The Time I Got Laid Off The Day After My Birthday

No use in burying the lede on this blog post, folks.  One of the things I’ve always striven to do with this blog is be honest and forthcoming about how my life has played out since graduating from college and as I have come upon another one of life’s little surprises, it feels right to lay it out here for you.

First things first.  I turned 28 years old last week.  It felt strange.  I usually enjoy birthdays and don’t get too fussy about them.  They’re a great excuse to get a lot of people together and celebrate – in this case, I rounded up about two dozen of my closest friends and we enjoyed a fierce Nats/Phillies baseball game.  I was perfectly content to have people buy me beers and wish me well in the coming year and not dwell on my age.

That is, until Monday night – the night before the actual day.  I don’t know if it was just the exhaustion from coming off a packed weekend or one of those momentary nervous breakdowns that come out of nowhere because someone looks at you wrong, but I snapped.  All of a sudden, I felt the distance between me and my youth (10 years since high graduation!  5 years since college graduation) and the weight of each of the twenty-eight years weighing down on me.  What had I accomplished with that time?  By any factor of success (wealth, health, wisdom, self-fulfillment), did I have any achievements of note?

I tried to shake it off.  A low-key afternoon on my actual birthday – a little museum strolling, sangria with friends, a chance meeting with Jose Andres, and sweet phone calls from my parents – helped to ease the tension and I felt as if perhaps I should save the freak-out for when I actually turned 30.

But apparently, it was the perfect time to freak out.  The very next day, about halfway through my morning work routine, I was called into our department supervisor’s office.  I have written about the end of my previous employment before, but I have to say, this time was different.  You usually have a clue, an inkling, that these things are coming – either because they’re mutual or you can feel it in the air – but this truly took me off-guard.  I knew as soon as I closed the door behind me and the shock was so palpable, I found it hard to catch my breath.

I didn’t cry.  I didn’t argue.  I didn’t fall back on snark or sarcasm, which is really the triumph for me in uncomfortable situations.  I listened plaintively as they explained that there were too many and not enough work.  That they were happy with my performance, that everyone liked me, but it wasn’t a good fit and it wasn’t the right time.  That they could see that I was unhappy.  This last one really stung – because it was true.  I hadn’t been happy in this job, chained behind a desk, with little work to fill my days.  But I had always prided myself on being an outgoing, upbeat person, especially in the workplace.  How could they have known I was wilting inside?

And that was that.  I was truly so stunned, I just grabbed my purse and walked out the door.  I didn’t even clean out my desk – so, you’re welcome, person who gets that desk eventually, for the free granola bars and cough drops and the one fancy pen I brought from home.

I would be lying if I said it hasn’t been a tough couple of days.  Telling my parents was like pulling off a band-aid – it stings initially but it’s better just to do it quickly.  They are loving and supportive, which in some ways makes it worse.  It must not be easy for them, a few years away from retirement, and worrying about an adult child who seems to skip and hop her way through life instead of hunkering down and forging a real career path somewhere.

Honestly, the absolute worst thing about getting laid off is telling people.  The financial worries aren’t great and the lack of daily routine is not well-suited for someone as OCD as myself, but the aspect of this entire ordeal that is so trying is having to let people know.  I know that it’s the right thing to do – your support system of friends and family exist to support you when times get tough but having to volunteer the information that, for not the first time in your life, you’ve been let go is a frustrating endeavor.  Trust me, there’s no easy way to do it.  I am so terrible at it, my roommate completely missed what I had said the first time.

I know there are lessons to be learned here and that, in some ways, this is a relief.  Iwasunhappy at my job and even though I thought I was a spectacular actress, it was obviously clear to others.  I’m learning that I am truly not cut out for a run-of-the-mill desk job and that I have to stop accepting so many administrative tasks just because I’m good at it when I’m better at creating, innovating, and implementing.  I can be proud of the fact that I cultivated strong connections to previous employers and prospective employers, which have already given me a couple of opportunities for the summer and possible beyond.  I have always been happiest when hustling, pursuing projects and working with organizations and people that I’m truly excited to be with, and perhaps I shouldn’t have let my desire to appear more “adult” or “grown-up” to others pull me away from that.

