“Live like you’re unemployed”

By | August 13, 2009

This weekend, I went to a baby shower in Baltimore and, while there, struck up a conversation with a graphic designer–Jean-Pierre–who had recently been laid off. Working again now, he and I were discussing the experience of being unemployed, how we found work, and how being laid off changed us.

It was amusing to hear how similar our stories were — for instance, we’d both developed “routines” while unemployed. For Jean-Pierre, that meant going to the gym every morning, making it to the coffee shop in time to get a good seat (”next to the outlet”) and sending at least 3 resumes out each day. (By the way, his hard work paid off — he found work in a lightning-fast 30 days!)

We also discussed ways we saved money at the grocery store. In particular, we both found ourselves buying small to save. Jean-Pierre, who cooks for one, paid closer attention to the size of the produce he was buying. A smaller head of lettuce, for instance, cost less and had a better chance of being fully utilized. By buying only what he would actually eat in a week, he saved money on food he might have had to toss.

Another point we agreed on: the importance of seeing friends. Jean-Pierre met up with people to go for walks, or other inexpensive activities. He also, like my family, ended up taking a vacation he’d pre-planned before getting the pink slip.

Toward the end of our conversation, Jean-Pierre said something that really struck me, that he now “lives like he was unemployed.” Meaning, that some of the habits from his layoff have stuck. He’s learned how to live on less. He’s still buying small heads of lettuce at the grocery store. He’s also more hesitant to buy new “things” like clothes or other items that aren’t entirely essential.

This has been true in our house, too. Now that David and I are contractors, we have to live frugally to prepare for gaps in work. Luckily, we’ve found ways to make that enjoyable. This weekend we had fun purging our book shelf and donating five full bags of books, toys and miscellaneous items to Goodwill. We met up with friends and family at our homes (not restaurants) for delicious meals and socializing. We played around with new recipes. We walked to the farmer’s market.

Jean-Pierre and I wondered how this new “unemployment” mind-set would effect a country where consumerism counts for 70% of the economy. If we all buy less, will that mean less work for people? Will it mean a much slower recovery? It might, but I have to admit, I feel much better about my new habits and I don’t want to give them up. It’s like I lost 10lbs and I want to keep losing.

Our home has less stuff and more order. Every time I open my cabinets and see a row of neatly stacked dried grains, fruits and beans, I get a jolt of excitement. The same thing happens when I look at our book shelves and see things that are meaningful to us, things that have a “place” and aren’t disrespectfully stuffed into every available crevice.

Living like we’re unemployed also means enjoying life more. I make time to take my daughter to the pool after daycare. I don’t waste time worrying about work over the weekend. It’s a priority to see friends for lunch, dinner, parties, etc. perhaps because I know better now that “work is work” — it comes and goes. And I love my work, but I no longer define myself by work alone.