Surviving joblessness

Times Staff Writer

Abby Winger learned at least one thing during the more than a year she was out of work: how to live cheaply.

After being laid off from a home loan processing position, the 37-year-old Chatsworth resident scrimped to stretch her unemployment checks and severance pay as far as she could.

Now working in a temporary position, Winger points with pride to the time she used coupons and her store discount card to push a $99 grocery bill down to $65.

"You can't do the normal things that you would take advantage of if you were working, like going to the movies or going to get a haircut as much or even just going out to eat," Winger said of her time in the ranks of the unemployed.

It's never fun losing your job, but it's worse in an economic downturn, when more people are fighting for fewer positions. And it's especially tough in California, which is tied with Mississippi for the third-highest jobless rate in the nation. Unemployment rose sharply to 7.7% in August, California officials said Friday, up from 5.5% a year ago.

Experts say there are ways to soften the blow of a long layoff -- including acting early and decisively to cut expenses. The newly unemployed should also communicate with creditors, landlords and others owed money; you don't want to be driven deeper into debt with fees for late and missed payments.

"It can be a shattering, debilitating experience, but you have to take stock of things and realize it's not the end of the world," said Chris Marston, who counsels laid-off union members as community services coordinator for the AFL-CIO.

If you're mired in long-term unemployment, here are some steps that Marston and others say can help you ride it out.

Be frugal

Prudent money management is key. Resist dipping into retirement savings, experts caution, because those withdrawals carry high tax rates and 10% federal penalties.

You also don't want to rack up credit card debt -- that carries high interest rates and makes it harder for you to dig yourself out of the rut once you find work again.

"The better idea is to circle your wagons and make drastic financial cuts," said Gail Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Jessica Hodgdon, 24, was out of work recently for six months. To save money, she moved into the East Los Angeles apartment of a friend, who waived rent in exchange for Hodgdon's help cooking and cleaning.

Instead of going out with friends, she had them over for dinner. And to get healthcare coverage, she enrolled at Pasadena City College so she could hop back onto her father's Kaiser health plan. If that's not an option, look for low-cost or free health clinics.

"I just didn't spend any money during that period," said Hodgdon, who now works as a technical writer for Banker's Toolbox in North Hollywood. "I don't know how I could have survived otherwise."

Four years of on-and-off employment put a damper on Frank Wesley's style. After Wesley, 50, left a janitorial position, and before he was hired by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, he said, he even abandoned his favorite Levi's 501 jeans for cheaper stonewashed styles.

Other ways to buffer your budget:

* Cutting back on insurance for your car or home.

* Switching to generic prescriptions.

* Eliminating or downsizing your cable TV, Internet and cellphone service.

* Eating at home, and shopping for discounts.

"Leftovers are also great -- I have barbecued chicken today, and tomorrow it's in my enchiladas and then it's in a chicken salad," said Marguerite Womack, director of economic and workforce development for United Way of Greater Los Angeles.

Talk to your creditors

It's good to let creditors know of your situation -- it could help avoid a ding to your credit rating, which could stick around as an unhappy reminder of your tough times long after you rejoin the working world, said Andrew Stettner, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project.

Can't pay the full amount? Landlords, insurance agencies and credit card companies can be willing to negotiate, so ask to delay or lower payments, or pay only the interest until you score a job.

To keep collection agencies at bay, send a portion of the bill regularly and pay off high-interest credit cards first or transfer the balance to a low-interest card.

There's no foolproof plan. Winger said she tried to negotiate with her landlord, who refused to budge on the $990-a-month rent for her studio apartment. But she had better luck with Toyota Financial Services, which had issued the loan on her 2004 Tacoma truck. The company gave her an additional two months to send in her next check.

"I called and said I was in big trouble, and they said they'd help because I'd been a great customer for four years," she said.

Justin Leach, a spokesman for Toyota Financial Services, said borrowers should always check to see whether their lender can be flexible.

"It's not that they'll write everything off, but work with your creditors, because it's also in their interest to work with you," he said.

