How to Lose Your Job
What if I told you it might be possible to completely eliminate one of your household incomes with minimal effort? What if I said you might even be able to do it with virtually no change in lifestyle? That’s okay, I wouldn’t believe me either if I didn’t already know it could be done. I know because my wife and I made it happen, and perhaps our experience might help some of you to do the same. Before we get started, let me be clear that I'm not a financial expert, and your circumstances are obviously going to be different from ours. What worked for us may not work for you. Then again, it might. If nothing else, you can almost certainly use a few of these methods to improve your current financial situation, or maybe—like us—you’ll discover you can ditch that second income altogether.
A few years back, I quit my job. It was a nerve-wracking experience for me as I’d worked full-time (and often a lot more than that) almost nonstop for over twenty-five years. For a good chunk of that time, I had two jobs (and the requisite slobby roommate to help pay the bills) and still just barely scraped by. Rent, car payments, credit cards, insurance, child support, utilities, and medical bills drained my income faster than I could earn it. So I worked more. It didn’t help. In fact, counterintuitive though it was, the inverse appeared to be true—the more I worked, the less it seemed I had.
After a few decades of struggling to keep my head above water, and largely thanks to my beautiful and responsible wife, I finally found myself in a pretty good financial place. Then the worst (best?) possible thing happened: I got laid off. Our total household income was cut in half. I was out of work for six months, during which I wrote my first novel. And we noticed something—our stress dropped to almost nil. We were both happier. We no longer needed to coordinate discordant and inconvenient schedules, figure out how to get shit done, or race home to take care of the dog. We actually saw one another once in a while. It was an eye-opening experience. And though we certainly weren’t rolling in bucks, it didn’t squeeze our budget nearly as much as we’d expected it would. After more than twenty years in the dark, I'd finally begun to see the light.
Then I went back to work. Full-time and then some. We were comfortably middle-class, grossing somewhere in the neighborhood of $90,000. My wife and I went back to barely seeing each other, coordinating (and often canceling) plans, and feeling guilty for leaving the dog alone for ten hours at a stretch. My stress level went up instantly. Hers gradually. We kept on this way for another year and a half or so before we realized we were miserable all over again. And, strangely, we found we didn't really seem to have a hell of a lot more expendable income. We both wanted to go back to a less chaotic and stressful life. So we came up with a plan.
The first (and most obvious) step was to draw up our existing budget. We were paid bi-weekly, so I plotted our income based on two paychecks a month. (If you’re paid weekly, base it on four checks a month—more on this later.) It doesn’t have to be fancy—my best version was drawn out on a pad of yellow, lined paper. Over the course of a few months, I tweaked the income and expenses to reflect the worst-case scenarios for each. That few months will also help you root out any sneaky expenses that aren’t so obvious. Tally up your expenses and any savings goals you may have, then subtract the income you plan to keep; the difference is your “target”—in other words, how much you need to cut or save in order to lose a job. Perhaps more than anything else, this initial step is all about visualizing what you really spend. You might be surprised by what you find. As an example, we discovered we were spending a rather exorbitant amount eating out—mostly because we didn’t have time for much else, and even when we did, we were often too exhausted to cook or clean up afterward. Once your expenses are all down in front of you, there’s a good chance you’ll see some places you can trim right away.
Next, I went through every bill on that budget—cell phone, home phone, Internet, satellite TV, insurance, power, gas—and did some price shopping. I treated this part of process like a treasure hunt, and it was great fun to hack away at our expenses. I discovered the competition was often more than willing to undercut our existing providers to capture our business. I saved $40 a month by switching insurance carriers. Two years later, and I’m now saving another $60 a month having switched yet again. Same. Exact. Coverage. Can you bundle your services with a single provider to eke out a few more bucks? Can you live without cable? We had every station known to man, but only regularly watched a handful of shows, most of which were network anyway. With a $20 antenna, I still get all of those same programs in HD. Sure, I miss boxing, and the DVR, and the ability to rewind live TV, but those things were hardly worth the $150 a month we saved. These days, between the network websites, HBOGo, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Fire, Apple TV, Roku and any number of other options, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything that you can’t watch for free, or for dirt-cheap. Worst case, you might have to wait a week to watch something. We also eliminated our home phone altogether—it rarely rang, and when it did, it was no one we wanted to talk to. That was another $30. Will Verizon or Sprint outbid your T-Mobile plan? We checked our own cellular plan and discovered that we were paying for more data than we used or needed. More discounts. In a very short period of time, I’d managed to save us almost $300 a month. That’s not peanuts—that’s a car payment.
