It may not seem like it amidst all the stress of leaving or losing your job, but you’ve been given the opportunity of a lifetime.  What you do during this critical time could turn out to be the most important and transformative of your life.  No, leaving or losing your job is not a referendum on your abilities, not the apocalypse, not the end of your ability to support yourself (or your family).

You’ve been given a gift, now it’s time to take advantage of having the time and space available to explore, learn, grow, reconnect, ponder, relax.  See, we are taught that our lives should conform to a script.  There are variations of that script, but it typically involves being gainfully employed – earning, spending, consuming and if anything is left over – saving.  Congratulations, you’ve just broken from the script, this is your chance to do something big.

Of course, my premise is based on one very important assumption, that you have resources that can support you while you take advantage of your break in employment.  Shockingly, recent studies have indicated that one in three American families has no savings at all and *gulp*, “56.3% of people have less than $1,000 in their checking and savings accounts combined.”   If you count yourself in one of these camps, there’s no better time than now to begin saving – cut back on all non-essentials and sock away what is left over (however little) for a time when you might need it.  Make saving a game, watch your egg grow while you take pride in exercising self-control and building personal finance muscles.

If you do have savings, you’re lucky.  Now is the time to put that money to work, as efficiently as possible. This brings us to the first rule of being job free, get intimate with your financial situation.

