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Financial Advice for the Suddenly Unemployed

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If you find yourself without a job, you have two equally important tasks in the next few days, weeks, and months: managing your financial well-being and managing your emotional well-being. In this excerpt from her book, Financial Advice for the Suddenly Unemployed, Edie Milligan explains how to maintain financial and emotional perspective.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

You have two equally important jobs in the next few days, weeks, and months: managing your financial well-being and managing your emotional well-being. The plain truth is that you won't be able to do one without doing the other. If you focus entirely on aspects of your financial well-being—such as finding a job, talking with your mortgage company, and working your budget—but ignore your emotional well-being, your situation may begin to crumble. If, on the other hand, you postpone all tangible and tactical decisions regarding your financial life until you have regained your emotional stability, you may wake up one day to find yourself totally sane but with nowhere to live.

These two tasks are no different than any two assignments you may have been given at work that needed to be completed in similar time frames. Think about how you liked to handle that sort of challenge. Did you block out certain portions of the day to work on each? Did you like flipping back and forth between them throughout your day? Did you like to get up in the morning and know that you were working on one specific task that day and the other one would wait until the next day? Look for a balance between these two projects. You'll find a way to integrate them that will be comfortable for you.

The only mistake you can make is to ignore one completely in favor of the other. If your mental health has been relatively good in the past, then you may not totally understand what I'm talking about yet. Your path to emotional well-being following your layoff will more than likely be fairly quick. However, you'll still have to go through the process.

Likewise, if you've been fairly solid financially, you will weather this layoff with a few easy decisions and be well on your way toward a secure financial future. But there will be some decisions that you need to make. If you ignore either of these areas—the financial or the emotional—you may see consequences down the road that could have been avoided. Everything from an extra tax bill to a divorce are situations encountered by people who believe that things will just take care of themselves.

The Grieving Process

Whether you know it yet or choose to admit it, you are grieving. Grief is a term used to describe the range of emotions that we feel when we experience a loss. These emotions can come in rapid-fire succession, like rounds from an automatic weapon, or they can come slowly over a long period, like an intermittant software problem that you can't quite put your finger on. You can cycle back through them. You can experience them simultaneously. Everybody does grief differently. And with each loss we experience, we may process our grief a little differently.

One of the things that people report when they experience a loss is a flashback to earlier losses. You need to look out for this occurrence. The way you were treated by your supervisor on the day you were laid off can remind you of the last interaction that you had with an ex-spouse. The separation you feel from co-workers or customers may feel like the separation you felt when you graduated from school.

Psychologists talk about grieving as a process that needs to be finished. If you've had earlier losses where you didn't finish that process, your brain has an interesting strategy of recalling them to be packaged with your current loss as you grieve. It's pretty efficient, if you think about it. If you're taking this loss harder than you would expect to be, the answer may be that you are not only processing this loss but other unfinished business from your past. That may mean that you have become skilled at putting your grief on the shelf and leaving it there to be dealt with later (whenever that is).

In this section, we'll talk about some of the simpler steps that have worked for others, to begin to process your grief. However, you should consider seeking professional counseling to learn how you can do it effectively. It's hard for me to recommend spending money on professional counseling at a time when your income has just dropped, but these services may continue to be available to you through your employee assistance program (EAP) or through your health insurance benefits for a short time. Take advantage of that benefit while it's available. Beyond that, community health services and community support groups may be available to you at little or no cost.

Denial has been given a pretty bad rap in our culture in the last few years. There is a presumption that denial is a bad thing. Denial has a true biological purpose to enable a human to continue functioning in the face of tremendous grief. If you felt every feeling that you had after a tremendous shock, you might just shut down under the weight of it all. Denial is like a guard at the door that only lets in the emotions that you are ready to deal with. The only problem with denial is that if you don't send the guard home at some point, allowing those emotions to come through, they keep banging at the door for years to come.

If they are still there when another loss occurs, you may not be strong enough to keep them out. So either on your own, with family members, or with the help of a support group or professional counselor, make sure to send the guard away at some point and begin the work of regaining your emotional well-being. The sooner the better. I have met with hundreds of individuals who have shared stories of financial decisions that they made during a period when they were in denial. In many cases, they were still trying to undo the difficulties that they caused themselves.

In Appendix 3.1, I've given you a list of feelings that you may be experiencing right now. This is a place to start to look for the impact that your feelings are having in your life right now. Look over the list and circle any feelings you are aware of. Throughout the early process of managing your emotional well-being, you may identify with words on the list that are holding you back from functioning in a way that you are used to. By merely acknowledging each feeling, you have taken the most important step toward working through the ones that are holding you back.

Get out the list two or three times a day until you are back to yourself. By comparing your answers to the last time you checked, you will see that you are constantly changing. Your brain is processing this change and finding your center. Eventually you will be able to answer the question, "What am I feeling?" without looking at the list. At some point, very soon, you will be back to a normal balance, for you. Some days will be great, some rotten, and most right in the middle.

Appendix 3.2 gives you a list of possibilities for the second thing you need to identify each day: your needs. No one can tell you what you are feeling and no one can tell you your needs. You will have to do this yourself. You can't begin to know how to fulfill your needs until you know what they are. Others around you will be totally clueless, as well. They will project their own needs onto you, believing that you must have the same issues that they do. That doesn't help you much and may cause conflict. You own the responsibility of communicating your needs. You should share each need that feels urgent, realistic, and respectful.

If you are not back to your old normal self in a few weeks, I recommend that you see your doctor. You may be ill, due to the stress of your layoff. Your brain may be having trouble finding a balance and be leading you into the disease of depression. If you have had this disease before, you will recognize it and know what treatment is effective for you. If you have not had it, your doctor will discuss various options and find a solution. It is so important that you not let any illness, physical or mental, go untreated. You can't afford not to be well right now.

Taking care of yourself is the only way you will be able to move on to your next career step. Your mental health begins with identifying your feelings and acknowledging your needs. If that isn't enough, then professionals are everywhere who can take you to the next step. Find them quickly. Appendix 3.3 will help you learn the common symptoms of depression and when to look for treatment.


Grieve well. Do it in style. Honor yourself and be aware of the importance of what you've lost. Be proud of the fact that you took your job seriously and, because of that, it hurts to let it go.

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