changes. Teach them that this is a temporary issue, and you will get through it. Believe it or not, hardship makes kids resilient and emotionally strong, and it fosters imagination. Treat it like a new adventure, and they will too.

Children will have their own emotions about the changes that happen. Make sure you are checking in with them. Watch their behavior. Other children can be cruel when it comes to monetary situations. It’s hard to be perceptive when your own emotions are raging, so make a point of checking in with your kids. This situation will be tough for them. Be prepared for tears and even a little resentment. Change is a constant in life—the quicker children learn this, the better off they will be.

Yard Sale sign on a corner.

Yard Sale sign on a corner.

6. Sell Personal Property

My rule for selling personal property is that “anything I can replace can be sold.” You are not going to enjoy that Pier One dining table when it is sitting in storage. Hold on to grandma’s wedding ring and let go of things you know other people will buy. Expensive purses, collections of baseball cards, those things are cash sitting around your house.

Have a yard sale and sell the things you don’t use—EVERYTHING YOU DON'T USE. Also, consider getting rid of things that are not necessities. There are very few things in my home today that were in my possession 25 years ago. I can tell you there is only one thing I remember selling that I miss. Coveting possessions is not going to keep you warm at night. The more you sell, the smaller your moving truck or storage unit will be if you have to move.

Be strategic in how you sell items. Find your market and get top dollar. Web pages such as eBay, Etsy, Craigslist, and even Facebook can be great places to sell items. I’ve found that clothes sell better on eBay. Art sells better on Etsy. Furniture or large items can be put on Craigslist or the Facebook Marketplace. ATVs, watercraft, or other large “toys” can be sold as well. I caution people against selling paid-off motor homes or travel trailers. This can double as housing if your situation doesn’t improve.

Your idea of poor is how some people live every day. Keep that in mind when you think you cannot handle the situation.

— M.D.Jackson

Creative housing is still housing.

Creative housing is still housing.

7. Find More Affordable Housing

If you own a house with a payment that is more expensive than you would pay to rent an apartment, sell your house. By this, I mean if you have two kids in a four-bedroom house with a pool, you could probably rent an apartment cheaper. Your situation is temporary, but the further you get behind on your house payment, the closer you are to being homeless. It may take a while to sell your house; you can stay until it sells. Maybe you can even consider buying something cheaper in a different location. These are all things to consider when you are in dire straits.

Do not sell items to pay your mortgage unless you get a job quickly and know you can maintain your lifestyle. The cash you get from selling property is to get you into your next place to live. The biggest mistake I see people make is trying to keep a house that is no longer within their means. During the crash, I was writing title loans on vehicles. People came in and took out loans against their cars to make house payments. Eventually, these people lost both their house and their car.

Your goal is to keep a roof over your head, not to keep your house. I know this is a tough thought. Now is the time to be smart. This brings me to the dreaded option of moving in with family. If you ever watch the old Walton reruns, they had three generations in that small house. During the depression, recession, and even during prosperity, it is not unusual to move in with family when you have a crisis. This is a TEMPORARY situation. Moving in with family is also a way to get closer to people. Your children may develop whole new relationships with their grandparents, aunts, or uncles.

Rules for Living With Others:

1. Be as respectful as possible. Don’t make noise when they are sleeping, get into things that don’t belong to you, or move their things.

2. Don’t make messes. Pick up after yourself; they shouldn’t know you are there because you leave cups all over the place.

3. Don’t tear things up. Be gentle with their house. If you break something, fix it.

4. Help with chores. Do the dishes and clean the restroom and bedroom you use. It doesn’t matter if other people staying there do nothing; you need to be a good steward of their hospitality.

5. Contribute rent money and food. Figure out what money you need for gas and other bills, then contribute to meals and with regular monetary compensation.

6. Save to get out of their house. Put money into savings every check to get your of their house. Know what first and last month’s rent will cost you and save $500.00 over that.

7. Get out as quickly as possible. Nothing damages relationships as much as people who overstay their welcome.

Every person’s situation is different. You may find it preferable to live in a trailer in a trailer park or studio apartment rather than to move in with family. Another option may be to park a trailer at a family member's home. If you have two cars, you may be able to sell or trade one of them to get a trailer, motor home or pay six months of rent. Check into rent for trailers versus apartment living. You have to remember this is a temporary situation.

Make sure your basic necessities are adequately provided. By this, I mean do not tent camp in a place that doesn’t have showers. You need to be clean to get a job. Also, I don’t know about you, but I like having a toilet. Unhealthy conditions are created when you do not have a bathroom to use. While tent camping has become a popular option for paying rent, I would tell you that there are still places where the rent is cheap. Sell some stuff and move to a different place.

