Friday, November 28, 2008

The axe falls

I didn’t expect to lose my job that Wednesday. The Kansas City Star, where I’d spent more than half my working life had just bought out or laid off 10 percent of my co-workers just a few months earlier.

And I ran one of our business section’s most popular series - money makeovers demystifying real life personal financial puzzles.

I wasn't surprised either.

Advertising is an easy cut when the economy goes south and the papers that hit my driveway each morning remained depressingly skinny. Newsprint and operating costs were still going up.

So, how do you deal with a jolt like this in real life? First, share the news immediately with your spouse and as many family members and friends as you are even remotely close to. They will be shocked and, in some cases, scared. But they'll also come up with some potentially good ideas for what to do now than your Human Resources people will.

We cancelled an order for a new water softener that my wife signed 15 minutes before I phoned her. The guy we bought it from then offered to build us a far cheaper one out of spare parts after we refigured out what our cash flow looks like. "I've been laid off before too," he said.

My younger brother is a software engineer who's been through a few of these things himself. "Take deep breaths. Drive extra carefully," he told me. It’s good advice. You do need to do both. Your mind will wander unexpectedly while you go through anger, denial, sadness and other things you feel. You will sit through at least one green traffic light.

Second, take stock of your situation. My wife and I are lucky. We’re mostly debt free, except for a new Subaru I bought last year. We don’t even have mortgage payments, because we paid ours off early a few years ago. We’ve got some emergency cash, though it didn’t start out as a formal reserve like the ones that financial planners and I frequently recommended to readers.

I borrowed money from our credit union 20 years ago to buy a car and, when the loan was paid off, I had them put the automatically deducted $346 monthly payment into a money market account instead. We’ve been casually using the money for unplanned expenses, like the water softener, or to deal with things such as real estate taxes, then letting it rebuild.

Now the money is a few more month’s living expenses if I don’t find a job before our severance money runs out. We refigured our household budget too. Our first recalculation was easy because we weren’t overstretched. Our plan is to cover basic ongoing household expenses with my $320 a week unemployment benefits as long as possible and save my wife’s paycheck, from a part-time retail job, to help with the Subaru payments and property taxes we’ll owe in December. Not having a mortgage or big credit card bills to worry about helps a lot.

But it’s still tough to figure out where else to cut. We’re planning meals and leftovers more carefully to avoid takeout. We’re going to a lot fewer movies and then only to the $5 matinees. On the plus side, finding time to do that is easier while I’m unemployed. But basically, we scrimp and postpone. Nothing goes on plastic unless there is no way to avoid it. I had to charge $9.48 to pay shipping and handling for some new, free business cards I ordered online from I can pay that when the bill comes. If we can’t pay the whole balance, we won’t buy it.

We’ll postpone major stuff and everything else we don’t absolutely need to buy until I get a new job and money’s coming in again. We’re stretching on the income side too. We can't invest to make a killing. But we can do little things that are better than nothing. I split the credit union stash into some 10-month and 18-month certificates of deposit offered by a local bank. They pay about 4 percent instead of the mid 2 percent at the credit union. Our non-emergency cash reserves plus our severance money should last until the first CD matures, if we need it to. We’re also putting about two thirds of that non-emergency and severance money in an ING Direct online savings account too.

Those are paying 2.75 percent as a I write, compared to less than 1 percent that local banks and credit unions offer. Even so, I may have blown a chance to stretch that money even farther. During all the shock of losing my job, commiserating with co-workers, telling valued sources about the change, and thrashing through COBRA and other calculations, I forgot to ask about one real potential money saver that might have been available. I didn’t ask Human Resources if they would roll my severance money --almost half a year’s income -- directly into an IRA for me. I’m 62 and close enough to potential retirement that it wouldn’t have locked up the money forever. HR wouldn’t have had to withhold taxes, which would have made the check almost 30 percent bigger.

And I could have put the money into some really conservative fixed income or money market choices in the IRA and controlled my taxes better by timing withdrawals later. It’s really great idea and I didn’t think of it until my severance check hit our mailbox. Third, seek outside support. I'd suggest letting co-workers know what's going on. Mine offered much appreciated moral support, plus a lot of even-more welcomed really good ideas about income and job possibilities.

David Hayes and Jason Gertzen at The Star suggested what became this blog the afternoon the axe fell. I was still shell-shocked at the time and not thinking beyond part-time income stocking department store shelves. Remember that help is a two-way street too. Share what you know and learn because many of us worry about jobs these days. Let others you deal with outside the company know of your change too. I did when I bought some new glasses to help burn off Flex savings plan money.

The optician there also happened to be working on setting up a marketing business of her own and offered to call me if some voice-over work came up. It can't hurt. Grab any outplacement counseling or similar help the company offers. Or seek it on your own, if the company doesn't offer anything. Job hunting has changed, especially if it’s been a few years since you last did it. Fourth, you will have a great deal of detail to absorb - and detail work to do - very soon after you learn you are leaving. You'll need to really know what's in your severance package, what's happening to your unused vacation or other paid time off, and whether you need to sign any legal releases before you go. You'll also really need to know and understand your COBRA benefits needed to maintain medical, dental and other benefits after you leave. Your company may subsidize some of these or all of them for a period of time or it may not. Put a pencil to all them to see which choices fit you best. Compare those costs to what you can buy on your own. I found the best way to sort through all these details is doing it a chunk at time.

Start with the outcome that you want as a goal and keep asking questions until you get understand, in plain English, if you can get that outcome or what the closest alternatives might be. Also, count on at least one seemingly simple thing you want to do to take far longer than it should. I blew a half day trying to reconcile confusing or conflicting opinions about what would happen if I withheld a Flex plan contribution from my last paycheck. Finally, I called the plan's customer service number to straighten out what our HR, payroll and corporate payroll couldn't. We've got a lot to do yet - including fine-tuning our hunkered down budget, checking out what unemployment benefits I may qualify for, and, of course, finding a job. Those all start next.

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