Think as creatively as you can, experts said. If moving to a cheaper apartment isn't an option, for example, consider asking your landlord whether you can pay all or part of your bill by doing repairs or maintenance work.

Try the safety net

Public and private agencies offer a range of services to those who are unemployed or low-income, so don't be afraid to take advantage of them.

The federal government has a smorgasbord of options, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which provides state and federal assistance to low-income families with children.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service administers several food assistance programs, including food stamps and food distribution, the Women, Infants and Children program and school meals.

There's also help with energy bills through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and implemented at the state level.

Church groups and charitable organizations are another option. United Way, for example, partners with Los Angeles Neighborhood Housing Services to help prevent foreclosure and pay back loans.

Low-income households should also apply for the federal earned income tax credit, which will refund up to $4,824 for the 2008 tax year. You can claim the refund for up to three years after each filing date.

Take temporary work

If your joblessness drags on, try broadening your job search. Any income is better than no income; better to take temporary work or a job outside your specialty than be forced to dip into your savings or tap your credit card.

"Sometimes, you just have to drop your standards down a bit and take the best job available," Stettner said.

Hodgdon she looked for work in museums, where she had some previous experience. She wound up taking a part-time position as a guard at a Pasadena museum. She didn't like the work, but it helped pay the bills.

Winger said she also reset her career sights after she was unable to find work in the home loan or medical billing fields, despite filling out countless job applications and making trips to local career centers. She recently started a temporary position doing data entry for a Moorpark company.

"Nothing exciting, just a paycheck," she said. "But there's just not enough work to go around."

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tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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Where to find assistance

Here's a sampling of resources available for the jobless.

Money management

The following agencies have free or low-cost services for managing your debt and dealing with creditors:

* National Foundation for Credit Counseling: Call (800) 388-2227 or visit the foundation's consumer website www.debtadvice.org.

* The American Assn. of Debt Management Organizations has a help line at (800) 270-6696 that directs consumers to counseling agencies. Or go to www.aadmo.org and click the Find a Credit Counselor button.

Utilities

The following utilities and agencies offer discounts and help with bills:

* The California Public Utilities Commission offers LifeLine, a discount telephone program: Call (866) 272-0349, or check the agency's website at www.cpuc.ca.gov and go to Consumer Programs and Information at the Communications tab.

* The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has a special rate: Call (213) 481-5411, or go to www.ladwp.com and click on the link under Low Income Customers.

* Southern California Edison: Visit www.sce.com and click on Income Qualified Programs under the Rebates & Savings button, or call the customer service line at (800) 655-4555.

* The California Department of Community Services and Development can help offset energy costs: Click on the Programs tab at www.csd.ca.gov or call (866) 675-6623.

Health

These county public health departments can steer you to low-cost health clinics in your area:

* In Los Angeles County, go to the Department of Public Health website at www.lapublichealth.org and click on the Services link, or call the County Health and Nutrition Hotline at (877) 597-4777.

* In Orange County, visit the Health Care Agency website at www.ochealthinfo.com and click on the Public Health Services link for clinics, or call (800) 564-8448 for services.

* In Ventura County, call (800) 781-4449 or visit countyofventura.org and select Health Care Agency after clicking on the See Full Department Listing link.

* In Riverside County, visit the Riverside County Department of Public Health website at www.rivcoph.org and click on the Family Care Centers button, or dial (800) 720-9553.

* San Bernardino County also has a list at www.co.san-bernardino.ca.us/pubhlth. Click on the Clinics link or call the Department of Public Health at (909) 387-6280.

Employment

These resources can help with your job search:

* United Way helps support the 211 telephone hotline, which can connect you to job counseling resources and many other programs. Visit www.211.org and plug in your ZIP Code.

* The state Employment Development Department has a list of One-Stop Career Centers as well as an online CalJOBS database; go to www.edd.ca.gov.

* There are also WorkSource career centers around the state: Call (888) 226-6300 or go to worksourcecalifornia.com.

Source: Times research

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