A few weeks ago, I lost a freelance job. I won't dish the details, because it's not relevant to this post, and I'm still friendly with my contacts there.
What is relevant to this post, however, is that I've had a big change in income. I went from being able to stash away more than enough in retirement and medium-term savings to barely being able to pay my monthly expenses. Today, as I contemplate low-paying gigs and wonder what else I can slash from my budget, I'm at least thankful that my past self was thoughtful. When I was earning a decent income, I knew freelancing was unstable, so I chose to save rather than inflate my lifestyle. Today, my finances are intact and I have a healthy emergency fund. This gives me options and at least some peace of mind.
But it's still been a challenge. Here's how I've learned to cope with job loss, both emotionally and financially.
Reevaluate the budget
The first thing I did when I finished up my last bit of work was downgrade my Internet. I was paying an extra $20 month for the fastest speed, as I needed to upload large files to my client's server. Hopefully, I'll need to boost my Internet speed again in the near future. But in the meantime, there's no need for it, so it was the first item in my budget to get slashed.
From there, I listed all my expenses and contemplated where I could cut the fat. Restaurants and shopping were the obvious answers. While I was living below my means, I still gave myself room for fun. But now, I need less room for fun and more room for money.
Surprisingly, it hasn't been tough to cut back on dining out and shopping. I've always been tempted at the thought of spending money when I have it; the thought of spending money when I don't have it, on the other hand, is just depressing.
Other areas that were slashed?
- Coffee: I gave myself a monthly coffee budget so I could write from my local coffee shop and not be cooped up in the house all day. I'll just have to find a cost-free way to avoid going stir-crazy.
- Grooming: I was spending ten bucks a month on eyebrow threading and thirteen on a pedicure. Yes, I now have Fred Flintstone feet and Martin Scorsese eyebrows, but, for the time being, those expenses will have to go. When I start earning more, I can reinstate those little luxuries.
I dreaded telling people I lost my job. Not only because I was embarrassed, but also because I hate seeing the pity in someone's eyes as they struggle to find something comforting to say. It's awkward and uncomfortable.
But if you don't tell people you've lost your job, you won't have anyone to offer you help. Since putting it out there, I've had amazing colleagues, friends and clients who have helped me find whatever work they can and, for that, I'm beyond grateful.
When I lost that job, I grieved not only the loss of money and work, but my own loss of value too. “I'm not good enough,” was my first thought upon hearing the news. For someone who has put work before most things in her life, this has been tough on my self-esteem. Work makes me feel valuable; it's probably an unhealthy attitude, but it's one I developed in college. Having less work makes me feel, well, worthless.
And it doesn't help that, in my job hunt, one business offered me a whopping $5 per article and another $0 per article. It's not their fault, I suppose they have a budget too. But when you've worked your ass off for years to earn a decent living and build a respectable portfolio, stuff like that really makes you feel worthless. So I had to reevaluate my worth, monetarily and emotionally speaking.
Monetarily speaking, I remembered my words from a year ago: “You're only worth what someone is willing to pay you.” That made me feel like shit, so I remembered my amended viewpoint from a few months ago: “You're worth what you can offer,” and that felt better. While I do feel I have a lot to offer a company, I can only control how much they're willing to pay me to a certain point. In the job market, I'm a commodity, and now there's more supply than demand. Logically, I can't demand to be paid what I was previously earning. At the same time, I know that I have a lot to offer, and I don't want to undersell myself. So I've been learning to find a balance between “You're worth what someone is willing to pay” and “You're worth what you can offer.” Hopefully, my demand will increase, and I'll go back to earning the amount I once was. In the meantime, I've had to bid a little lower on projects; I've had to accept lower-paying jobs.
In finding balance, it's also important to set limits. I've had to ask myself: What's the lowest per-hour or per-word payment I'm willing to take? Five bucks for 500 words? Yeah, that's too low.
And emotionally speaking, I've had to learn that I'm worth more than a job. My life is more than what I do for a living. I've had to remind myself of all the things I'm good at that don't involve freelance writing. I made a pot roast for my friends. I spent an afternoon tending my garden. This isn't to say I'm neglecting my other gigs or not searching for a job or giving up, but I've had to occupy myself with other things in my life to keep from going crazy and feeling worthless.
Come up with a game plan
I'm lucky that I still have some income and can make ends meet, albeit by a hair. For the time being, I don't have to dip into my emergency fund. Upon hearing the unhappy news, I did everything I could to stave off emergency mode.
1. Consider emergency fund
Some might argue I should go ahead and use my emergency fund; that's what it's there for. “Just keep searching for your dream job,” a friend suggested. “You have money saved up. Just live off of that.”
That's an option, but it's just not me. I've been broke and poor, and I have no desire to revisit those days. To me, an emergency fund is a last resort, an I-have-no-choice type of thing. I have choices. I can search for and accept smaller jobs. I can deflate my lifestyle even more.
Then again, would I rather get a full-time job that I hate and dread every morning, or live off my emergency fund until I find more writing work? In that case, I'd probably choose to dip into the EF. So I had to come up with a game plan for finding more work and deciding when it was time to use the emergency fund.
2. Create goals
We say it a lot here, but everyone's situation is different, so the important thing was to come up with a plan that worked for me. My game plan essentially consisted of two goals. One goal was about money, the other happiness:
- Find smaller gigs, fun or not, to help with my monthly expenses
- Find a job I really, really love. If I never reach my larger goal, at least I'm making ends meet while I'm striving for it.
Set a schedule
For the first couple of weeks of losing my job, I wasn't too depressed. I stuck to a schedule. For the first few hours of my day, I would hunt for jobs. Then, I'd have lunch. After lunch, I'd complete work for other clients or work on my own personal creative projects.
Recently, though, I grew anxious and worried. So I threw my schedule out the window and started looking for jobs all day, every day. Weekends, weeknights — my job was looking for a job, and I was working overtime. I'd refresh job sites constantly, hoping something new would pop up. I'd obsess over job hunting, eating dinner in front of the computer and mumbling, “I'm fine” in a sleepless stupor, when my boyfriend got out of bed to ask if I needed anything. Job-hunting is important, but for me, it was also important to give it a rest. Constantly refreshing a page only to see the same, unpromising postings wasn't doing much for my psyche. And being in front of a computer 12+ hours a day wasn't doing much for my well-being. I became depressed, and I started feeling really sorry for myself. Depression and self-pity aren't great ingredients for success. So I put myself back on a schedule and reminded myself, again, that I'm more than a job.
When I became a freelancer, I knew things like this were likely. Still, it sucks. For me, coping has involved coming up with a financial game plan, giving myself a routine and reevaluating both my self-worth and my worth in the job market.