NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Being unemployed has taught Cindy, a former airline contractor from Cincinnati, an unusual lesson: If you want to save money, try freezing your milk.
“I had no idea that you could freeze milk, but it turned out to be a brilliant discovery,” said Cindy, who asked not to be identified for fear of people knowing she lost her job. “Milk is not cheap and being able to store it in the freezer has been incredibly helpful to manage my expenses.”
This revelation fundamentally changed her approach to grocery shopping and saved her valuable dollars in the process. Now, rather than buy a new carton of milk each week, Cindy, 34, has taken to buying milk in bulk, freezing it, and only taking out a carton when she actually needs it. She applies the same technique to buying loaves of bread as well.
It might sound like an extreme way to live, but to Cindy, who has been unemployed now for just over three months, “desperate times call for desperate measures.”
Cindy is just one of 15 million Americans who are now unemployed, and among the nearly 6 million recently laid off workers who started collecting jobless benefits in the third quarter of this year.
Like many of these workers, Cindy has little choice but to lean heavily on her weekly unemployment check of $330 to help pay her bills. But while she appreciates the money, it is still only about 40% of what she earned at her previous job. As a result, she must resort to all sorts of financial acrobatics to make ends meet, whether that means forfeiting eating out and replacing her cell phone with Google’s free calling service, or negotiating with her energy company to freeze her heating bill for three months so that the cost doesn’t go up beyond her means.
The difficulty that Cindy and other out-of-work individuals around the country are running up against is that unemployment benefits are rarely enough for most Americans to live on for very long.
“I am surviving on these cost cutting measures for right now, but it’s very tight getting by and I’m not sure how long it will last,” she said.
Are Unemployment Benefits Enough?
The goal of the unemployment insurance program, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, is to provide people with about half of their normal wage. However, it almost never works out this way. The average American collected $295 in weekly unemployment benefits in the third quarter of this year, according to the most recent government data. But the average weekly salary in that same quarter was $865, which means the jobless benefits replaced just over a third of the average worker’s salary.
In fact, even as Congress has successfully extended the time period one can collect jobless benefits four different times in recent years, from 26 weeks to 99 weeks, the actual amount that the average person collects relative to the wage he or she earned before becoming unemployed has slightly decreased. In 2007, before the recession began, unemployment benefits compensated 35.6% of one’s last salary. In the third quarter of this year, that number was 34.2%.
Part of the problem, according to Rebecca Dixon, a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, a national advocacy group for low wage workers, is that only a handful of states actually adjust the amount of benefits offered to meet annual increases in wages. In the states that do, like Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Kentucky, benefits tend to be significantly higher and come closer to meeting the standard of living that workers might have grown accustomed to. New Jersey, for example, offers maximum jobless benefits of $598 a week, nearly the twice the national average.
But whether you’re living on half of your normal salary or a third of it, getting by on these benefits alone is nearly impossible.
“The benefits definitely aren’t adequate,” Dixon said. “If your benefits are replacing 40%-50% of what you used to make, or less, there are a lot of bills you won’t be able to downsize quickly enough.”
Indeed, some might argue that’s the point. If you give the unemployed too much money for too long, it could theoretically take away their incentive to search for work. Instead, unemployment benefits are essentially intended to provide just enough money to keep jobless Americans – and the economy as a whole – temporarily afloat.
But as the term “temporary” has come to mean 99 weeks or longer, many Americans have had to find ways to get by, whether by cutting corners or occasionally supplementing their benefits whenever possible by taking little odd jobs.
Tricks To Get By on Unemployment Benefits
When Janet Raiffa lost her job as a director of recruiting at a New York City law firm back in 2008, her salary dropped from more than $200,000 a year to the roughly $20,000 she was eligible to collect during her first year on unemployment benefits. Though Raiffa did have money in savings, her lifestyle quickly started to bleed her bank account dry.
“My mortgage and maintenance are more than $3,000 a month, not counting all the other necessities,” Raiffa said.
This led Raiffa to make several immediate changes: She cancelled her gym membership and stopped eating out, which is to some New York City residents a way of life. She was also forced to dip into her nest egg to improve her cash flow, including cashing in her 401k and selling off her stocks.
But Raiffa has found some creative ways to supplement her unemployment benefits since then, for example by renting out her room from time to time through Airbnb, selling some of her wardrobe and pawning off memorabilia that had belonged to her father, including a set of Canadian coins from the 1976 Olympics.
She also jumped at random small jobs, ranging from being an extra on shows like Law & Order to writing a column for the 405 club, a popular website devoted to the unemployed. Today, Raiffa is essentially a full time freelancer – a “permalancer” – who no longer relies on unemployment payments at all.
Nicholas Carroll, who had previously worked in the world of e-commerce, followed the same path and took a number of odd jobs while unemployed, including trimming trees for $18 an hour. But even with these odd jobs, Carroll still had to change his lifestyle, particularly in terms of the food he ate. Rather than eat out with friends, he would suggest a pot luck dinner instead, where everyone prepares a dish.
“The pot luck food was nearly as good, a quarter the price, and the parties are a lot more fun,” Carroll said.
Along the same lines, Marc Levy, one of our Voices of MainStreet, notes that there are coffee shops that offer day old bread and bagels for next to nothing, an option that can prove essential for someone on a tight budget.
For many others though, the lifestyle changes brought on by unemployment have been more severe. According to Dixon, the policy analyst at NELP, plenty of unemployed Americans have little choice but to rely on food assistance and welfare programs to supplement their benefits. Indeed, the number of Americans who currently rely on food stamps has skyrocketed as the unemployment level remains near 10%.
Likewise, Raiffa notes that while most unemployed people may start cutting costs by canceling their cable and gym memberships, she knows some who have cancelled health insurance plans as well, and others who have no choice but to move in with family and friends to save on rent.
“I think we’re all grateful for the unemployment benefits we have,” Raiffa said. “But it’s nowhere near enough.”
I realise that things get very tight when you're on unemployment insurance. But the point is, Americans are wasteful, extravagent, and over-indulgent. That's how we're conditioned to be. You see it in ads all the time: "Don't Wait - Get It Now!", "You Know You Want It", "You Work Hard - You Deserve It", "If You Buy This, Everyone Will Know How Super Cool You Are", and other BS crap.
It's the government's and Judeo-Capitalists way of keeping us in debt so they can profit, and we'll be too concerned with paying our bills to make any trouble.
If you learn to live within your means, you can avoid debt slavery, and still have something nice every now and again. Just don't be greedy, and if you can't pay cash, then you probably shouldn't buy it. Credit is for emergencies, not luxuries. Too many luxuries leads to debt slavery.