Here are a few small ways to lessen the financial blow of unemployment.
Some people get lucky (or are really good) and land a job early on in their job search. Others are sentenced to a long, drawn-out affair that involves dozens if not hundreds of applications, spread out over months (most job hunts are now about six months).
It’s a taxing experience that can really take its toll on one’s emotions, physical well-being, relationships and finances. But take heart, you who’ve been stuck in the job search with nothing to show so far. There are ways to lessen the financial blow with small wins here and there. And in a seemingly endless job search, small wins can feel huge.
1. Write off job-hunting expenses
You can deduct job-hunting expenses on your tax return if you meet a few qualifications. First, you need to itemize your deductions. If you don’t own a home, you probably don’t itemize your deductions (though some do, like if you paid a lot toward medical care, charitable contributions or casualty losses). If you don’t itemize your deductions, you just take the standard deduction (which for 2010 was $5,700 for singles and $11,400 for married couples filing jointly).
(Need a laugh after that financial jargon? Write-offs always make me think of Seinfeld.)
Second, as Kiplinger notes, “you can deduct job-hunting costs as miscellaneous expenses if you itemize, but only to the extent that the total of your total miscellaneous itemized deductions exceed 2 percent of your adjusted gross income.”
What the heck does that mean? Lisa Kuenn, a CPA at the Milwaukee accounting firm Andaloro, Smith, & Krueger, LLP, explains: If your adjusted gross income (income before deducting personal exemptions and itemized deductions) is $50,000, you can only deduct job-hunting and other miscellaneous expenses beyond 2 percent of $50,000, or $1,000. In other words, if you have $3,500 in miscellaneous deductions (let’s say $1,500 were for the job search), you can only deduct $2,500 from your taxable income ($3,500 – 2 percent or $1,000 = $2,500).
The third consideration is where you are in your job search as it relates to your professional career. Money spent when looking for your first job can’t be deducted.
If you do qualify, you can deduct the cost of things like printing resumes, business cards, employment agency fees, or transportation to job interviews (though there’s a better way to make up for these costs — keep reading). Just be sure you talk with a tax professional to be sure you meet all the requirements to qualify for these deductions.
Note: Nothing here should be taken as tax advice. I’m not a CPA, and everyone’s tax situation is different. If you’re considering any decisions regarding your taxes, you should discuss everything with a tax professional first.
2. File for unemployment benefits
Then there’s the often-heard-but-seldom-understood term, “Filing for Unemployment.”
We’ve all heard about unemployment claims being up or down, or heard anecdotes about a friends “collecting unemployment,” but what does that really mean?
Basically, all employers pay into state and federal unemployment insurance funds (one of the many costs employers face when hiring that employees usually don’t realize). Then when someone “files for unemployment,” they’re basically submitting a claim to that state or federal unemployment insurance fund. If they’re deemed eligible for unemployment benefits, they will be paid out on that claim (like you would be paid out on a claim you filed with your car insurance company after an accident).
Here’s a more comprehensive article on understanding jobs data and other unemployment terms.
Filing for unemployment is tough because it carries a fairly negative stigma of defeat (at least it used to — before more than 9 percent unemployment became the norm). I have mixed feelings on advising people to collect unemployment benefits, because of the argument that unemployment benefits can encourage joblessness (or at least discourage working) and lead to fraud (like underreporting earnings while collecting full benefits).
Bottom line, filing for unemployment benefits should only be used as a last resort. Keep in mind it will take a few weeks to get paid after you file your first claim. You might not like it, but if you’re really staring financial death in the face, unemployment benefits are there for a reason, and they sure beat going under while you look for work.
3. Ask prospective employers to cover expenses
When interview time comes, don’t be afraid to ask for a meal and/or travel allowances. Many companies will offer this up front (though it’s become less common because of the economic downturn), as it lets the candidate know they are serious about hiring. On the flip side, withholding such reimbursement sends the message that the company is cheap — not the best first impression.
If you’re scheduled for an interview and the hiring manager hasn’t mentioned this, don’t be afraid to ask about the company’s policy on per diem or meal, hotel and travel allowances. It’s common enough for companies to offer that you can ask without fear of sounding off-the-wall or cheap. And if they offer, take advantage!
4. Stay busy
The best way to make or keep more money during your job search is by staying busy while out of full-time work. There are plenty of work-at-home options like Flexjobs, where you get paid to do various tasks for people who aren’t necessarily looking to hire full-time employees (though it can lead to a full-time hire).
This is a great way to keep the cash coming in and keep a big stretch of idleness off your resume. Looking to break-into a new field? Flexjobs could be a great way to take on small tasks and build your experience in that area.
Another great way to make a buck here and there is by signing up for Focus Groups. You won’t qualify for every study, and you have to be called (whereas you have control over how much work you take on with Flexjobs). But when it does work out, you can make more than $100 per hour just to give your opinions about different products and marketing campaigns. I’ve done these before and they are actually a lot of fun. I got $100 to talk about new orange juice bottles for an hour and another $100 to talk about Corona commercials for an hour. Plus a lot of them pay in cash, which is nice.
Looking for a job can be truly brutal; you might as well take advantage of every dollar-maximizing trick out there. Some of these might not apply to your situation, so be sure to do your homework and find the methods that work best for you.
Have any other tricks that I missed? Please share in the comments! Your suggestion could really help someone who’s struggling to get by.
Tim Murphy is founder of ApplyMate.com, a free application tracking tool.