The Cost of Staying Active and Optimistic During a Job Search

How I spent my money during my first three months of unemployment.

Photo credit: Parker Knight, CC BY 2.0.

In July, when I left my job without another one lined up, I was fortunate to have a financial cushion to land on. I had been saving money diligently for almost two years — thanks to the 50/20/30 rule — and had enough to get me through at least ten months. I had pared down my expenses to key necessities with a little wiggle room, and felt ready to jump into the job hunt.

The 50/20/30 Rule for Minimalist Budgeting | MintLife Blog

There were a few things I knew when starting this search:

  1. I’d be searching—and waiting—for a while. At each of my previous jobs, the time between applying and getting hired has taken at least two months. Plus, I quit during the summer and figured things would be slow.
  2. Sitting around applying to every job I see and refreshing my inbox would not do me any favors; I’d need to be deliberate about getting out of the house to avoid feeling isolated and lonely.

What I didn’t know was how much it would cost to put this knowledge into practice. I use Mint to keep track of my spending, and in looking at my spending over the first three months of not working, I had far more job-related costs than I anticipated.

At first glance, they don’t look like job-related costs. They weren’t like, say, transportation to a job interview, or dry cleaning an outfit. Items I thought I’d cut — like gym membership and food costs — stayed the same yet took on a whole new meaning. Items I thought I‘d hold off on until I started working again — like books and lunches out — felt even more important.

Here’s how I spent my money during my first three months of unemployment:

Staying on top of trends: Professional development

I work in marketing, and it isn’t uncommon for interviewers to ask for my opinions on a new platform, idea, or campaign, or to want me to have a certain set of skills that, a few years ago, might not have been on my plate. To that end, I have to make sure that while I’m not working, I’m constantly learning.

Classes: Like many of my fellow nonprofiteers, I fell into marketing and communications. It started with me being the young hire who was comfortable with tech, and ended with me leading all kinds of new communications projects. As a result, I am always aware of my shortcomings and am eager to improve. This summer I signed up for the Skillcrush Web Design Blueprint. Though I don’t have intentions of becoming a web designer, there were a few aspects of this class — HTML, CSS, UX, Color Theory — that I figured would be great tools to have as a digital marketer. Cost: $450.

Magazines: It’s always been my dream to start a magazine—which must be why I have a ridiculous number of magazine subscriptions. I subscribe to ten magazines (!) for a total of $465 each year. And, yes, I read them all. Though not all of the magazines are explicitly professional in nature, I find that each magazine adds something unique to my personal and professional life: Great design, well-written interviews, smart perspectives, or cool new products. At this stage, I can’t shell out $465 to renew them all, so I’m just sticking with three. Cost: $139.

Books: I’m grateful to have a well-stacked library nearby, as the list of books I’d like to read is growing. However, when I am really into a book, I wreck it. I connect ideas in the margins; circle words I don’t know and add definitions; add blank pages in the back to keep track of ideas, questions, and resources I want to look up. I dog-ear it, bend it, stain it (as I take it everywhere with me), and if it’s really good, throw it down on the table and begin talking to myself as if I’m having a conversation with the author.

All of this makes me a really bad library patron. So with books I really love, that stir me, I buy them so I can abuse them. And, because I am obviously an emotional person, I’ve bought a lot of books after reading them in the library. Cost: $65

Total professional development expenses: $654

Staying happy: Self care

Job hunting can do a number on your self-esteem. I’m generally an optimistic, can-do person, and I’m lucky to be surrounded by encouraging and supportive people. But the lack of responses, the “Thanks but no thanks!” rejections, and the final-round-sure-things that fall through at the last minute get me down. So, while looking for a job, I need to prioritize self care.

Groceries: I LOVE to cook. Cooking is where I can be creative while showing myself and those around me some love. I also love to eat, probably more than I love to cook. As a result, grocery shopping lives between “Well, I have to cook so I can eat, live, and save money!” and “I deserve this decadent slab of brie.” Since I live with my boyfriend and we (mostly) share the costs of groceries, it took me a while to rein this in. We average about $350 month in groceries, and about a quarter of this is “fun food” so I’ll price this at about $88 per month. Cost: $264

Household and personal care shopping: Shopping has taken on a whole new meaning since quitting my job. Before I tried to get in and out of a store as soon as possible, but now I shop for socializing and connection. I enjoy people-watching and making small talk. Shopping makes me feel normal. (I’m sure we can dissect this in another post.) Also, I shop as a reprieve from being a “job seeker on a budget.” Shopping feels like a cheat day. That said, it’s far easier to justify shopping for house and hygiene items than, say, for clothes. After all, I do need new items for the house, whether it’s cleaning supplies or a dish towel. But I spend far more time shopping for those cleaning supplies now that I’m unemployed. (A day spent looking for body wash and loofah? Sure!) Cost: $150

Working out: I still maintain my gym membership. When I budgeted before quitting my job, I figured I would cancel my gym membership and take advantage of the parks nearby. But the gym has been a blessing. Cable TV! People! Sauna! Plus, exercise! It’s been a great way to take a mental break. $22 per month. Cost: $66

The beach: The beach is the only place where I can truly unplug. It might be because of the weak cell phone signal, or the view that reminds me that there is more to life than work. But it’s my happy place, and it’s not too expensive (especially if you go after 5 p.m. and bring some cheap snacks). Cost: $60 during the summer, including tolls, parking, and treats.

Journaling: Not to be cliche, but when folks say “the best things in life are free,” I think they are talking about journaling. I have some journaling activities that have helped me stay positive while job hunting, and I find myself jotting ideas and notes on all kinds of things more often. Cost: $0

Total self care expenses: $540

Staying connected: Socializing

It wasn’t until I quit my job that I realized how much of my socializing is connected to work. If I wasn’t attending an event related to my field, I was networking or catching up about what I’m working on. Now that I’m not working, I have to go out of my way to ensure that I’m socializing beyond work.

Eating out: More free time makes it easy to have coffee dates and lunches, which makes it easy to spend money. I didn’t want to hole up in my apartment, but I didn’t want to go broke either. So I allowed myself to go out every other week, with a cap of $20. Sometimes I spent less, other times I spent more, especially when I factor in transportation costs ($14.50 round trip from my town to NYC). Cost: $200

Events: A book talk here, a panel discussion there. Some of this is professional, but much of it is me wanting to chat with new people and hear new ideas. There are plenty of low-cost events to attend, although the transportation adds up. But I never regret it. Cost: $75

Total socializing expenses: $275


Some of these costs are one-time (like the class) or seasonal (like the beach). Some are ridiculous (those magazines). And some aren’t even mentioned (Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon). I think with all of them, I tried to maintain a sense of normalcy, optimism, and connectedness even as job hunting would demand otherwise. Now that I’m entering month five of not working, I’d like to tighten these expenses up even more. But, to be honest, after the election, learning, connecting, and taking care of myself have a greater sense of urgency. My goal is not just to monitor my costs, but to be more deliberate with how I’m spending in these areas.

I’d love to hear about surprising-but-makes-me-happy job hunting costs you might have.

Allison Jones is a writer and nonprofit communications professional living in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter @ajlovesya.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Change Series.

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