8. Reconsider Storage Units

If you pay for a storage unit for a year at an average cost of $175.00 a month, you will have paid $2100.00 to house the things you kept. Many people can replace what they had with $2100.00. Having bought storage units, I can tell you that 65% of what people stored in storage units should have been thrown away or sold. It doesn’t matter if you have $7,500.00 in jewelry if you can’t pay your rent. You don’t need a bigger storage unit to put boxes of papers (most of which are bills you can’t pay). You don’t need a storage unit to house old furniture that is falling apart or broken toys. You need a storage unit if you are moving for a job and need someplace to TEMPORARILY house your stuff. Storage units are not a long-term solution.

Look at the items you have and make the tough decisions. You don’t need five coats, 125 pairs of shoes, or two mixers. Keep what you use; keep what is expensive to replace. I used to look at moving as an opportunity to purge things I didn’t use anymore. Most furniture, with the exception of a bed, is readily available in second-hand stores when you need them again. If you bought a brand new furniture set six months ago, you are not going to get rid of it unless you can get top dollar or need to pay it off.

How you store things can be the difference between being excited when you get to move into your new place and a roman tragedy. Did you know storage facilities are not liable for damaged or stolen items? We have seen everything from leaking roofs to sandstorm damage in storage units. Put all your stuff in heavy-duty storage totes with snap-on lids. You may think these are expensive, but we bought most of ours for $5 each, and it is cheaper than paying for insurance. These will keep the mice and water out of your stuff. Another option is putting a tarp over your stuff.

Speaking of mice, NEVER store food in a storage unit. Put rat poison and Irish spring soap in your storage unit to keep the pests out. Put the most expensive items in the back of your unit. When people break into your storage unit, they are looking for fast money. If you have to store expensive family heirlooms, bury them against the back wall. Cover all your furniture. Mouse droppings ruin furniture. Check on your stuff regularly. Taking precautions when storing your stuff will make a world of difference when you go to get your things from storage.

Homemade pizza I learned to make when we didn't have money.

Homemade pizza I learned to make when we didn't have money.

9. Don't Be Afraid to Use Available Resources for Acquiring Food

As previously stated, food assistance is possible through the state welfare agency. Food stamp amounts are based on the number of people in your home. Food banks or soup kitchens are commonly used when people cannot provide food for themselves. Although I have never used a food bank, it is my understanding that they are generous in giving to those in need. Food is the easiest thing to come by when you are facing hardships. You may find that food assistance gives you more food than you would normally buy when you were prosperous.

Some areas have “gleaner” groups. Gleaners are called in after crops are picked to clear the remaining fruit/vegetables off the trees and fields. Most gleaner groups are given the day-old bakery items from grocery stores. At one point, I supplemented our food supply with items I acquired working as a gleaner. It isn’t hard work, although it is physical.

Our gleaners also worked at the food bank packaging food once a month in order to get frozen vegetables. Bigger food donors shipped giant bags of frozen food that had to be divided up and then given out to groups like the gleaners. The easiest way to find a gleaner group is through church organizations.

Speaking of church organizations, if you belong to a church, they usually have some services available. They also do things for members in need, such as the angel tree, meals, and other assistance. It can be difficult to admit to clergy that you are in need. In fact, I would say I had a tougher time with that than I did filing for welfare. My feeling was out of pride or the fact that I was used to being a contributor rather than the receiver of charity. Either way, it may come down to asking for assistance.

10. Avoid Spending Money on Unnecessary Items

The money you earn at this point is to pay bills and get gas. You may have been a fast-food family prior to your hardship. Now is the time to change habits. You are not going to get ahead using your cash for luxuries. There are a few things that no one will help you with, and gas money is one of those things. Be careful with your cash.

Sundry items are expensive. Purchase these items at the dollar or discount stores. You are about to find out that unless you were used to salon shampoo, it’s pretty much all the same. The shampoo in my shower is from a discount store. Deodorant at discount stores is even the same brands you usually use. Cleaning supplies are another thing you can buy cheaper at discount stores. Frugality is survival in times like these.

11. Don't Get Further Into Debt

Many people panic into deeper debt when they are faced with hardship. If you don’t have a job, then creditors are not going to give you a loan. I had one woman tell me she was living off her credit cards while she was unemployed. Do not go into more debt. More debt is not going to fix your situation.

