A 3-Step Checklist to Stay Financially Healthy After Job Loss—Because It Happens, and It’s Okay

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So you’ve just been handed a dirty little pink slip (no, unfortunately not the slinky, silky version you might find at the likes of La Perla). It quickly dawns on you that, you’ve just been let go—told to pack your file folders and your ficus and to leave the building, like, now.

What’s your next step? If the voice inside your head is screaming “PANIC!,” with flashes of an eviction notice and moldy bread for dinner and essentially unpayable medical bills crossing your mind, that’s totally normal. But, it's also completely unnecessary.

Even if you hadn’t been financially planning for a rainy day, with some smart, in-real-time strategizing, you can feel solid about your financial security and overall well-being until that next steady paycheck comes along. Here's how.

Here, a complete checklist of things to do if you lose your job:

laid off from work
Photo: Getty Images/PK Photos

1. Make a budget (no, really—you need to do it this time!)

Regardless of whether you’ve been carefully counting your pennies since the fourth grade or you’ve never so much as glanced at a bank statement, now is the time to update (or create from scratch) your monthly budget. And while it can seem daunting, even demoralizing to do so given that the income column may now amount to a big, fat zero, that’s all the more reason to get a handle on your spending, says Kristen Euretig, a certified financial planner and founder of the financial planning firm Brooklyn Plans. “It’s really important to be super-clear about what you need on a monthly basis to survive,” she says. “Once you know what your revised spending looks like per month, then you have to figure out where that is coming from.”

If you have an emergency fund (financial advisors typically recommend tucking away three to six months’ worth of expenses) now is, of course, the time to use it. But with studies indicating that a growing number of millennials have no savings at all, that option may be about as plausible as scoring a date with Noah Centineo. So you may need to get creative in order to hustle up some funds.

Of course, signing on with a temp agency or applying to drive Lyft or babysitting is a good place to start, but those gigs may take some time to ramp up, and if you need money now, you could be hurting in the interim. So, other options to consider:

1. Unemployment: Depending upon the circumstances surrounding your job loss (like whether you were fired or laid off from work), you may qualify for unemployment benefits (more on this in just a bit).

2. Using credit cards: This method is hardly the ideal because of its potential long-term ramifications for your credit score, debt, and general financial health. But if you’re forced to pay rent or buy groceries by swiping plastic, make sure you’re using the card with the lowest interest rate.

3. Dipping into retirement: Again, prepare for a serving of side-eye from your financial advisor if you decide to raid your nest egg. But there’s at least one savvy way to go about it, according to Euretig, and that’s focusing on your Roth IRA. Because you have already paid the taxes upfront on a Roth, you can withdraw contributions (but not necessarily earnings on your contributions) without the added expense that you would incur with traditional IRAs and 401(k)s, which defer taxes until withdrawal.

"I’d prefer that you take out of a Roth [retirement fund], pay no taxes, and support yourself than rack up credit card debt at 28 percent.” —Kristen Euretig, financial planner

“A lot of times, financial advice is very absolute, like, never touch your retirement accounts,” says Euretig. “But in reality, sometimes that’s the best option you have. I’d prefer that you take out of a Roth, pay no taxes, and support yourself than rack up credit card debt at 28 percent.”

2. Investigate unemployment benefits

In some cases, you qualify for unemployment benefits, which typically amount to a weekly sum equal to a percentage of your previous salary or wages. Qualifications vary from state to state, (as do specifics like how much you receive and for how long), so check with your local unemployment agency. Generally speaking, however, you may be entitled to unemployment benefits if:

  • You were categorized as an employee and not a contractor or freelancer
  • You received enough wages during the base period to make a claim
  • You lost your job through no fault of your own (as in, you weren’t fired for, say, pilfering toilet paper from the women’s restroom)
  • You are partially or completely unemployed
  • You are ready, willing, and able to work, and are currently looking for a job

Many states require a waiting period of at least a week after losing a job before you can file for unemployment benefits. But make sure to do it as soon as you can, because you don’t want to miss your eligibility window either. Furthermore, every situation is unique, so even if you don't think you qualify for benefits, checking in with your local agency doesn't hurt. There are a number of loopholes that may work in your favor, after all.

3. Stay healthy with insurance

Salary aside, health insurance is likely a top concern for the recently unemployed. Unfortunately, insurance options are similar in spirit to the not-so-straightforward task of collecting unemployment benefits. Coverage largely depends on the circumstances surrounding your job loss and the state where you live.

Typically during a layoff (and sometimes during a firing), you'll be offered a severance package, which among other things, may include health insurance coverage for a set period of time and/or the option to elect COBRA coverage. (If these things aren’t included, you may want to negotiate for them.)

What exactly is COBRA? Basically, it’s an extension of your current group health plan, meaning that you’ll continue to be covered for a period of time under your company’s insurance even though you’re no longer employed there. Sounds great, right? Well, let’s read the fine print: COBRA does not guarantee you will pay the same out-of-pocket expense for your coverage. In fact, insurance premiums that were previously subsidized by your company often won’t be under COBRA, meaning your payment could double or triple. (How much you ultimately pay will depend upon your insurance elections.)

If you choose to waive COBRA (perhaps in the hopes of finding cheaper coverage), you still have options.

It’s your employer’s responsibility to notify COBRA of your eligibility, after which time you’ll be sent a ton of paperwork detailing your rate and how to elect coverage. You will have at least 60 days (if not longer) to make your decision.

And if you choose to waive COBRA (perhaps in the hopes of finding cheaper coverage), you still have options. You can apply for Marketplace coverage up to 60 days before or 60 days after you lose your job. If you’re married or in a domestic partnership, you may want to look into coverage under your partner’s plan. And, if you’re 26 years old or younger, you may still qualify for coverage under your parents’ insurance. The bottom line, says Euretig, is that insurance is one expense you shouldn’t skimp on. “I’m risk-averse when it comes to health insurance,” she says. “For me, health insurance is non-negotiable.”

Once you're back in the swing of things, ask these questions in an interview to wow the hiring manager. And if you're on the hiring side, these questions will help you land the best candidate ever.

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