Something else I learned on the journey: interest is not your friend. It’s not just an unnecessary expense; it’s money that you could instead be paying to yourself. You should never carry a balance on credit cards if you can help it. If you have savings, consider using a portion of it to pay those balances off. Right now. Your bank accounts are currently earning next to no interest whatsoever, yet you’re paying exorbitant interest rates on these cards. Once those balances are taken care of, you can always replenish your savings with your old monthly credit card payment—that way you are paying yourself the interest you’d otherwise be surrendering to your lenders. If you don’t have a savings account, that’s okay too. Use the money you found in your treasure hunt to knock those balances out as soon as possible. This has the added benefit of keeping your balance-to-credit ratio low and improves your credit scores, which will save you even more money in the future.
Speaking of credit cards, here’s a nifty trick—if your credit is decent, take a look at your card options and the rewards programs they offer. Citi currently offers a double cash back card—earn 1% for each dollar spent and another 1% for each dollar paid. We were able to shift nearly all of our bill payments and monthly purchases to that lone credit card (except when others provide better deals: our Target card is always worth 5% savings when we shop at Target, for example). Say you’re spending $1500 a month on that Double Cash Card and pay it off religiously every cycle. You’ve just earned yourself an extra sixty bucks a month with no extra effort. Voila. Alternatively, if you're a globetrotter, do a little research and grab the card that offers the most airline miles for your buck.
The same technique you used to eliminate your credit card debts can now be utilized to pay off your car loans, if you have any. This step should always come after the elimination of your credit card balances, because the interest rate on auto loans is typically lower. Save the most money possible first, then apply it to the next (and usually greater) debt.
You can use a similar tactic on your mortgage. Can it be refinanced at a lower rate? Even if you have no (or negative) equity there are currently programs available (HARP and others) that may allow you to do a streamline or simple refinance with nominal closing costs. A few years ago, we saved almost $200 a month using that option. I can do it again now and save another $90. Roll those savings back into your mortgage by continuing to make the same payments you are today. An extra $100 a month may not seem like a lot, but it can knock years (and tens of thousands of dollars in interest) off of your loan term. Or (as in our case) it can pull you out of a negative equity situation in a big hurry.
Those are just a few ways to maximize your income while minimizing expenses. But the true secret is even simpler still: working, in and of itself, is expensive. This was my “aha!” revelation. It’s the reason I could never seem to get ahead by just working more—that other job (or those extra hours) always comes with a price tag.
In my case, the most obvious savings came by way of the gas tank—more than $200 a month. Though not as immediately apparent, you can factor some wear and tear and vehicle maintenance out of your budget as well—you might even be able to get a better auto insurance rate for driving less. Take a look at your eating habits. While working, I was grabbing a quick lunch at Subway several times a week, and on top of that, we were going out to dinner or grabbing pizza at least once every few weeks. There’s another $150+ a month. While you’re considering the savings from eliminating that second job, you should also think about things like daycare, work clothes, and the even the way you shop. If you’re anything like we were, you might be paying a lot more than you need to for groceries and basic necessities just to save a few precious minutes. You don’t have to become a crazed coupon ninja, but a few minutes of price shopping ahead of time can go a long way. I regularly save 20% on my Target trips with only a little advance preparation. But not one shopping trip goes by where I don’t save at least a few bucks. It all adds up.
Less income also means fewer taxes. Provided you’re not currently paying in at year’s end, you should be able to decrease withholdings on your sole remaining salary significantly. And, by the way, if you’re collecting a nice fat check from the IRS every year, you should instead opt to increase your allowances on your W4. Using tax withholding like a savings account allows Uncle Sam to earn interest on your money--money you could instead be using to boost your income, pay down debt, or bulk up your own savings. Ultimately, your goal should be to break just about even at the end of the year. There are plenty of resources online to help you figure out the ideal withholding rates to do just that.
When we finally pulled the trigger, I was more than a little nervous. We were going from a gross income of $90,000 to roughly $50,000. I’d managed to cut our monthly spending by well over a grand, but I still wasn’t confident it would be enough. I didn’t want to trade the stress of working for the stress of being broke. I got a piddly part-time gig close to home and waited for the sky to fall.
It never did.
It’s now been more than two years since we became a (mostly) single-income household. We’ve yet to encounter any problems, but when things start looking a little tight, I still freak out a bit. It’s then that I remember my built in failsafe: a few times a year, we’ve got an extra paycheck coming, free and clear, just in case we need it. If we don’t, we can tuck it away for a rainy day or use it to celebrate—and we don’t even need to coordinate our schedules to do it.
What is it they say? “No one, on their deathbed, has ever said they wished they’d worked more.” Prosperity is measured by so much more than the depths of our pockets. Love. Relationships. Family. Fun. Passions. Our physical and mental health. Time. Though work is necessary and important, the endless pursuit of wealth, so idealized and romanticized, too often comes at the expense of the things that truly matter. I hope this post provides you with an opportunity to enjoy those things a bit more. Because unlike a paycheck, once spent, time can never be replenished. Spend it wisely.