Foreword by MMM: The following is a tale from my good friend, Mr. Frugal Toque. We went to engineering school together many years ago, and started our careers at the same time. Although I moved to Colorado 13 years ago, we’ve kept in touch regularly since then.
He recently went through a rare experience for a software engineer: a fairly long period of unemployment. I got to follow along with him by email through the whole thing. His experience was so interesting, that I cajoled him into writing this story about it to share it with You.
Being Laid Off is Not the End of the World
About three months ago, I was declared “redundant” at the high tech company for which I had worked.
It was a very strange thing, when the poor sod who’d drawn the short straw came around the lab and called my name. Those in the lab knew what it was – we’d had a very brief period of warning. People react in a lot of different ways to such a realization. Variations include shock, hysterics, violence, calm acceptance, belligerence and all sorts of combinations.
My reaction was odd. I looked at the guy who’d been tasked with fetching me and said, “Layoff? Seriously?” I don’t know what I was going for. Indignation? Indifference? Humour?
It’s worth noting, at this point, that engineers in my area get calls from recruiters on a fairly regular basis. It’s also worth noting that, like good Mustachians who had been watching my former company burn through its cash reserves, my wife and I had kept a good chunk of our investments numbered for just such an emergency. So I could afford to be calm, financially speaking. If we had “car payments” and “credit card balances”, I might have lost my trademark cool.
So there I was, having accepted the thing they called a “package”, gathering up my personal effects and heading home. My wife took it well. She’d been through this once, too, and understood the importance of keeping things positive. One should never ignore the power of a supportive spouse.
When I got to the computer, thinking to look up some of those recruiters, I received a call from yet another, enjoining me to take an interview that very week.
I questioned the wisdom of taking an interview so soon. Wasn’t I supposed to be in shock? Wasn’t my ego supposed to have been shattered and crushed by this cruel blow? Maybe part of staying out of depression is declaring yourself undepressable. I know I’m trivializing. Depression is a serious thing. Whatever it was, I went to the interview and handled the technical part in such a way that the interviewer was pleased. Then I asked for a salary slightly higher than what I’d been making.
That was quite a bit of confidence. I wondered then if I was just messing with myself, trying to convince myself more than anyone else that my pride had gone unwounded. The recruiter got back to me to tell me that the requested salary was the deal breaker.
But life went on. I spent a couple of hours each day tailoring resumes for two or three job openings. There’s only so much of that one can do in a day.
It was also summer. My wife and I started running. When the six year old finished school, he started either running or biking with us. We pitched a tent in the backyard and we all slept in it. Camping preparation, we called it. We went hiking. We had ice cream afterwards. We spent afternoons at the library. The kids loved it.
And still, the whole time, I was doing interviews, sending out resumes, talking to people on the phone. Hiking adventures would be delayed or bumped occasionally, which the children understood since daddy did need to find a new job eventually.
I felt like my chest could expand more; that a greater amount of cleaner air could fill my lungs. It was a feeling I had caught the very day I had been laid off. Surely unemployment should have been stressful, but it wasn’t. My job, unbeknownst to me, had gradually become so heavy on my soul that being laid off was more relaxing. The very night my job had been taken away, I had slept better than I had in a long time.
And still, through it all, there was always the desire to do something. Fix something. Go out. Teach the children. I promised them that a play structure would be built in the backyard once I secured new employment. We all spent several days drawing on the white board to determine exactly what it was we all wanted. Accessories were procured via kijiji and Craigslist as they became available.
By this time, about a month and a half into my unemployment, I’d had two really good interviews, but still no job offers. It was taking a bit longer than Mr. Money Mustache had predicted when he first learned of my layoff.
One prospective employer, a jovial fellow who interviewed me in a skylit meeting room, surrounded by people who had no black circles under their eyes, quizzed me with a short list of very penetrating questions. Without the aid of an annoying technical interview, he gauged my skills quite effectively. The only drawback was that he wanted someone right away and I wanted to enjoy a little more summer with my kids.
A second interviewer, who did subject me to a technical test, did the oddest thing. He asked me to write code that I didn’t know how to write and invited me to ask him questions, or surf the Internet if I preferred. He didn’t want to quiz me. He wasn’t attempting to mimic Final Jeopardy. His goal was to see how I figured things out. I thought that was rather bright, and told him so. While I was away visiting family, they sent me an invitation for a second interview. Decent people were met upon my return.
I continued to enjoy my time with my family. My wife said that she’d really enjoyed my time at home and that we should ride the early retirement bandwagon even harder once I got a new job.
At last, after almost two months of searching, waiting (and enjoying), a job offer came in. To say it was generous would be an understatement. It turned out my former company had been shorting us for some time. You see, every single person who had been laid off – absent a few who were so financially secure they weren’t even looking yet – had landed a job for higher pay.
I looked at the offer, looked at my wife, and the first thought in my head was that here was a way to retire even faster than my most optimistic assumptions had allowed for. We did the math. This would indeed change things quite a bit. It never occurred to us that our largesse should be spent to lease a bigger car or get a bigger house. Financial stability and future summers of quality family time were foremost on our minds.
I’m not writing to brag. I’m not writing this to slap you in the face if you lost your job and have trouble finding a new one. I’m writing this for two real reasons.
First, I want to underline the importance of having a ‘stash. What allowed me to remain relaxed throughout this process was the combination of money set aside in semi liquid investments and the lack of big monthly payments on borrowed items. The fact that I could have afforded to spend the better part of a year unemployed was what let me enjoy my time with my family. It was also what let me approach each employer with an analytic eye. I could see which interviewers had those circles under their eyes; the dark indications of either a sweatshop or a few too many attempts at making Horcruxes. I went to interviews relaxed and smiling, which gave the right impression to the people who did finally make the offer I wanted – the impression of a lighthearted, hard working individual with a lot to offer.
The second thing I learned was how pleasant retirement could be. There are always productive things to do, from home repair and gardening to play structure building and writing. At the same time, there are so many things to do that are just fun, I couldn’t even do them all in over two months of unemployment. There are books to read, children to teach, evil fifth-level Human Conjurers to defeat*, people to visit, places to hike and bike. The world will not let you run out of things to do if you’re the type who likes to do things (and you are, or you wouldn’t be reading this, would you?).
I’m in my first week at the new job, and I’m enjoying it very much, not least because I found it myself, for myself, without the help of any recruiter. I think I’ve found a place to do something useful and interesting while piling up my ‘stash in what a wise man referred to as, “the anchor leg of my career”.
The greatest benefit of the experience, however, is that it has at least doubled the Toque household’s determination to achieve early retirement.
* – for which I recommend wearing the wooden necklace the old lady gave you just before she died. Just sayin’.