Becoming unemployed is not the time to refinance things or attempt consolidation. It is a time to be real about your options. If you have a paid-off car and financed car, you might want to let your financed car go back to the bank. You can also take the financed vehicle to a dealership and have them buy it from you. Make smart decisions about what is going to help you. Do not make band-aid decisions that will leave you in a worse situation next month.

12. If Possible, Avoid Borrowing Money From Family or Friends

Do not borrow money from family unless it is going to be a long-term benefit to your situation. If you can’t make your mortgage payment for four months and you still do not have a job, borrowing $8,000.00 from mom and dad is not going to help you. In fact, you may be throwing their money away on top of flushing your own. No one else is responsible for financing your lifestyle. By the same token, if you got a job and you managed to stay reasonably on top of your mortgage payment, it makes more sense to borrow a payment than to let the house go back.

At one point, my husband needed to get to a job interview in the next state. My brother-in-law lent us the money for my husband to travel to the interview. We paid him back, but it took a lot longer than we thought. Keep in mind when you borrow money from family, you are putting them at risk. Are you going to create a hardship for that person by borrowing from them? I guarantee people you think are wealthy are really just in debt. Your parents may not want to let you down and might not be completely honest about their finances. The bottom line is you shouldn’t borrow money to finance your life. If you are going to borrow money, borrow it to better your situation.

Instead of borrowing money, look for odd jobs on Craigslist that you can do until you get a permanent position. Jobs like yard work, babysitting, or even fixing something for someone who is elderly can bring in some cash here and there. A temp agency may also be a means of getting cash quickly. Some temporary positions lead to full-time jobs.

13. Work With Creditors

Creditors are the most stressful problem when you are going through a crisis. Creditors often take a threatening tone with debtors when they do not get their payment. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prohibits creditors from harassing you.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prohibits certain actions from creditors. Collectors are limited in what they can say and when they can call. You should also know that most creditors will work with you when you lose your job. The best advice I can give you is to record calls with your creditors. I have heard creditors threaten people (which is illegal), but because the person cannot prove it, they cannot report it. The best advice I can give you is to try to work with creditors. Most creditors will take some money rather than have to close your account or come after you in court.

The Luxury of Poverty

The situation of being poor creates the necessity to have a simpler life. I remember the people with money when I was poor. They were stressed and often had problems that sounded ridiculous to me. Things like not being able to get a nail appointment or their Hawaii vacation not going as planned seemed silly to me. Yet, these people were stressed about life’s little irritations. Living a simple life is a blessing in a lot of ways. First of all, any food you make from scratch is better than any restaurant.

Second, you find out the difference between needing something and wanting it. That basic difference changes you even when you get back on your feet. Everyone handles times like this differently. Having been through it, those times were a blessing that taught me to always be thankful for what I have. There is a luxury in having minimal responsibilities because that is all you can afford. You can’t give someone money you don’t have; that fact changes your outlook on things. The skills you are learning will last a lifetime and help you get through other life issues.

Saving Your Sanity

I do this thing when I am in a bad situation where I check in with myself. I actually ask myself if I am OK. At that point, I take stock; I’m not hungry, I’m not cold, and I have a roof over my head. I’m good.

One of the other things I did during this was keeping busy. I sewed clothes for dolls, made Christmas presents, picked blackberries, and went for walks. I spent a lot of time at the library with my kids. I also took my kids to a lot of the “free” events provided by the community. These events often included movies or concerts in the park, parades, or shows. Just because you are dealing with hardship, it doesn’t mean you stop living; it just means you live differently. Continue to make memories.

Above all, your situation is temporary. Do not treat your situation like it is the end of your world or your life. These situations are transitional times in our lives that push us to the next thing we are supposed to do. Try to be curious about what the next thing is. Is that next thing a new town, a new place to live, a different career, or a new job skill? Even though you are experiencing hardship, the sky is still the limit. Go find your tomorrow.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2019 MD Jackson MSIOP


Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 14, 2019:

Like Liz, I would like to think you for sharing your experiences, and all the excellent advice regarding solving living problems. I like that you mentioned learned the difference between need and want. I think many people live above their means, then they get in financial trouble.

We have to be prepared in life for the unexpected. My husband had a stroke at 59 years of age and never worked another day. I was already disabled from lupus. Obviously even if you qualify for disability it does not kick in for 6 months. We had to start living more frugally, but we are fortunate to have made it through without losing our home. This is an excellent arttilc.

Liz Westwood from UK on November 14, 2019:

Thanks for sharing your experiences to help others. The most positive outcome of the hard times is the ability to empathise with others in a similar position, even when times are better for yourself. You never forget the past and others benefit from the experience and insight you have gained as a result of hardship.

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