Or maybe that’s just what I’m telling myself to get through this weird first week of non-working.  All I can say for sure is that right now, from my current “office” aka my kitchen table, it’s a beautiful sunny day and I get to go outside and enjoy it.

So, it could be worse.

If You Drive A Car, I’ll Tax The Street

It may be foolish to even consider writing a post about taxes in an election year (and amidst the 1,875th Republican primary debate…) but if there are only two things that you can count on in life, it’s death and…you know.

Ah, tax season.  That time of  year where you realize that the rich really do get richer and the poor help pay for it.  Or for some, that time of year where you can finally pay down some debt or upgrade your television or just feel flush for a couple days.  I’ve done taxes in good years (2011 wasn’t so bad, really) and in bad years (2010, you horrid little bugger) and a few in  between, so I thought I would share a few tips for the un/under-employed to help you make the most of your money.

  • Keep track of everything:  Ideally, you’ve been holding on to all your receipts (yeah, right…) but if not, go back through your monthly bank statements and highlight expenses that might be deductible, specifically expenses related to job-seeking, education, donations, medical expenses, and even a move, if it’s for a job.  I set up a GMail label for any expense I think I might deduct, so it’s easy to go back at tax time.
  • Government aid is almost always taxed:  If you received unemployment benefits or compensation, you will need to report that and pay taxes on it, unless you read my post on unemployment and had the taxes taken out in advance (a lifesaver!)  However, programs like WIC or TANF or other food assistance generally are not taxed.  Be sure to ask a professional or check online before filing to make sure you’re paying no more than you have to!
  • No need to report wages from Bank of Mom/Dad/Grandparents/Sugar Daddy: Unless you are receiving Romney-levels of assistance, you don’t have to report gifts!  Even if the gifts are at a taxable level, it is the responsibility of the giver to pay any required federal taxes.  Unless you were given a gift that produces interest (stocks, bonds, funds, trusts, etc.), you have no obligation to the government.  You’d be surprised, but I have friends who have included monthly parental money under wages – don’t be that guy!
  • File your taxes every year:  Times is rough, y’all.  I get it.  But for most people out there, you’re either missing out of money you could have in your pocket OR you’re setting yourself up for even greater debt down the road by not filing.  If you do owe the government, ’tis better to file and set up a monthly payment plan than it is to ignore it.  Trust me, it will not go away.
  • Doing your taxes shouldn’t cost you an arm and leg:  E-filing is so easy and inexpensive (often free on the federal level based on your income.)  Unless you have a very complicated return or unusual financial situation, you can file yourself – or get a friend to help you!  Take advantage of reputable sites such as TurboTax, H&R Block, etc. that will process your return quickly and get you your refund.  Save time by setting up direct deposit and don’t be tricked into money-sucking options like refund debit cards (watch for hidden fees!), filing fees taken from your refund ($29.95 additional cost if you don’t pay upfront), or opening additional accounts you don’t need.
  • Refunds are not bonus money:  I know that tax refunds often feel like a year-end bonus – but they’re not.  It’s just your money that the government has been holding on to.  If you notice over the course of a year or two that you are getting significant refunds (without any major credits or unusual circumstances), you may consider having less tax withheld from your paycheck each period.  Instead of a $2,500 “bonus” in April, you could be getting an extra $200 a month!  It’s much easier to maintain a budget, pay down debt, boost your savings, and generally try to be a responsible adult if you’re maximizing your take home pay.

Anything that I’ve forgotten?  Anyone have a crazy tax story?  Or do we all just have Taxman stuck in our head now?

