Written by Helen Costa*, Edited by Cara Lau
This is part of our Op-Ed series where we feature third-party opinions and thoughts on the ways finance affects our lives. The authors are not so much giving advice, as they are sharing experiences. Some will make you think, others will inspire, and we hope all of them will give you something to talk about.
They say the five most stressful changes in life are the birth of a child, loss of a job, the death of a spouse, purchase of a home, and divorce. In less than a year, I experienced two.
In May of that year, my now ex-husband moved out of our home at my request. And that summer, I found a new apartment, regained my independence, and started living life. I didn't have any worries. It was just me and my single income. After years of unhappiness, having that kind of stability was exhilarating.
Christmas and New Year came and went, and I settled in for the long winter ahead. Then, one bright day in March, I lost my job. I can still remember walking out of the office at 2 in the afternoon with the sun shining on my face. As I rode home on the subway, trying to make sense of why my position was deemed redundant, panic rose in my chest, and a flood of the worst-case scenarios filled my mind. Though I was granted a healthy severance package that would last seven weeks, I felt like I had lost control over my life once again.
I had started dating someone a few months prior, so my unemployment became our first big challenge as a couple. But I was emotionally unready to assess how I should handle it. I did what I felt was right at the time and gave my partner an out. I didn't want him to feel like there was any pressure to take part in my misfortune. From my perspective and with my experience, not wanting to be involved with someone who was unemployed made sense, especially since we were just starting to get to know each other. There was also the fear of going through another failed relationship. But to my surprise, he laughed off my offer and replied with, "Don't be ridiculous. It's not going to be the end of the world." He had a point. Plus, since we weren't living together, there was no tangible burden on him.
With that settled, I sat down to tackle my budget. I looked at my severance, savings, investments, and monthly bills, and devised a plan. In order of importance, I had three non-negotiable obligations: rent, cell phone, and internet. So, I decided to take a lump sum of my severance and pay three months upfront on each. Then came the more difficult part, which was redirecting my spending and cutting back. Luckily, I am a frugal person by nature. I prefer home cooking over restaurants, visiting the library over trips to Indigo, and Netflix to cable. Knowing this made me feel better about the future because it meant I wouldn't have to deprive myself of luxuries. On top of that, I realized that I no longer had to buy a metro pass or face the temptation of buying lunch and making mid-morning trips to Starbucks. What lay ahead didn't seem so scarily unknown anymore.
Seven weeks passed, and still, no prospects were on the horizon. As much as I tried not to dwell on the unanswered job applications, lack of health benefits, and being unable to contribute to my savings, the lack of progress was worrisome. I thought to myself, looks like it's time to take advantage of those EI benefits I've been paying into for 20 years. It turned out that the amount I was eligible for could cover my monthly expenses and then some. So, even though the benefits were significantly less than what I was used to earning, I could make it work, and I did. I feel like I should also mention that I was surrounded by friends and a boyfriend who was supportive and willingly picked up the cheque on occasion. It was more than I could have asked for, and those small acts helped me stay hopeful.
But to be honest, even with the ups, looking at all the downs that had happened one after another felt overwhelming at times. All the events that had led up to my ex-husband moving out, plus the failed marriage, plus the unemployment, plus the financial stagnancy made me feel like I was making a mess of everything. I did my best not to feel down on myself, but things would happen. Like when my dog had a health scare that required me to go into $1200 of debt to fix, feeling like I was under a raincloud was unavoidable.
As time went on, I discovered I had no problem filling my days. I looked for work online, took a night class at a local college, learned three new computer programs, took on creative projects, ran almost every morning, and spent a lot of time outside with my dog. It was invigorating. You always hear about how personal reinvention feels good, but it's hard to know what that means until it happens to you. It was the first time I had had an entire summer to myself since I was 16. And it was incredibly freeing. New year, new me, and all that. There was a bright side; I just had to remember to take a step back and acknowledge it.
At the end of the summer, a full year after I had moved into my bachelor apartment and six months after I had been let go, I found a job. And not just any position, but one where I fit in doing something I enjoyed. Looking back at the experience, it taught me a lot about myself and my resilience. Although being unemployed was terrifying, I survived, and it's no longer something I fear because I've been there and come out the other side better for it.
Illustration by Yana Vorontsov. *Name has been changed by request.