Saturday, 3 October 2009

Laid off? Unpaid Furlough? Here's How to Cope

by Kate
Living The Frugal Life

It seems that every time I check in on what the pundits are saying about the economy the picture has changed...a little. But overall, people still seem to be hurting. Unemployment is real for many, and scary for most everyone else. Right now some workers who still have jobs are being forced to take unpaid furlough days on a regular basis. This is better, one supposes, than losing a job outright or watching a coworker lose a job. But it still cuts into the budget at a time when every penny counts. The old saying goes that, "time is money." If that's true, then it should be possible to convert some of this unsought time into money, or its equivalent. Quite often suggestions made by frugal bloggers are met with the canned response: "But I don't have time for that." (We shall pass over without examination the fact that such commenters manifestly have time to surf the internet and leave said comments.) If you're newly unemployed, or looking at an unpaid furlough and less money in you paycheck, you now do have time. So here are several things you can do to balance the books.

Get a real handle on your household budget.Have you been meaning to find the time to sit down and really sort through your finances? This is the time to do it. You have time to call your credit cards and ask for a better rate. If you have a budget, review it in light of your lower income. If you don't have one, make one. Balance your checkbook. Review any automated bill pay to be sure your smaller paycheck doesn't cause any overdraft fees from your bank. Start a price comparison book to help make smarter grocery purchasing decisions.

Make your home more energy efficient. With one spare day you can shop for compact fluorescent lightbulbs and swap out the standard bulbs around your house. You can by some silicone caulking and seal the air gaps around your windows and doors. You can add some insulation to your hot water pipes. None of these things require a lot of money, time, or expertise. And your investment in those three things will continue to pay dividends for a long, long time.

Take stuff to a consignment shop or hold a yard sale. Yes, it takes time to organize selling things. You've now been given the time to do that. This will put some cash in your pocket. If you're serious enough about getting rid of stuff, you may free up enough extra space to make room for a roommate, or to rent out part of your garage for storage space - another way to help balance the books.

Get cooking. Now is the time to send the kids to school with bag lunches, and prepare the family dinner from scratch. It needn't be elaborate. A simple pasta dish with salad, or a roast chicken with two veg will do it. Better still, get a jump on future meals by trying out once a month cooking. The basic idea is to make up several oven-ready or crockpot-ready meals and stash them in the freezer. (No room in the freezer? Now's a perfect time to clean it out!) You don't need to go so far as to actually prepare a month's worth of food at one time. But here's your chance to help yourself out on those crazy working days when fast food seems like the only solution for getting everything else done. Make a huge batch of soup and freeze a few quarts for later use. Look online or at your library for "once a month cooking" or "freezer meals." If you are not an experienced cook, there are plenty of online tutorials to help you with the basics.

DIY There are probably a few things that you know how to do, but which you have not done in the past because you've been too busy. Well, this is a good time to fix that leaky faucet that's been driving you nuts, but which you haven't wanted to pay someone else to deal with. Wash your delicates by hand with a safe detergent in lieu of taking them to the dry cleaners. Manicure your own nails if you must. Reconsider every service you pay for and see what you can do for yourself now that you have extra time.

Reduce your childcare costs. You probably put your child in daycare in order to work, so now that you're not at work, ask yourself if it still makes sense to pay for this service. You may want to hold off on this option until you've done several other things on this list to make the best possible use of your time. On the other hand, if money is really tight, find a way to get some of these done in the company of your child, or if need be, during naptime.

Start (or plan) a small garden. I'm not going to kid you and tell you that you can maintain a big garden using just one or two days of furlough per month. You can't. But you can certainly maintain a small plot of lettuces, onions, or carrots with that much time. Or you can opt for container gardening, which is even easier. One tomato plant can yield 40 pounds of tomatoes in a season. If you keep it simple and take decent care of a few plants, you can garden on a small scale with little money or time. Recruit more helping hands by making it into a family project. Kids learn a lot when they work alongside their parents.

Learn a frugal skill. Bread baking and sewing well enough to make a few repairs can be learned with a little practice. Both will save you money. If you want something more manly, do you already know how to change the oil in your car? Can you sharpen your own lawn mower blade? How's the air pressure in those tires? If nothing else, detail your own car to make yourself feel like a million bucks on your way to your next job interview or business meeting.

Switch to no-cost exercise. More time on your hands combined with less money means you can and should find free and cheap ways of exercising. If you haven't been exercising previously, starting now can improve your appearance, help relieve stress over your financial situation, and pay dividends for your health overall. If you have been paying for gym membership, cancel the membership and save that cost. Start walking. If you've taken yoga classes for more than six months or so, you know what you need to know to do it yourself at home for free. Use whatever home exercise equipment you've paid for over the years and then neglected. If you're really enterprising, turn your daily exercise into a dog walking service that puts money in your pocket while you reap the health benefits.

Maximize this "bonus time." Write a list of things you're going to do to improve the way your household uses money and do your best to blast through it.

Keep your spirits up. Money woes can be seriously depressing. Remember to do something nice for yourself and your family, something that shakes up your usual routine and stops you thinking about money for a few hours at a stretch. Visit a local park, nature reserve, or hiking trail. Find some free local cultural events to attend, or a low-cost museum nearby that you've never visited. Most of all, don't play the blame game with yourself or with others. You'll get through this time, and any frugal habits you put into place now will stand you in good stead for the future.