Friday Frivolity: Job Cannon

Oh, Friday, how desperately I need you!  I realize that a lot of this week’s posts have been about a lot of first world problems, so just to remind you all that I know how tough it is, take to heart this advice when someone tries to push you into finding a job:

Strap on your weekend helmets and have a great weekend!

Is It Time To Quit Your Job?

As many of your readers know, I’m coming up on one year at my current job.  Prior to that, I was fired (twice!) and juggling a mix of funemployment, hustlin’, and part-time laboring.  While there have been good days and bad days in either situation, I have felt so fortunate to be gainfully employed in the last year, especially when I remember how many other Americans are not.

With that said, I find myself wondering whether its time to move on again.  This job fulfilled its purpose – it gave me a little more financial stability, I relocated to a new city (necessary for career growth and reinvigorating my social life), and it gave me a routine and structure that I needed.  BUT – there’s always a but, isn’t there – it just isn’t working for me anymore.  I’ve started the job hunt in earnest again, taking advantage of new city networking and the relatively healthy economy here in the District and may potentially have some options.

This makes it very fortuitous that I would come across this great post on one of my favorite websites, GOOD, that gives some advice on why it might be a good idea to quit your job.  Their considerations:

  • You don’t have to move home again:  This is definitely true in an urban setting – it’s easy to find roommates, cheap neighborhoods, or economy digs.  I rent from a friend who owns her own home, so my living expenses are economical and I know that I can cover my day-to-day with one of several possible alternate options on the table.  Also, I have a couple month’s rent saved up.  Do you?  You should.  (Ed. note:  This comment brought to you by your parents.)
  • Turn to the service industry:  GOOD suggests utilizing the “etc” section of Craigslist to increase your cash flow, either while you job hunt or to give you the cushion you need to quit.  I’m a firm believer that side money earned from odd jobs can often cover what you would make at your soul-crushing job – some people are made to juggle jobs instead of the 9-to-5 grind.  Not for everyone but an option that I believe in.
  • Quitting your job does not mean unemployed:  At least on paper.  If you’re concerned about gap time on your resume (and you should be, apparently), remember that you can be working without being employed.  We are a generation of freelancers, job-creaters, and career-crafters – with a high-speed Internet connection, gumption, and a strong work ethic, you can create your dream job.  Or at least have more fun than you’re having now.
  • Sometimes its just worth it:  This is the key element for me.  We have to put a value on our emotional well-being and our personal happiness.  Quitting your job can be a serious luxury but it also may be a necessity.
I’m still not entirely sure what I’m going to do yet.  I’m moving forward but not so ambitious as to put in my two weeks notice and figure it out later.  It is reassuring to know that the good people at GOOD – and many, many others – are around to remind me that sticking in a job that is not working out just because I should have a job is not a good enough reason.

I Am Not My Job

Living and working in Washington, DC means that you will encounter one question each and every day, from every possible person you meet – Who do you work for?  You might get a slight variation but it’s almost always phrased it this exact way.  In the District, everybody works for somebody and is trying to work for somebody else.

I tired of this question about two hours after moving here.  Perhaps it is because the effects of the recession have not been felt as deeply here, insulated by layers of government pork, but the job chatter is absolutely non-stopping.  I was absolutely floored last week at a birthday happy hour for a friend when her young, idealistic sublet-er talked at length about his work, not his actual job.  It was so refreshing in its naivety and enthusiasm, I almost felt like a person again.

Over at Huffington Post, Marlise Karlin posits that being unemployed, for a lot of people, can be a very positive experience and I think this blog is a testament to that.  Without having a job to define you, you are forced to start defining yourself in a way that you probably never had to before.  I was thinking back to a post from last year, where I discussed how weird it was to introduce myself to people without having the easy signifier of an occupation, but now I wonder if we’d all be a little better off if we didn’t identify our jobs at all.

