Surviving a job loss without losing your shirt

By most measures, the economy has improved. With a current unemployment rate of 5.0 percent — down from 10 percent in October 2009 — the job market is the lowest it's been since it bottomed at 4.9 percent in February 2008.

Yet even though the employment market is better, job losses still happen, particularly in industries experiencing technological or economic disruptions. Gary Silverman, a certified financial planner and founder of Personal Money Planning, has many clients in the oil services industry in Texas, where his firm is located.


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"If I was working in the oil industry, I would be very worried about my job right now," said Silverman, referring to the drop in oil prices from a high of $100 a barrel in mid-2014 to $47 a barrel now. One client, an oil rig supervisor, for example, is studying to be an accountant — just in case.

If a job loss does get you, follow these steps to keep your finances on track.

Prepare now. It's the rare job loss that comes out of the blue.

"Jobs are being devalued so quickly that most of the time you can see if your job is at risk two years before it happens," said Michael Haubrich, CFP and owner and president of Financial Services Group. Haubrich, who also authored the book "Career Asset Management: Getting Ahead, Staying Ahead," combines career coaching with financial planning.


If you see the writing on the wall, use the time you're still employed to get ready.

First, make sure you've got an emergency fund with enough money to cover at least three months' worth of expenses. If you're in a highly specialized field, it might take longer to find a new job, so you'll need a bigger reserve. Or you might need to retool and learn new skills, Haubrich said.

"Some people are so upset by what's going on at work that they quit. Get laid off and get a package." -Maureen Richardson, owner of Richardson Elite Financial Strategies

Then wait it out.

"Don't quit," said Maureen Richardson, a CFP and owner of Richardson Elite Financial Strategies. "Some people are so upset by what's going on at work that they quit. Get laid off and get a package."

A severance package is more common than you might think. If none is offered to you, insist on one, said Haubrich of Financial Services Group.

"Employees don't realize how much leverage they have," he added.

Hightail it to unemployment. Don't let pride prevent you from applying for unemployment benefits.

"You're paying into unemployment benefits," said Brian Preston, a CPA and CFP at Preston & Cleveland Wealth Management and host of the radio program "The Money-Guy Show."

"It could be the safety net that helps you get back on your feet," he said.

To be sure, your unemployment benefits won't replace your earnings. Still, it can be an important source of income while you look for a new job.

Workers in most states are eligible for six months of unemployment benefits. Remember that it might take a few weeks for paperwork to be processed until your benefits kick in.

Replace your health insurance. One of the scariest aspects of unemployment is going without employer-sponsored health insurance.

You can usually continue your employer's coverage for 18 months after leaving your job, but you'll have to pay the full cost plus a 2 percent administrative fee.

"COBRA is expensive," Preston said. "If you are healthy, you need to immediately look at a high-deductible plan or go out to the health-care exchanges."

Coverage under the Affordable Care Act can bring your insurance premium down, but it's not likely to be as comprehensive as a workplace plan, said Howard Hook, a CFP and CPA with EKS Associates. What's more, not all your doctors may accept it.

Hook advises looking at other ways of getting coverage, such as joining a professional association that might allow members to purchase insurance that isn't tied to the health-care exchanges.

Mind your 401(k) plan. It might be tempting to dip into a 401(k) if you find yourself short of funds, but look to other sources of money first. If you're under age 59½, you'll have to pay taxes on withdrawals, plus a 10 percent penalty. Worse, your money will no longer have the ability to grow.

However, Haubrich, the planner who advises on careers, said there might be some circumstances where it makes sense to tap your 401(k). Someone who is unemployed and earning little might be in the 15 percent tax bracket. That, plus the 10 percent penalty, only amounts to a 25 percent tax rate on retirement savings.

If that person goes on to work decades longer, that money is a career investment, he said. "Taking 401(k) money out to bridge periods of unemployment is not as bad as people believe," he said.

But Haubrich prefers another option. If you know a layoff is coming, prepare a home equity line of credit. Interest rates for HELOCs are low, but you'll only qualify for the loan as long as you are working.

One note of caution on 401(k) plans: If you have taken a loan from your plan, repayment will be due if you are let go; otherwise, it will be considered a distribution and you'll owe taxes and penalties on the amount.

Assess all your benefits. Health insurance isn't the only employer benefit to consider after a job loss. In addition, you may have group disability, life- and long-term care insurance policies through your job. You might be given the option of converting your group policies to individual policies. In the case of life insurance, it probably isn't worth it.

"The only times it makes sense [to convert] is if a client is sick and can't get insurance elsewhere," said Hook of EKS Associates. "I can't remember the last time I told someone to convert."

Long-term care insurance, on the other hand, might be worth holding on to. You might get better rates through your employer.

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Keep a lid on job-hunting expenses. Yes, some job search expenses are tax-deductible, as long as they amount to 2 percent or more of adjusted gross income and meet certain criteria, but don't go overboard.

"Don't use job hunting as a justification to get yourself into greater debt," said Preston at Preston & Cleveland Wealth Management.

One good suit or interview outfit (or two, if you have two days of interviews) will suffice in most cases. And meeting a contact for coffee is just as productive as — and cheaper than — meeting for lunch, he added.

But remember to be kind to yourself during your job search, said Richardson of Richardson Elite Financial Strategies. "Sometimes people say, 'I've lost my job, I'll quit the health club,'" she said. "I say, 'No, you still need to feel good about yourself so you can find a new job."

— By Ilana Polyak, special to CNBC.com