You're Unemployed, Now What?

What to Do During Your First Week of Unemployment

Well, that’s it. You turned in your parking pass. You cleared out your email. You said goodbye to your friends at the office. The contents of your desk (plus a few extra things from the supply closet) are packed into a box, which is now sitting on your floor at home. You are officially unemployed.

So what now? You know what you want to be doing, but getting there from where you are now will be a challenging (and possibly very long) road. Whether your next goal is to land a new and better job or to become your own boss, the next week will be critical in keeping yourself afloat and establishing the pace for your career between careers.

Day One: Sleep In. Whether you have been dreading a layoff for months, or you thought everything was fine until you got called into the bosses office, you have probably experienced some heightened stress lately. Relax by sleeping late, making your favorite breakfast (or lunch, depending on how late you wake up), taking the dog for a walk, or whatever you do to decompress. Relaxation makes you more productive, and you will have plenty of time to stress out, freak out, and put your nose to the grindstone in the weeks and months ahead. For now, just enjoy the simple pleasure of the snooze button.

Day Two: File for unemployment. While most states allow you to apply for benefits months after being laid off, you should still file your claim as soon as possible. Unemployment insurance applications can take weeks to process, and you don’t want to have to wait that long when you really need it. Better to file the application while you still have savings and your last paycheck to tide you over. You don’t need to start claiming benefits right away. But having your application filed means that you know what your eligibility is, and you can plan for it when you do need it.

Day Three: Follow up with your former employer. Contact with your former employer is probably the last thing you want right now. But they have information and resources that can are invaluable to finding a new and better job. If you had a good relationship with your boss, a project manager, or a coworker, ask them to write you a letter of reference or a recommendation on LinkedIn. Sincere praise from a former colleague can go a long way with a prospective new employer.

If you didn’t have one on your way out, ask to schedule an exit interview. Exit interviews are good opportunities for both you and your former employer to say what you really think without having to worry about working together afterward. Knowing what your boss considered your strengths and weaknesses will tell you what to emphasize in your résumé, and what to work on improving during your downtime. If you feel awkward going back to the office, ask to do the interview over the phone. That way they won’t see the faces you make.

Day Four: Take stock of your finances. Information is the most powerful weapon against the fear and depression you will face while you are not employed. Knowing how much money you have in your checking and savings accounts, as well as your investments, 401(k), profit sharing, and IRA will give you a realistic idea of how dire your situation really is, and what you need to do to keep your head above water. Websites like Mint.com can aggregate your account balances and activities automatically, so you can see your whole financial profile at a glance. If you prefer a more manual approach, you can use a spreadsheet (like the one developed by Consumerist).

Day Five: Make a budget. Now that you know how much money you have, and how much income you can expect, it is time to set some spending guidelines. Since you will be living on a reduced income, you need to make some choices about what spending is necessary, and what you can afford to cut. Mint.com has budget functions which allow you to set spending categories and amounts, and will automatically categorize your credit and debit card transactions by recognizing where you spend (you can enter your cash transactions manually for additional detail). The two things that a budget should be are realistic and flexible. Base your monthly budget off of what you expect to make from unemployment benefits and other sources of income, plus probably some amount of savings drainage. Then, at the end of the month, review your spending and tweak your budget to reflect your spending habits. If you overspent on food but underspent on entertainment, move money to your food budget to give yourself more room to spend the way you really do.

Day Six: Polish up your résumé. Since your primary activity for the foreseeable future will be searching for new work, you want your résumé looking as good as it can. Update your job title, work dates, and accomplishments from your most recent job, and go back and tweak your previous jobs where you can. Redesign your résumé from the ground up to force yourself to consider every element and decide the best way to present yourself. Experiment with different formats, colors, and phrases. You should also take the opportunity to make a cover letter template that matches the style of your résumé. If you want a professional touch, check out services that can edit your résumé or build you a new one from scratch.

Day Seven: Make a plan. Even though you have been unemployed for a few days now, you are probably still used to the schedule and structure that your old job gave you. But the most important thing to remember about being unemployed is that you are now your own boss. You have to keep yourself structured, motivated, and moving forward, because nobody else will do it for you. Draw up a daily schedule for activities like job searching, writing cover letters, and following up with employers. Schedule breaks, meals, and errands to keep yourself focused and on task. But being your own boss is not without its perks. Reward yourself for your diligence with an afternoon movie, or a leisurely lunch at a local cafe, or a day at the beach.

Even with a great deal of skill and experience, you could be facing a long period of unemployment. Getting yourself off on the right foot from the very beginning will make this period less stressful, more productive, and ultimately more rewarding.

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