I’ve been thinking about the young man from happy hour last week a lot.  He seemed so passionate about the civic-minded work they were doing and was so eager to integrate his own skills and loves into his day-to-day work experience.  He was such a stark contrast to me, where I believe very deeply in the work we do but get bogged down in the realities of my day-to-day job.  I’m been playing around with a post about the struggle between a cause you support and a job that drives you insane but this kid, full of freshly postcollegiate energy, made me wonder if I’ve grown a little too cynical about as of late.

New mantra for the week – I am not my job.  I am not my job.  I am not my job.

Living On The Dole

Unemployment happens.  Google unemployment rates if you want to look at some numbers that will make you sad or check out any of the many posts here about the ups and downs of the job market.  As oft-described, it is the suck to be unemployed.  But there are some resources for those who find themselves job-less.

One of those resources is unemployment benefits.  Benefits vary state to state but essentially are a weekly payment based on previous wages and salary that are made to those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own and are actively job searching but are unemployed or partially-employed.  I encourage any one who is in that situation to take advantage of unemployment. If you have been working, you have earned that money.  I’ve spoken to many people who are concerned about the stigma of receiving benefits – trust me, most people have received benefits at some point in their life.  It’s not a permanent solution but it can really make the difference during your job hunt.

How to Apply for Unemployment

1.  First, be sure to document all the information regarding your termination.  Generally, benefits are only extended when you lose your job through no fault of your own but if you feel that you were wrongfully terminated, there are opportunities to still receive benefits and address that issue.

2.  Before you file your first initial claim, visit your state’s employment/workforce commission website.  It will have all the details regarding filing.  Read the fine print – policies vary from state to state. Many local library branches have volunteers on hand to assist with understanding this process – take advantage of speaking with someone before you get started! 

3.  Some information to have on-hand when you’re ready to file – your past employment history for the last 12-18 months including wages, employment dates, supervisor contact information, reason for leaving, etc, and the details regarding your most recent termination.

4.  Generally, you will file an initial claim online.  This will determine if you qualify and for how much.  Once you receive a letter stating that you may receive benefits, you will still need to file weekly to receive payment (generally through direct deposit or a pre-loaded card).  All states require you to document your job search, so be sure to do thoroughly.

Tips for Filing Painlessly

  • Most states require a waiting period 1-2 weeks after your last day.  Do not expect a check to come sailing in right away!
  • It’s important to communicate with your most recent employer if you plan to file – contact human resources to see if there will be any challenges to your claim.  This shouldn’t necessarily stop you but if there is going to be an issue, it’s better to know going in.  No money will be dispersed during any fact-finding process.
  • Benefits are determined based on previous wages/salaries, so if you were terminated from a full-time, high-paying job 8 months ago and then let go from your seasonal part-time gig 2 months ago, your benefits will be based on all the work you’ve done.  It also won’t matter that you were previously fired if the claim you’re filing is from an employer who lets you go due to lack of work.
  • Be organized!  Write down EVERYTHING pertinent to your job hunt – I used a label in Google Mail to track all job-related correspondence for weekly filing.  You do not have to accept every job offer you may receive but you have to document everything that happens!
  • Benefits usually only last for 26 weeks.  Some extensions may be available.  Keep this in mind when job-hunting – you’ll need a plan for when your benefits do stop.
  • Benefits are taxed!  I recommend having taxes taken out prior to being dispersed.  It makes life easier.

My final word of advice?  Keep in mind that, like many government-operated programs, there is a lot of paperwork (mostly on-line) and very few staff members.  Stay on top of the progress of your claims and find out who the deputy assigned to your case is that you can have a point person to talk to.  Also, any delays (as small as a misspelled name to as serious as an employer challenge) will freeze your money, so be prepared!  Unemployment benefits can be a great help for paying bills when you’re not working but you’ll want to try to have a safety net or plan in case that money doesn’t come through.

Readers, how many of you have filed for unemployment?  Please share tips or suggestions, especially state-specific, in the comments.  Any questions?  I’m happy to share more about my experiences.