What I Learned From A Year Of Unemployment

year of unemploymentWhen Veronica first lost her job in March 2011, she had no idea she was about to embark on 360 days of unemployment. She spent that year searching for new jobs, finding ways to cut costs and stay socially connected, and figuring out how to survive, emotionally and financially. (To protect her identity, we're using Veronica's first name only.)In March 2012, Veronica, 28, finally landed a new job with a university on a government-funded research grant in her field, mental health counseling. The job comes with retirement benefits and paid vacations -- elusive benefits for many young workers. Veronica, who lives in New England, shared her survival strategies with U.S. News. Excerpts:

How did you survive financially?

I had about three to four months of emergency funds to get me through until the beginning of the summer. Once I got to the point where the fund was dwindling, I prioritized my bills. The "must" pay bills were health insurance, car insurance, my phone bill, and my gym membership. I paid at least the minimums on my credit card bills every month. I paid my student loan bills for as long as I could.

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Once it became clear that I wouldn't have the money, I paid Sallie Mae a $150 forbearance fee every three months to avoid paying $240 a month. My Perkins loans were put into unemployment deferment, meaning interest would not accrue.... I suspended my Netflix membership when the price was increased.

I also had a pretty good mechanic who knew I was only going to fix things that really needed to be fixed. He was a godsend when my car failed inspection. He was able to epoxy my dangling license plate back in the holder instead of making me pay $300 for a new piece of plastic.

What about emotionally -- how did you manage?

That was the hard part. Last year, I had three weddings to attend. It became incredibly difficult to feel joy for my friends when I felt like the loneliest person in the world. We don't realize it when we're working, but work provides a good chunk of our social interaction. Sitting at home, looking for jobs online is not very socially stimulating -- in fact, it's incredibly isolating.

I also had no patience for friends who complained incessantly about work. I would have gladly taken their "horrible" job or their "horrible" boss and given them my unemployment check of $204 a week, after taxes. I volunteered at an animal shelter one morning a week, and that provided much needed social interaction, plus all the free animal affection you could want.

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Were there any specific financial strategies that helped you get by?

Aside from living at home, I forced myself to save 10 percent of my unemployment insurance checks and stash it in my savings account. Believe it or not, that extra $80 a month helped me out down the line. I also had some savings bonds that I cashed in. I delayed upgrading my cell phone; I'm still using the one I bought three years ago.

Did you ever feel like you were never going to find another job?

I did give up hope of finding a relevant job. It would be very disheartening to make it to the second and third round of interviews, only to hear that they went in another direction. I had lost most of my hope when I resorted to working retail during the Christmas season.

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What's your advice for others dealing with extended unemployment?

Everyone's situation is different, but the best advice is to just keep swimming. Sooner or later the sun does come out. I also think it's important to earmark 5 to 10 percent of the unemployment check to "fun." Nothing will make you feel worse that not finding any joy in life. The one nice part about my year not working is that I had a lot of time to do things that I can't do now that I'm working, like volunteering at the animal shelter and visiting my grandparents. I also tried very hard to go to the gym at least three days a week; I found that 45 minutes of cardio made me much happier.

How do you think back on your year of unemployment now?

Going through that year was worth it because my current job is perfect for me in so many ways. I have an employer who treats employees well, I have co-workers who genuinely enjoy their work and respect each other's opinions. I actually have energy when I leave work at the end of the day. I also have a new-found appreciation for a balanced life. I'm very happy to be working, but am also happy to leave that work at work and focus on myself at the end of the day.

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