Sunday, November 21, 2010

One Year Later: Lessons Learned From My Life on the Dole

A year of living on the dole.

A year with no job.

A year of doing without.

A year of learning.

It’s been a year.

In some ways it’s been the longest year of my life. Yet, in others, it seems to have flown by.

That frenzied, harried, stressed-out working woman who stared out from my mirror has been replaced. Sure, she had lovely, expensive, salon highlights in her hair, name-brand professional clothes and a well made-up face, but those workplace trappings did little to camouflage the stress lining her face.

Now, a new woman looks out from my mirror: A woman who is unashamed of her hair streaked with grey; a woman wearing sweats (more days than not), yet fresh faced from a full night’s sleep. Yes, this woman looks years younger than the other one. This woman cannot afford expensive tubes of trendy moisturizer, but there’s something better that comes from peace and rest, and no cosmeceutical company can quite replicate that look.

Yes, it has been a year.

And, while I don’t appear to be the same woman on the outside, I’d like to think I am not the same one at heart either.

Here are some of the life lessons I’ve learned:

Life’s too short to turn yourself into a stress hairball. Ironic, considering health insurance worries that dog me. (My premiums go to $400 a month in February and if—and that’s a big if—I can get insurance at all, it will become $1,200 in June). But, job stress and unemployment stress are two different beasts. Doing-without-stuff stress is not the same as stress associated with navigating office politics, hidden agendas and interpersonal minefields. I hope I never feel that way again. I want to work—I just don’t want to let job stress consume me anymore. I think I know a lot more now about work/life balance.

Lesson learned: Even though jobs are hard to come by, I’m going to try to choose wisely next time.

Life’s not about having (or buying) stuff. I’ve spent the past two weeks cleaning out closets. Simply put, I have too much stuff. Even though I haven’t purchased any nonessential for more than a year, I still have too much stuff. Consider:  Ten half-used moisturizer tubes and 20 (or more) little hotel-type shampoo bottles. Fifty half-used lipstick tubes? Really? I don’t have enough lips to use that much in a lifetime.

And, let’s not even discuss clothes, shoes or purses. Too much. Too much. Too much.

Donating stuff to charity, trading at the used book store to earn credit for a friends’ son’s birthday gift and tossing the ratty-looking stuff is far more liberating than marching through stores grabbing up stuff.

Lesson learned: I am never going down that path of mindless consumerism again.

I’ll never have the same easy relationship with money ever again. I never was a spendthrift. Possessing some measure of frugality, I always worked to find the best deal even when buying something expensive, such as my car. (That car is now seven years old and if I got a fabulous job tomorrow, I’d still keep driving it.) Even in the old days when I overdid the eating out, at least I used coupons. But, there’s a huge difference between being frugal with a good income and paddling like a maniac to keep your head above water.

In the future, my nest egg will need to be double or triple what it is now to make me feel any measure of financial security. A huge mortgage even when I can afford it? No, I don’t think so. Every purchase will be thoroughly considered—not just the small ones. And, wastefulness? I hope it never again enters this house.

I’m not sure I’ll ever feel 100% job security again. Sure, it was incredibly naïve to feel as secure as I did in my pre-dole days, and I was probably an oddity in my generation. Experts say Gen Xers never felt job security the way Baby Boomers did, claiming they were scarred from watching their company-loyal parents get downsized in the 1980s. But, my parents weren’t downsized—Mom was self-employed and Dad worked 35 years at his government job before retirement. I never felt, or even saw, insecurity. I worked hard. I worked for a large company. I got promotion after promotion until I reached the top. I felt my job would be around forever. I was wrong. Naïveté, I will miss you.

Lesson learned: Never, never again will I believe I am so bullet-proof it can’t happen to me. 
True friendship is priceless. When you’re in an influential position and have money to socialize, it’s easy to attract new social acquaintances. But, are those folks true friends or the fair-weather variety? Worrying about whether I would lose my job, it never occurred to me to worry about losing people. While the fair-weather social acquaintances have fallen away, true friends stepped in to show me how priceless they are.

Lesson learned: Next time, I’ll figure out who the real friends are a lot sooner and I will treasure them more.
The joy of the treat is worth savoring. Whether it’s a much anticipated free haircut or a birthday dinner out with friends, everything is better when it’s a treat, a break from everyday routine. But, if it all comes a bit too easy, then nothing is special—nothing is a treat. There’s no anticipation.

I used to wonder why turn-of-the-century children got excited about a mere orange for a Christmas gift. But, in those days, oranges were rare and special—a treat meant to be savored. Not having everything your heart desires makes doing something special just that—special. There is an incredible joy that comes from savoring the moment—preserving the feeling so that it can be remembered long after the moment has passed.  

Lesson learned: I’ll never again let treats become commonplace. I’ll keep some things as special things to be savored.

Life on the dole has been challenging for me but never horrible. While some unemployed friends are down to their last $10 and others do without health insurance and home heating, I’m not missing anything critical. Admittedly, being without a clothes dryer has no appeal, and cold showers while the water heater was out was not my favorite part of this adventure. And, it’s entirely possible I’ll be paying into the distant future tiny installments on the bills for the ER, casts and physical therapy for my tumble down the stairs. Sure, income is limited, but I’m not poor or even broke.

Lesson learned: As my grandmother always said, “Remember there’s always somebody worse off than you are so just count your blessings and don’t complain.”

Money cannot buy life’s important things. It can’t buy time with Mom and Dad. It can’t replace their TLC while I was injured. It can’t buy a visit with a friend. It can’t buy a snuggle from my cat. Maybe I can’t go out to eat or to the movies with friends, but I can still visit with them in my own house or theirs. In fact, having a job used to limit severely my time with family and friends, making them complain they never saw me. Now I have time for those I love.

Lesson learned: The best things in life really are free.

I already have everything I need. I may no longer have everything I want, but I have everything I need (and then some). I have a warm home, good health, loving and supportive parents, loyal friends, healthy food and some money left in the bank. I have more than most people living on this planet. And, most importantly, I have a thankful heart.  

Lesson learned: Money is just a tool that makes life more comfortable. Don’t make it more important than it has to be.

Yes, it’s been a year.

A rough year that often felt like an emotional rollercoaster.

A year that’s left me feeling refreshed and rejuvenated to begin again.

A year of lessons learned.

A year I would not trade for anything because it made me who I am today.

I have made it through the year. Yes, my life on the dole is still a work in progress. But, I like the woman I’ve become. And, I like the woman I’m still becoming.

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Photo Credits:
Friends: Source Unknown


Jessica Miller-Merrell said...

What a great and honest article. Most job seekers don't often think that Human Resource pros would also be out of work experiencing the same things as they are. I host an internet television show and would love to have you on the show. Please shoot me an email jessica(at)xceptionalhr(dot)com. We would love to have you talk more about your expriences.



Anonymous said...

Especially like the photo of the woman washing clothes.

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