Everything I Did After I Lost My Job

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash.

Life has an interesting way of letting you know that no matter how much you think you are in control… YOU’RE NOT!!!

As I look back on the last four years, I think back to one of my favorite Frank Sinatra songs. No, not “Fly Me to the Moon.” As much as I want to say I’m a baller, I’m not. No, messieurs et madames, the Chairman of the Board song that best describes my financial plight is “That’s Life,” specifically the lyric “riding high in April, shot down in May.” In my case, its more like riding high in June, shot down in July. Allow me to elaborate.

Imagine yourself as a bartender/bar manager who is pulling down between $700 to $900 a week. You go to work on July 2, 2014 and are told that the bar is going in a different direction and you are being let go. I want you to know something about me: I had never been unemployed in my adult life up to that point. I had no clue what to do. But I figured that, with my near 20-years of bar experience and a multitude of contacts, I could find something right away.

Like I said earlier, life finds a way to show that you are not in control. This is what happened next.

I was unemployed from July 2014 to October 2014. At the same time my wife had Whipple surgery on her pancreas and was out of work for roughly six weeks. Unemployment made me jump through more hoops than a big cat in the now-defunct Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus for less than $220 a week. Now look at these numbers: I made roughly $700 to $900 a week, had never been unemployed, had been constantly paying into the system since the early 1990s, and all I could get was $220 a week? Luckily for me, I had put a nice chunk of change away for a future trip to Japan. Poof, by October that was gone.

In my inexperience at being unemployed, I kept living life as if I were employed. Hey, I was overconfident that I’d find something ASAP, sue me. I didn’t cancel any services that were unnecessary and kept paying off my mountainous student loan instead of putting it in deferment and keeping that money. Even with my wife going back to work early after her surgery, things were dire. I was desperate enough to apply for a job at a chain restaurant, but I couldn’t even get a call back after an initial interview. All my connections had shriveled up and died. People in the business refused to return my calls. I was getting desperate.

I was blessed to get a seasonal job at Barnes and Noble at Union Square, with no guarantee that I would keep my job after the 2014 holiday season. I found myself working in the retail field FOR THE FIRST TIME at the age of 42 with mounting debt and with two pre-teen kids to feed and dress. I looked for ways to put some money aside for Christmas gifts for my kids. Let’s be honest: would it have been the end of the world if the kids didn’t get gifts? No, of course not, but what kid wants to wake up on Christmas Day and not see any gifts? With that as motivation, I set myself to the task of working my butt off while trying to shore up my finances.

Here are some of the things I did:

—I worked each and every shift that I could. Morning, afternoon, evening. I worked them all. I showed the powers that be that I was willing to do ANYTHING to stand out and make myself valuable to the company.

—I started making custom candles by buying candles and containers at bargain retailers like Marshalls. I also used glass containers that I recycled. I was lucky enough that my wife’s older daughter was able to sell my creations at her job to her co-workers.

—I bought used movies and video games at local pawn shops. I also purchased them on sale online and at retailers like Best Buy and Gamestop and flipped them on Ebay for a profit. I also pared down my personal movie and book collections by selling those items on Ebay.

—I collected cans and bottles on the street. I am not ashamed to say it: I COLLECTED CANS AND BOTTLES ON THE STREET. In a city like New York City you’d be surprised how much money is left on the street in the form of cans and bottles. Twenty cans and/or bottles equal $1 dollar. I would often come home with two bags full of cans and bottles not counting the ones I had stuffed my backpack with. Plus, when you buy soda, water, and beer at supermarkets, chain stores, and pharmacies you get charged the deposit. Why would you not save your cans and get your money back? There’s an unnecessary stigma applied to people who collect cans, but all of us who collect cans for recycling are doing our own little part to clean up the environment.

—I babysat. Seriously.

—I bagged my breakfast, lunch and dinner. I did some financial calculations on this, and here’s what I came up with: working five days a week with breakfast at $5 and lunch/dinner at $10 (keep in mind these estimates are conservative for NYC) adds up quickly. By not spending money to eat out I could save $25 on breakfast and $50 on lunch/dinner every week. That’s $375 a month or $4,500 a year — a nice chuck of change, right?

