In the current economic morass, almost everyone could be subject to an immediate surprise layoff. Even if you are certain that wouldn’t happen to you, for your sake and the well-being of your family, you should have a specific plan in the event it happens.
It’s like having an emergency plan in case of a hurricane (for those of us living near the Gulf Coast). Chances are you won’t take a direct hit – but you need to be ready to cope with what happens next, in case you do.
To make a good plan, use your imagination and pretend you or your spouse just got laid off. Brainstorm together, and write down the list of implications you come up with for later use. Put it into a file folder, along with everything else that’s useful in planning for life after a layoff.
Here are 10 steps you and other working family members can take right now, if you haven’t already, to be prepared for a sudden job loss. Not every step will apply to every family, but most will. (Follow the links within each section for more details on how to complete the step) Turn this into a check list. Then complete these tasks, write down or copy documents showing the results, and put them into an emergency layoff planning folder:
1. Become as valuable as you possibly can: The best way to avoid being laid off is to become one of your company’s most essential employees. To begin with, make sure your work is thorough, complete, error-free and on time. Volunteer to help with any special projects or important tasks in which you might lend a hand. Participate with your whole brain. Be willing to work longer hours, attend optional weekend events or come in on scheduled days off, especially if the extra effort will be noticed by people who could decide whether your position goes or stays.
2. Understand all your benefits: Lots of people haven’t taken the time to read the fine print in their employment benefits package. Do so, or visit your company’s human resources department, or speak with someone in charge so that you thoroughly understand your benefits.
3. Make use of your health-care benefits while you still have them: If you lose the job that provides your family with health insurance, health care will get expensive, fast. Take advantage of the relatively inexpensive health-care access you now have.
The goal is to make sure you and your family members are as healthy as possible – now, while you’re fully covered – so that you won’t need to make a lot of doctor visits when you’re bearing the full cost.
For starters, have each family member get a physical check-up if they haven’t had one recently. Ask your doctor what procedures he or she recommends as part of a wellness program. Then, as long as they’re covered, schedule those procedures. Be sure to fill any prescriptions that you need.
Also make sure your family is up-to-date on dental checkups and any needed dental work. Finally, if you have eye-care coverage, make sure your prescription is up to date and get new glasses if you need them.
4. Create a family budget: (Or, if you’re single, call it a personal budget.) The point is, you need to know exactly how much money is coming in each month and each year, and where it is coming from. More difficult but even more important, you need to understand exactly what you’re spending you money on each month and during the course of each year.
Here’s a detailed guide for creating your budget, but the basics are these: You want a brief and absolutely accurate document that shows what your family spends its money on. Be conservative with any estimates (in other words, err on the side of estimating expenses as being slightly more than you think, rather than less). And brainstorm with your spouse to make sure you include hidden expenses, such as car repairs, which don’t occur on a regular basis (if you’re lucky) and thus sometimes escape notice.
5. Cut expenses and start a savings account: Now that you know exactly what your expenses are, it will be easier to decide what you can live without. Go over your expense list with your family, and talk about what you could live without if one of you lost his or her job. Then go ahead and make at least a significant portion of those cuts now. For the good of your family, that money needs to start flowing into a savings account.
If you’re like most people, chances are you haven’t been saving much (if any) money over the past few years. Now’s the time to start. More people have lost their jobs during the past months of this Great Recession than at any time since its namesake, the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s. With so many people out of work, its likely many won’t find suitable employment for a while.
If you don’t have savings to fall back on, you might have to start selling your belongings or go into debt (or further debt) by running up credit cards, or mooching off of friends or relatives. But you really (really) don’t want to sully either your personal reputation or your credit rating. Thus the acceptable alternative is to save more and spend less.
Here’s a more-detailed road map for getting this done.
6. Pay off your debts: Do the math. When rates of return on bank savings products and other liquid investments are snake-belly low (such as right now), it makes more financial sense to pay off debts with a higher rate of return. In other words, if you’re paying off a car loan with a 7% interest rate, and the best rate you can get on a certificate of deposit is 3%, then you should take the money you were going to save, and use it to pay off your car loan early.
When it comes to deciding which debt to pay off first, just tackle the one bearing the highest interest rate. Continue this process until the only recurring debt you have left is your home.
As for your mortgage, you probably should put your money into a savings vehicle before working toward paying it off early, at least until you have saved an amount equal to several months’ worth of your current income. It’s likely to take many years to pay off the mortgage, even at an accelerated rate. And you need a lump of available cash now.
Also, even though you would be building additional equity in your home by paying an additional amount beyond your regular mortgage payment, banks have tightened up almost ridiculously on the amounts they’re willing to lend for home equity loans. And if you’re unemployed, any home equity loan may be difficult to obtain.
By contrast, your savings is always there to use as you see fit.
7. Get your personal belongings and information out of the office: If you’re laid off, chances are good that your company won’t give you much time to pack up and get out. If you maintain personal computer files and use your company email as your default address, you need to make some changes quickly.
If you have a personal email address at home, make that your default email communications gateway. Send out a message to all your friends and contacts (outside of people at your company, duh!) and ask them to start emailing you at your personal address. If you don’t have one, here’s a quick way to find a good free email account provider.
If you don’t already have one, buy a small USB flash drive (you can get one that holds 8 gigabytes for under $20). Plug it into your work PC and download any personal files you have have stored, including family photos, and any contact information from your email program that might come in handy during a later job search.
If you have any personal photos, plants or belongings that you can’t do without, make sure they aren’t in your office. It might seem cruel, but companies’ HR and/or legal departments sometimes advise management to have security guards escorted laid off employees out of the building immediately. Make sure you don’t lose any valuable belongings by not keeping anything in your office that would make you cry if you lost it.
8. Step up your networking efforts: If there’s an industry-related organization in your city that you’ve always thought about joining, now is the time to do it. Ditto for other relevant business or networking groups. Get out and attend their meetings regularly and, if you’re not a natural networker, force yourself to improve those skills. Come back home with at least four new business cards each outing. Make sure to hand out at least twice that many.
Networking events are excellent places to practice the art of gentle self-promotion and to begin overcoming your fear of public speaking. That is what they are for, and no one will think less of you for doing so (that’s what they’re all doing). Practice your “elevator pitch.” (You have 30 seconds to describe what you do to someone while traveling up an elevator. During that time you not only have to accurately describe yourself, you have to make a favorable impression.)
Among other things, this is great practice for job interviews.
9. Beef up your online networking efforts, too: If you don’t already have a Linkedin account, start one up right this minute. Even your boss will have trouble objecting if he or she finds you on Linkedin. If you set it up properly, it will look like you’re networking on behalf of your company as well as yourself. Remember, as with your off-line networking, the purpose of this exercise is to meet new people who may open the door to a new job or other opportunity when you need it the most.
While you’re at it, sign up for a Twitter account, and Facebook, too, if you don’t have them. Discipline yourself to actually use them, too. Being adept at social media is actually a salable skill in some circles, and such services also can be used to effectively promote yourself. But the key is learning to do so effectively, not clumsily. Before you get carried away, take the time to learn what you’re doing.
10. Make sure your resume is current: If you haven’t touched yours in a while, get it out, look at it with a critical eye and judge whether it does a really good job of portraying you as the talented and valuable potential employee that you are. If you don’t like what you see, or if you aren’t absolutely sure your resume is in sterling shape, read up on some resume writing tips and make use of those that most apply to your individual situation.