Downsize Your Costs in 4 Weeks

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  • Layoffs can mean going from two incomes to one overnight.
  • Reacting quickly and staying proactive are key to economic survival.
  • If small savings steps don't work, you may need to make bigger moves

If your family -- like so many others -- just received word of a sudden layoff, it's important to take stock of your situation and immediately make changes.

"All progress starts by telling the truth," says Louis Barajas, a Santa Fe Springs, Calif.-based financial adviser who primarily counsels working families.

Sit down as a family and discuss the job loss. Express feelings of anger, sadness or worry. Once you've done so, get down to the business of saving money.

Here's how to right-size your financial life in one month.

Week 1: React quickly

It's important to react quickly once you've been laid off. Denial can be your undoing, says Barajas, author of the book "Overworked, Overwhelmed, and Underpaid."

He's seen clients tell themselves, "I'll find a job in a month." Meanwhile, the family doesn't cut expenses promptly as the shell-shocked worker goes through the job-hunting motions.

"They're walking zombies," he says of laid-off clients.

That's a recipe for disaster, particularly as family savings dwindle or bills start to go unpaid.

“I don't care if you've never cracked a cookbook in your life, you can eat for pennies on the dollar at home.”

Instead, take a proactive approach. Apply for unemployment right away, says Steve Economides, who, along with his wife Annette, wrote "America's Cheapest Family Gets You Right on the Money."

When Steve was laid off, he waited a week and a half to apply for unemployment -- only to discover that unemployment isn't retroactive.

"It starts the day you apply," he says.

Week 2: Adjust the family budget

In the second week, Barajas suggests creating a financial plan. Write out the next three month's unique expenses -- everything from regular monthly bills (e.g., mortgage, utilities, auto expenses) to occasional payments (e.g., annual property tax and insurance bills, school supplies).

Once you've listed these expenses, immediately drop the nonessentials, such as music lessons or gifts.

The Economideses -- who are raising five children while dispensing frugal tips from their Web site -- suggest tallying what you have to spend in food, recreation and clothing. To pay for these expenses, use cash instead of relying on cards or checks.

"If you have money in your hand, you'll spend less," Annette Economides says.

Creativity makes the money last, she says. For example, a family that limits itself to spending $15 per week on entertainment and dining out might limit itself to a $1 bargain movie, dinner at an inexpensive all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, or hot chocolate and dessert at a coffee shop.

Unemployment could last a few weeks -- or several months. Barajas suggests creating a list of financial resources you can tap in an emergency. List any credit, equity, savings or retirement funds on which you can draw.

Week 3: Work inside the home

While the laid-off spouse is undoubtedly trolling job Web sites, it's imperative that he or she also take on a new daytime job -- lifestyle change expert.

"Any good business always has an accounting department, and someone's watching the money," Steve Economides says.

The stay-at-home spouse can help track spending, set a budget, clip coupons or watch for grocery sales, and cook.

"I don't care if you've never cracked a cookbook in your life, you can eat for pennies on the dollar at home," Annette Economides says.

An easy dinner like barbecue chicken, baked potatoes and frozen green beans can feed a family of four for $3 per person. That's a big savings over $10 entrees in a restaurant.

The thrifty duo also suggest the laid-off spouse get on the phone and negotiate with those who must be paid monthly, including credit card and insurance companies.

Week 4: Consider bigger changes

Sometimes, cutting corners and making smaller adjustments don't add up quickly enough to make an immediate difference, the Economides say. If there's a $1,000 budget gap at the end of the month, small steps won't scale the mountain of expenses.

In such situations, you may have to make bigger changes to keep the family afloat, Annette Economides says.

"You've got to survive," she says. "But you want to survive with your family intact. So you've got to make changes."

The Economides suggest renting a room, such as an unused guest bedroom, a basement room or a child's room (if two kids can bunk in one room). Depending on your location, rooms could bring in an extra $200 to $600 per month.

Establish criteria, screen prospective tenants and set ground rules, Steve Economides says. With careful planning, a rental can make a big dent in a monthly mortgage payment.

To cut more deeply into monthly expenses, sell extra vehicles and go from a two-car family to a one-car family, the Economides suggest. Learn local bus routes or negotiate car use with your partner. Maintenance and car insurance can cost hundreds every month, Annette Economides says.

Making ends meet may mean putting away pride and finding a job that pays less, but still covers the essentials. A few weeks ago, Barajas visited a restaurant. His waiter was an ex-mortgage broker.

According to Barajas, he simply said, "I gotta do what I gotta do to feed my kids."

By Lora Shinn • Bankrate.com

BankRate.com
12/01/2009
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