—My wife was nice enough to buy me a thermos for my coffee. I also did financial calculations for this. A medium cup of joe costs roughly $2 to $4 dollars depending on where you get it. A bag of coffee costs between $6 and $12 depending on the brand and where you purchase it. You can get roughly 25 to 30 cups of coffee from one bag. Even if I went to coffee shops that only charged $2 bucks a cup, that’s between $50–$60 dollars spent on 25 to 30 cups of coffee. If I bought my own coffee at around $10 per bag, that’s a tremendous amount of money saved per cup. And let’s be honest, who only gets a cup of coffee at a coffee shop? Usually that cup of joe gets paired with a donut, a pastry, or something else to nosh on. The savings from not buying coffee on the street and making it at home just keep going up.

—I picked up every coin I saw on the street. You’d be surprised how much change you can find on the streets of NYC if you just look down. I also kept all my coins from purchases in a jar, and every three months or so I would take the coins to the bank and roll them up. I would average between $20 and $30 in coins every time I took them in. I never used a machine like Coinstar. Why pay a fee of roughly ten cents on the dollar when you can do it yourself? That’s an extra $3 dollars for every $30. I’m sure to some that doesn’t seem like much, but over time it adds up. Plus I find counting, sorting, and rolling change to be very relaxing.

—I cut non-essential expenses like cable TV (though I kept Netflix and Hulu and my internet) and I got rid of my gym membership. Getting rid of cable and the gym saved me between $125–$150 a month. I got rid of my Zipcar account at the tune of $60 a year. I canceled any other monthly charging accounts that I had.

—I put my student loan on forbearance and paid the minimums on my cards while trying not to use them.

Following these steps I was able to provide a modest Christmas for my kids without breaking the bank.

Here’s where my situation starts to improve. Barnes and Noble made me a permanent part-time employee after the holidays. I worked in the café, was able to move up to full-time status with benefits during the summer of 2015, and was promoted to the position of Café Manager of the Barnes and Noble in White Plains, New York in December 2016.

Even though I was doing better financially, I was still barely getting by week by week. I turned to the internet to help save money. I used apps like Ibotta and Checkout 51 to earn rebates on everyday purchases, and earned over $700 dollars with those apps, banking just under $600. I kept collecting cans and bottles, though not with the same desperation as before, and have been able to bank between $100 and $200 worth of can revenue. It’s not much, but its more than I would have had if I didn’t use the apps and/or collecting bottles.

February 2017 was the big a-ha moment for me. As Frank sang in “That’s Life:”

“You’re riding high in April
Shot down in May
But I know I’m gonna change that tune
When I’m back on top, back on top in June.”

It was at this point that I decided to be back on top (not quite in June but who’s keeping track) by improving my health physically, mentally, spiritually, and financially. My wife bought me a Fitbit, which has helped me lose and keep off 25 pounds. I decided to let go of the bitterness and anger that had been consuming me since I was fired. I re-learned to appreciate what I had. Less was more. My circle of friends and family was small but powerful, giving credence to the adage of quality over quantity. The habits I developed when I was broke laid the foundation for my current frugal lifestyle. I still bag breakfast and lunch. I carry instant coffee packets with me so I don’t have to buy coffee at work. I still count coins, use the rebate apps for grocery purchases, and cash in my cans and bottles — though I’ve stopped actively looking for cans and bottles on the street. After all, there are people more needy that I am at the moment who can benefit from those discarded cans and bottles.

In October 2017 I was given the opportunity to bartend once again. This put me on my new path and goal: Debt-Free by Fifty.

Working my day job as Café Manager at Barnes and Noble alongside one night a week at Finn’s Corner in Brooklyn, I’ve been able to slowly chip away at the massive debt I had accumulated since I got laid off in 2014. At that point I had student loans totaling almost $60,000, two peer-to-peer loans, and about ten lines of credit of various amounts. Sitting here today, I’ve paid off five credit cards, closing three of them completely. I’m working on paying off a sixth card and have completely paid off one of the peer-to-peer loans with $1,000 left on the second one.

I know that I am nowhere near from being debt-free. That monster of a student loan is my Mount Everest. But with a little more than four years before I turn 50, I’m in a better place than a year ago, let alone three to four years ago. To quote Ol’ Blue Eyes one last time:

“I’ve been up and down and over and out
And I know one thing
Each time I find myself flat on my face
I pick myself up and get back in the race.”

I’m going win that race. Just you wait and see.

Francisco is a café manager at a chain bookstore and a bartender in Brooklyn. Read about his adventures in trying to improve himself at SiscoVanilla Hits the Bricks and his escapades with cocktails and spirits at SiscoVanilla Serves and Drinks. 

This story is part of The Billfold’s Financial Struggles series.

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