Preparing for Long-Term Unemployment

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It’s a long-standing rule of thumb: everyone should have a rainy-day fund, typically enough for six to 12 months’ expenses.

But what if you need it for much longer? Though the economy is showing signs of recovering, it also looks like many of the millions who lost jobs in the recession could be out of work for years, not just months. More than 6 million people have been out of work for longer than six months, a record.

Unemployment insurance helps, but not forever. The Labor Department says 2.7 million people will exhaust their unemployment benefits by the end of April. No one expects the unemployment rate, around 10%, to fall dramatically anytime soon. Normally, it’s about half that high.

The best way to handle a job loss is to prepare ahead of time. But many people, probably most, live their lives as usual until the pink slip arrives.

Unfortunately, some job-loss preparations conflict with other financial goals. People are often told to keep a good portion of their assets in stocks or stock funds, to get the growth they need to fund a 20- to 40-year retirement. But tying money up in stocks can be hazardous if your employment is shaky, as stocks could be down when you need cash.

On the other hand, building an oversized cash hoard could stunt your long-term investment gains, leaving you with too little in retirement.

There’s no easy way out of this dilemma. You must try to assess the odds of losing your job and prospects for finding a replacement, then decide whether to divert money from long-term investments to the emergency fund. The Emergency Savings Calculator will show how long it will take to build an adequate fund.

Some other steps:

  • Job hunt all the time. Sure, there’s not much hiring going on, but workers do continue to retire, move on or die, and you need only one job. You never know if there’s a better-paying or more secure job out there unless you look.
  • Improve your marketability. This might be a good time to take some night courses at the community college — anything to make you more valuable to your current employer or a future one.
  • Earn more now. Take every overtime opportunity or chance to make money on the side, and put all of your additional earnings into the rainy-day fund. A non-working spouse might look for work, too.
  • Tighten your belt and stuff the savings into the rainy-day fund. Drink tap water, not bottled. Take your coffee to work in a thermos. Avoid expensive prepared foods and evenings out. Cut back unneeded levels of cable and cell phone service, turn the thermostat down in winter and switch off the lights.
  • Avoid long-term financial commitments. Don’t buy a new car. If you’ve been paying extra principal on your mortgage, stop. Prepays can be a good long-term strategy, but for now that cash is better off in an easily accessible account.

Typically, a rainy-day fund goes into highly liquid savings, like a money market fund or a checking or savings account, even though interest earnings are fairly small. But if you’re building a fund large enough to keep you going for two or three years, you can afford to tie some money up longer. So consider a laddering strategy to improve the earnings.

Money for the first three to six months of unemployment can go into a bank money market account. Yields on those average a mere 0.36%, according to the BankingMyWay.com survey, but those funds will be instantly accessible.

The rest can be divided among certificates of deposit. Six-month CDs average 0.57%, 12-month ones 0.85% and two-year ones 1.84%. With the CD shopping tool you can find above-average deals, like the 2.1% offered in 12-month CDs by Victory Bank in Limerick, Pa., or the 3% offered on two-year CDs at SeaComm Federal Credit Union in Potsdam, N.Y. Credit unions often pay more than ordinary banks.

Use the CD Ladder Calculator to see what you can earn by balancing liquidity and yield.

—For the best rates on loans, bank accounts and credit cards, enter your ZIP code at BankingMyWay.com.

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