If one is unemployed, the people around you may feel compassion...at first. But eventually, judgement underlies any sympathy. And it's not just people believing you should have worked harder or saved more--people think that, somehow, being unemployed is a three-year paid vacation. For example, in New York State, because the current rate of unemployment is listed as less than 8.2% as of February 2011, there is no extension beyond 93 weeks of benefits. When Federal legislation was passed granting three-years of unemployment benefits, there was a catch.
New York State has four tiers that categorize the unemployed. Depending on your tier, your eligibility for extended unemployment benefits vary. So, while you have people judging you for not only the loss of your job, but your seemingly "lazy" lifestyle in not having found another--you also get those who judge you for not fully maintaining what are unspoken financial obligations to your social connections...citing the very thing they criticize you for as the reason why you "should" be able to fully participate. Amazed? Wait for it--It gets even better:
Life doesn't stop just because your employment did. Your mortgage, your car payment, your grocery bill, your heat, your electric...all still have to be paid. And unemployment benefits, though a true life-saver for however long one is eligible, is not at all comparable to one's former salary. And it doesn't end there. Social connections to family and friends place EVEN greater pressure on the unemployed.
A birth. A death. A wedding. A bridal shower. A baby shower. A birthday party. An invitation to go to dinner with friends. An invitation to meet for coffee. Responding appropriately to any of these examples are standard ways we strengthen our social connections, with not just family and friends, but with professional colleagues. Now, imagine that your salary goes from, say, $50,000 a year to what you would receive in unemployment benefits from a state like New York, about $18,000 for one year. Your cost of "necessary" living (meaning mortgage/rent, utilities, food costs, car payment, fuel/repair costs, and upkeep--things like home repairs and required insurances for both car and personal property) was at about $30,000 prior to losing your job. You grossed $50,000, but after you paid into your benefits and deducted taxes, what was truly available was about $35,000.
So, that left you with $5,000 a year to save or spend. Mostly spend. Because some of your expenses were tied up in things like education loans--those can be temporarily deferred while one is unemployed BUT interest continues to ecru. While you can theoretically pay the interest on your deferred ed loans, it's not realistic if unemployed.
Other expenses beyond "necessary living" might have been related to your children--there's nothing you can do to change that. New shoes, clothes, school activities, college tuition, doctor visits, dentist visits...it's a never ending cycle of spending. While you can curtail those child-related expenses to some degree, for the most part, when your kid grows out of her sneakers, you have to buy new ones. When your son or daughter has a cavity, it has to be filled.
Maybe some of your expenses related to maintaining a strong social network, like occasionally meeting for dinner or coffee--can cost an individual about $100/month or so, conservatively. That can go. Or can it?
If you can no longer stay connected through social interaction, you isolate yourself...but soon enough, others will begin to do that for you. Even if you over-extend yourself to appease the social-gods. Believe it or not, though joblessness is a wide-spread disease-like phenomenon in 2011, people generally don't get it.
What do I mean by "don't get it"? Here's an example:
Your friend is getting married. It's terrific news. You're very happy. She asks you to be in her wedding party. And, she lives two states away. You and the other bridesmaids are planning her shower. Since you're the only one who is not local, you will be traveling to attend. You pay 1/3 of the shower costs. You buy a shower gift. You buy your dress for the wedding, You must also buy the matching shoes. You stay in a hotel for two nights during the weekend of the shower, and for two nights during the weekend of the actual wedding. All of that sounds wonderful, right?
If one is unemployed, one cannot participate in such things. But the bride will not understand. It is her special day, and surely her friend has some savings...and unemployment. And what about all those designer handbags and nice clothes? If her unemployed friend has those things, surely she can splurge for something like this....
In such a situation, there is an unspoken social expectation that, if important enough, the unemployed individual has money to spend. Of course, this is not the case. And if the unemployed individual has enough backbone to admit that fact, he or she will be judged...as not caring enough, not saving enough, not understanding enough...you get the idea.
It's difficult to lose the ability to earn. Not just difficult. Terrifying. And the unemployed individual may feel a sense of betrayal from the people he or she cares for most when they choose to ignore the new hardship by asking that person to over-extend themselves financially. Yes, it's your special day. Yes, you deserve flowers when you move into a new home. Yes, it's your birthday and last year, she bought you earrings so you expect something similar this year. But your unemployed friend has no job. No job=no money, regardless of how much you may deserve material recognition.
Need another example?
Your friend gets pregnant. Your friend, sadly and unexpectedly, loses a parent. Your relative invites you to organize (aka pay for) this year's family reunion. Your friends ask you and your plus-one to join them at a local restaurant for a small dinner party. Heck, Christmas! Easter. New Years. Valentine's Day. Mother's Day. Father's Day...and the list goes on and on.
There are always people who will say, "You don't have to spend any money..." but that's a blatant lie. In order to maintain social connections, whether with friends or family, one must be prepared to spend money. Lots of it. But what if one is unemployed?
Though the unemployed individual's employment status has altered, their social connections haven't. Anything acquired prior to unemployment is levied against the unemployed individual as a reason for their continued participation in social obligations to maintain social connections: "But you have that nice house...." "But you have such nice furniture...." "But you have two cars...."
But I have no job....
How do acquisitions prior to losing employment add up to justified social spending? Get out your calculators and start adding up reality, one unemployed-dollar at a time....
Money-experts like Suze Orman keep referring to the "new American dream"...I'm not so sure it's all that dreamy, but we do need to unplug ourselves from the Matrix of our previous reality. Even if the unemployed individual has $50,000 in savings and two years of unemployment benefits--a situation better than most--that in no way means he or she can do more than simply attempt to pay their continuing household expenses for those two years...and what happens after that? After their unemployment ends? After their savings dries up? Will that friend who expected you to spend $1500 in expenses for her big day help you pay the bills? No. And if you asked her for a $1500 loan, what do you suppose she'd say???
This is not a "new" America. Anyone at any time in history who works for their wealth and suddenly loses that ability has NEVER been able to continue to live at the same level. Ever. Yet somehow in 2011, social expectations seem to soar as high and as fast as the dollar sinks.
Consider this your first lesson in 21st century etiquette. If you want a party, don't expect others to contribute. If you invite guests to your wedding who live two states away, understand when they can't come. If you suffer the death of a loved one, don't expect people to send expensive floral arrangements. If you have a new baby, understand when far-flung friends and relatives only send a card. If you have a friend who's been out of work for an extended period, understand that any invitation to lunch or coffee has to be followed with the qualifier, "...and it's on me."
Wrapping your brain around what is being called "the new American dream" is harsh. It's a real bummer. But this is our reality. No one can change it by taking a new pill. No one can unplug you from the unpleasantness. It's time to be self-responsible again. It's time to understand that people in the first half of the 20th century weren't anti-social jerks who didn't know how to throw a party, they were poor. Sixty years later, so are we. Even the $25 lunch is in trouble.
It's time to re-evaluate our social attitudes and expectations...are you ready?