  1. Get your resources in order – assess your savings and make a budget.  Simple, right?  Wrong.  To give yourself the peace of mind you need, you must detail every expense, knowing exactly how much you spend in a day, week, month, year.  From this, you’ll learn how much you spend, on average.  Compare the result with what you have saved and you’ll have the length of time you’ll be able to sustain on your own without cutting back or earning anything. For many, this will be foreign and you’re going to learn a lot about your spending habits (most notably, how much you waste!).  Thus begins the game, how little can you spend and still enjoy your life?!  This may even be a great opportunity to consider downsizing and optimizing your fixed costs – house & mortgage, car & car payment, insurance & premiums, utilities and other expenses (phone, cable, internet, subscriptions).  If we choose to live more simply, smaller and with less, we learn that we need less (namely, stuff and money).  Sometimes this even translates into working less and doing the things we love more.
  2. Start making trade-offs – simplify, simplify, simplify.  You’ll be amazed at how little money you need if you just get creative (this applies to families with children too).  Here are a few tricks to start stretching your dollar:
    • Stop spending on entertainment.  If you live in a city there’s always something free to do.  If you don’t live in the city, you are close to the best free entertainment there is: nature.  Spending time with friends and family is free.
    • Stop buying stuff you don’t need.  Your new filter is need vs. want.  You need staged, you want new shoes.  Every purchase should be run through the need/want filter.
    • Swallow your pride.  Newsflash – you spend too much for the wrong reasons, especially on staged.  Start shopping around, even those ‘discount’ grocery stores, dollar stores and ethnic groceries (what else are you going to do with all that free time?).  Plan ahead and make a list so you are buying with intent (think in terms of the meals you’ll be preparing).  This will help reduce those impulse purchases that end up going to waste.  Join a “points program” at a grocery store and start earning coupons and / or discounts.  There are huge savings to be had if you swap the polished and overpriced shopping experience for stripped down and cheap.  This applies to other shopping categories too (think thrift stores for clothes).
    • Use it up before buying another one.  Waste is your new enemy.  This especially applies to what’s in the fridge.  Food efficiency is key because if you’re doing this right, staged is your single largest variable cost.  Side bonus, wasting less helps protect the environment – something you can feel good about contributing to.
    • Take advantage of your ‘freesources’: free (or cheaper) alternatives.  You’re not being a cheapskate, you’re being smart.  Examples include:
      • Use the local public library (i.e. rent free DVDs vs. Netflix or rent free digital magazines / e-books  vs. purchasing new)
      • Split costs with friends and family for shared services (i.e. share cell phone expenses using a family plan)
      • Ditch cable for on demand services via AppleTV, Chromecast, Roku or Amazon Fire (or eliminating TV content all together!)Embrace the DIY movement (i.e. quit Starbucks and brew your own) – start cooking, STOP EATING OUT!
  3. Create some time and space to process what happened.  Get your head right, losing or leaving your job was traumatic because you broke from the script.  It’s normal to experience some intense emotions – loss, grief, fear, failure, shame.  Process those emotions by naming what you’re feeling (when we name the emotion, it holds less power), relating to the emotion (don’t run from it, be with it) and replacing the negative with the positive (try gratitude, which is an emotional meta-strategy – meaning it can have positive effects in many ways). Give yourself permission to take a break, don’t jump straight into the job search. Let your body and mind process and release the stress of the situation (if only for a day, but the longer the better – we make bad decisions when we are stressed, in surprising ways).  Get outside, do something you love.  One of the best ways to clear your head is traveling which doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. In fact, traveling can be the cheaper alternative to your status quo.
  4. Define your options – reconnect with (or define) your passions.  Sure, you can stay in the field you’ve been working in – and that’s an excellent choice if you’re passionate about the work you were doing.  If this is you, the process is pretty straightforward: get clear on your value proposition – the business pain you can relieve, polish up that resume, work your network, interview – you’re a free agent, what team do you want to play for? For many though, they’re no longer interested in the work they were doing (especially those who intentionally left their jobs!).  Why? Because we pick a job or a field when we’re too young and inexperienced to understand what we are passionate about.  We jump on the assembly line and before we know it, the cost of starting over seems too great.  So we shuffle on, wondering what it would be like doing something we were passionate about.  Well, this is your chance to reconnect with your passions.  Is the fire still there?  Can you serve a need doing something you’re passionate about?  If you’re unsure what you’re passionate about, there are many ways to find your passion – if you’re deliberate about it. There’s been no better time in recent history to take a step into the unknown and pursue your passion, as this New York Times article notes: “Companies have been hiring in recent months at a pace not seen before in this century. Wages are rising faster than inflation. Joblessness is hovering near the low levels last reached in 2007 before the economy’s downturn.  And perhaps most significantly, the army of unemployed people who gave up and dropped out of the job market is not only looking for work, but actually finding it.”
  5. Decide on your next move and pursue it relentlessly. Whether you’re making a move within your chosen industry to a comparable role or you’re changing careers completely, define a path forward and make progress.  At first, it will seem overwhelming.  To combat these feelings, break down tasks into their smaller component parts and focus on making incremental progress.  As long as you’re accomplishing something, no matter how small – it’s progress and should be celebrated.  Focus your energy on creating and sustaining momentum – this is your new job until you land your new job.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       It’s important to note that relentless pursuit doesn’t mean you should spend every waking hour focused on your next move.  Quite the opposite, schedule time each day where you focus on your next move.  Get as much done as you can during that time and carry over anything you don’t get done.  Don’t have any expectations on how much you get done – just do and feel positive about the momentum.  Once you spend the time you’ve set aside, that’s it – give yourself permission to go and do whatever it is you want – but you have to earn it to feel good about it.

Now, some may be reading this and saying “this is great advice for a single, twenty-something with no responsibilities, but I have a family to support – I can’t do this.”  This is a classic excuse, and I would say two things:  First, there’s no family in America that couldn’t benefit from some financial introspection and changes in their consumer behavior – sadly, the fact is many of us make bad financial decisions on a regular basis.

Second, and this relates directly to pursuing your passion which may seem impractical; what are you teaching your children by playing it safe, trading your happiness for perceived financial security?  By ‘sticking it out’ in a career that does nothing for us but pays the bills, we tell our children that it’s better to settle than pursue our dreams.  Through our actions (or inactions as it may be), we demonstrate that it’s okay to let the hypotheticals of life define who we are rather than creating the life we want, based on what we value.  Still don’t think it’s possible?  Read how this mother of five did it.

Losing or leaving a job can be frightening.  We are thrust into the unknown, which is scary but doesn’t have to be.  If we follow some simple, practical steps and accept the situation as an opportunity, we open ourselves up to a world of possibilities.