Five Things I Learned When I Was Dead Broke

Forty percent of the unemployed are Millennials. So that means there’s a good chance that at least one of your friends is looking for work right now and possibly living below the poverty level. I was laid off in October 2013 and I worked freelance jobs, everything from writing social media content to helping at a local record store, just to help make ends meet. I applied to dozens of jobs mainly in non-profit work. I got some interviews but other than that, no luck. But then the unimaginable happened after six months: my unemployment assistance ran out and I had no job and no income.

Since the beginning of 2014, Congress has not renewed emergency unemployment insurance for individuals out of work beyond 26 straight weeks. 


Unemployment benefits are intended for short term relief after losing a job, but the median time it takes for people to find work after being laid off is 39.7 weeks.  I have a degree in film studies…yeah, yeah, I know, I should have gotten a more “practical degree” like business or something. But I am also part of a generation that was encouraged to follow our dreams and I did. I worked consistently in my field for four straight years until I was laid off. And after being laid off, I did everything I was supposed to do: apply to as many jobs as possible, take informational interviews, reach out to mentors, etc. I definitely didn’t just sit around collecting taxpayer money!


The maximum someone can claim for unemployment benefits is $400 a week. I received $282 a week after taxes. Which sounds great but it barely covered my rent. I wish I had the luxury of moving back home with mom and dad in North Carolina but two of my siblings had to move home too and alas, there was no space for me. So after paying rent and bills, I was left with only $78 a month to survive while I looked for work. Trust me, if I could have taken any job, I would have.

So now left without any income, I had to do the unimaginable (from getting food stamps to selling most of my clothes) just to survive. What has happened in the subsequent months has made me a more resilient person and I want to share what I learned while being dead broke:


1. Swallow your pride and seek help – My trip to the SNAP office

I’ve always been the one to provide for others. But since not having income anymore, I had to rely on welfare. As a black woman who didn’t grow up poor, this was a big deal since I didn’t want to become another statistic. Plus, being the daughter of a “fiscal conservative,” I strongly believe in hard work and not depending on a handout. However, I had no food and no choice but to humble myself and head to the food stamps office, which is called SNAP benefits in New York City. When I first used my EBT card, I went to one grocery store with a tote bag that read IVY LEAGUE ALUMNI. I gained a new respect and understanding for people living in poverty: it’s not a choice.


2. “Can’t” and “No” become a huge part of your vocabulary

My friends on a Friday night: “let’s hang out.” Me: "I'm sorry, I can't go out."

When you're broke, "nope," "no," and "can’t" become common words in your vocabulary. There was a time when I made a good amount of money and had the freedom to go to dinner with friends or shopping. But after getting laid off, these small luxuries become impossible. Friends would offer to pay for my meals but I couldn’t even afford to get to the restaurant. There was a time when I consigned some of my designer clothes, shoes and accessories just to afford a brunch date with friends. I also had to cut out all entertainment. Well, almost all; I couldn’t let go of my Netflix account. I would have been miserable without it. As a film person, movies provided an escape for me and kept me sane. I was also able to convince all the people who were using my account to chip in at least $3 to cover the bill each month. Another thing I didn’t say no to was eating fast food. Fast food became a viable option. Albeit unhealthy, it filled me up on the little change I found around my apartment. You don’t want to know how many McChickens I’ve had...


3. You become short-sighted

Being caught up with the stresses that come along with being broke (you know, not being able to afford to eat or even travel to job interviews) can cause you to lose sight of the bigger picture. People have (and do) come out of poverty, but it became harder and harder to think of my situation as a temporary one. I was told being broke builds character and it’s almost like a badge of honor for some New Yorkers <insert cheesy NYC catchphrase here!>. One day, I was lucky to get placed at a major cosmetics company through a temp agency. The person I was working for needed a document brought to him outside for an off-site meeting. As he drove off in his Porsche, I went upstairs and ate Top Ramen for lunch. The disparity in lifestyle was so drastic it pained me. I started to resent people whose bag costs more than everything I owned. And I began to sympathize with the beggars on the train. After doing the math in my head, a beggar could make $2 a train car. There are 10 cars on the train. If he or she begs for an hour, I thought, they will make $20/hour. That’s more than minimum wage and a heck of a lot more than what I’m making…I had to keep my eyes on the prize though. 


4. Do something, anything!

It’s easy to become idle, unmotivated, and defeated when you’re out of work and have no money. These feelings can really set in if you don’t keep yourself busy. You can apply to all the jobs you possibly can but it’s not going to fill up your day. I got a library card and read as much as possible. For the books that weren’t available at the library, I sat in Barnes and Nobles and read the books cover to cover. I also went to used bookstores. I remember getting the book “When Smart People Fail” for $1 and it completely changed my perspective on being let go and feeling like a failure.

At the same time, it's important to stay active by paying attention to what the news and politicians are saying about unemployment benefits. I wish I had been engaged while congress was discussing the extension of long term unemployment benefits. There was a small warning on the website when I claimed weekly benefits that said: “Federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) benefits ended on December 29, 2013…” and I heard about how long term unemployment benefits were not being extended in the news. But I still felt blindsided when mine ran out, which was my fault for not paying closer attention to the public debate around me.


5. Be grateful

This might seem contrarian, but it’s important to focus on what you do have.  For example, my friend’s mother runs the food pantry at her church and was able to get me healthy food for free. I keep track of all the things my friends and family have done for me and all the good things I do have in my life. Even when my situation feels bad, I know there’s something to keep me going. 


I know I’m not alone. If you’ve been laid-off or still can’t find work after school, please share your story. Your experience matters. Also, call, email, or write a letter to your local congress person. Ask them to renew long term unemployment assistance if they have not already in your state so others won’t be affected by a cutoff of benefits. To find out how, visit: http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/