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Can You Work It? Yes!

How to make the most out of your unemployment.

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Lisa Rabinowitz has a confession to make: She took a cab to the job-hunting seminar. “I should have taken the bus—it was just across town,” the laid-off lawyer, 37, admits. “I have cut out the massage therapist.”

As in most things, New York is No. 1 when it comes to unemployment. The city is tied for first place (with San Jose) for the highest jobless rate among big metropolitan areas—7.5 percent at the end of last year. And thousands of former strivers are still striving, obsessively rewriting their résumés when not trying to figure out the best way to spend a weekday afternoon (launch a business or go rowing at the gym?).

Herewith, a guide to getting by when you’re down but definitely not out.

GET YOUR BENEFITS
Filing for unemployment is no longer a labor-intensive process. You can register online (though strangely, the form is accepted only during business hours) and call in each week to get your check. The process was almost too easy for Paul Scheer, 27, who was laid off from a brand-consulting firm in June: “I had this idea that I would stand in unemployment lines like Richard Pryor in Superman III.” Speaking of benefits, make sure to get eye exams, check-ups, and even tooth whitenings before insurance from your ex-employer runs out.

FOCUS YOUR FINANCES
Tally up what you actually spend each month and what you owe. It may be tough to face the facts, but knowing the scope of things will typically lessen your anxiety. Many brokerage firms have advisers who’ll come up with a six-month coping plan. Spending cash you have on hand may be wiser than selling stocks in a down market or paying penalties for dipping into retirement plans. Lately, advisers have also been doubling as social workers (though we’re not exactly talking Jacob Riis here). They’ll tactfully suggest that clients yank their kids out of horseback-riding lessons and rent out their beach houses. “They get confused between needs and wants,” says one Fidelity adviser.

“Remember, it’s not your job to act miserable. Feel free to catch an afternoon showing of Old School.”

AVOID STATUS SHOCK
When it comes to needs and wants, though, don’t be ashamed to prioritize perks instead of dropping them all at once. Most people (sorry, Lisa) can cope without $12 taxi rides, but giving up the cell phone could send them into withdrawal.

ALWAYS CONNECT
Just as Susie Sklar was hitting a dead end in her hunt for a TV production job, her dad needed a date for his Horace Mann fiftieth reunion. The 29-year-old Sklar jumped at the chance. And over cocktails, she chatted up a couple with a son in the business. She’s now production supervisor on a hip-hop show for VH1, with the son as her executive producer. The moral: Blind dates, jury duty, and AA are all good stamping grounds for your job search.

RENEGOTIATE
Haggling is no longer reserved for carpet merchants and car dealers. From rent to therapy, many prices are newly negotiable. Ask for discounts in shops and even department stores, which are suffering from the economy, too. Also, discuss your plight with credit-card companies. They’re usually willing to work out extended-payment plans. In fact, this is the only realm where playing the pity card is not only acceptable but frankly sort of thrilling.

FIGURE OUT YOUR FUTURE
Eight months after losing her six-figure salary at Booz Allen Hamilton, Janet Kamin had an epiphany: Instead of working in consulting, she wanted to sell low-carbohydrate baked goods. Friends and family laughed, then offered start-up capital. Kamin, 48, has since begun to sell bread from Janet’s Low Carb Foods to restaurants and groceries. “I just invented a world that saw me as CEO of a company. Then I started acting like CEO of that company.”

RELAX, DON'T DO IT
If financial concerns aren’t immediately pressing, resist jumping at your first job offer—particularly if it induces a deep feeling of dread. And don’t feed your anxiety by hanging out with laid-off former co-workers who are frantic for paychecks. Remember, it’s not your job to act miserable. Feel free to wander through museums—or to catch an afternoon showing of Old School. After all, sometimes the worst part about unemployment is that it will almost inevitably come to an end.


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