Thursday, 13 March 2014

What I Learned From Being Unemployed

* I'm in the last few months of my degree and things are getting manic! I can see the finish line now, so all my energy is going towards not tripping over before I reach it. I'm doing a full time degree (do not recommend), a full time job, and a fortnightly weekend job. As a result, I'm not able to add new posts every single month. However, I did get a few minutes of down time last week while stuck in bed with some weird gunky infection disease thing (think that was my brain exploding), and managed to type out some wordage in my drugged-up state. Reading back, most of it makes sense. So I'm going to post it here.*

- WHAT I LEARNED FROM BEING UNEMPLOYED -

In 2007 I was doing pretty well. I had a nice office job working for a property management firm that was only half an hour walk from my house. The pay wasn't terrible for a junior role, and I was only 21 so hadn't yet figured out what I wanted or could do career-wise. The only things I loved were writing books and painting, both of which I was steered away from at school. My previous summer/gap year jobs had mostly involved finance, so getting a permanent role as an accounts clerk was fairly easy. I remember thinking how great it was that my office had a free vending machine where I could get tea, and the library was only a short stroll across the road.

In 2010 the big boss announced that our jobs would now be moving over to India. That summer I was out of work. Just in time for the recession to really hit.

Lesson 1: Ego. Remove.

I collected over 200 rejection emails/letters/calls that year (that doesn't include all the companies that never replied). At 24, to be told unanimously that you are basically crap and unemployable isn't a great feeling. I was barely out of the awkward I-hate-my-face teenager stage. After a few months I had run out of savings, so had to drag my pathetic behind into the job centre and beg for mercy (an experience I hope never to repeat). It quickly destroyed any preconceptions I had about my own worth and any leftover grammar-school bred entitledness. These days I don't take myself so seriously and never expect automatic favours. I work hard, do the best I can, and have learned not to take it personally if other people don't always respond in a positive way. It has toughened me up. I'm like Lara bloody Croft now (okay, maybe without the humongous bank account and holographic personal butler - although I do have a crazy tech-genius brother and one day I will have that indoor bungee rope. One day!)

Lesson 2: Your parents and teachers are not always right.

Doing well at school, studying hard, getting good grades and regular work experience does NOT guarantee you a job later on. There is no magic formula. Don't be surprised when you discover most of your competitors have all of the above. You need to find a niche. Something you can do better than the majority of your peers.

Lesson 3: Networking. 

A term I didn't discover until I got hold of my own computer and started Googling career sites until the early hours of the morning. It's 90% who you know rather than what you know. With most roles not requiring a PhD or equivalent, you can learn the specifics of the job once you're through the door. You just need to get someone on the inside to open the door for you. Which leads me to...

Lesson 4: Self-promotion.

Again, this was new terminology. I hated salesmen. I remember going to a car showroom with a friend as a teenager and getting more and more wound up by the second as this guy in an oddly coloured suit tried to convince my acquaintance to part with his cash for a set of wheels that was far over his budget. And I mostly avoided watching TV due to the annoying commercials that seemed to jump out and smack you in the brain at full volume. I'm a pretty cold, logical sort of person at heart - a bit like a friendly computer. I can very easily switch into character and be the life and soul of the party, but I generally like to be given the facts, when I ask for them, and then left alone to make a decision. Supermarkets irritate the hell out of me with all their epilepsy-inducing strip lights and bright yellow 'HALF PRICE, MOTHER FUCKER' signs everywhere, and that god-awful background music (I'm getting edgy just typing this). That was my idea of sales. I didn't want to be the cause of someone else's misery. Especially not my friends and family. Even the thought of handing someone my CV to pass onto their boss was nauseating.

Basically, I was being too considerate. The harsh truth is that there are billions of people on this planet battling out an existence. You can be friendly and give back to society once you have something to give back. Until then, you do everything you can to pay the bills, get food, and keep a roof over your head so that you aren't dependant on other people's taxes. Most people are too busy with their own lives to consider helping you (bar people like Oprah and Branson, who have clearly made it to the top of the food chain and can now relax occasionally and think about distributing their spare change whilst sipping a G&T). So if you need help then you have to ask for it. I'm now in a position where I can begin to help other people. However, I'm completely wrapped up in my ridiculously busy life and struggle to notice whether I've remembered to eat, let alone who is and isn't happily employed. If someone wants my help then they need to get in my face (literally - I'm fixated on a screen or running chores on auto-pilot most of the day). I'm more than happy to hand copies of CVs to my boss or give someone a fabulous reference, but if someone wants my help then they need to distract me and ask.

Self-promotion also means treating yourself like a business. Advertise your skills and knowledge everywhere you go. Look for places to go. Get yourself to events, gatherings, groups of like-minded people that you can collaborate with, sign up to trade circles and professional forums where you can talk to and learn from people higher up the ladder than you (or perhaps on a different ladder entirely if you want to jump over into a related field). Many of these events have free booze/munchies and the other attendees are generally clever, talented, awesome people! You can't lose.

Lesson 5: The biggest discovery I made - Understanding how and why I work.

Firstly, I am someone who requires routine. Not everyone does. I hadn't realised this until being forced to spend month after month by myself. Without a routine, I go a bit nut-nut. A payroll job forces you to turn up at a fixed location at a set time every day. Everything else in your life gets scheduled around the edges. Because you're in the office until 6pm, the gym has to wait until 6:30pm. Which means you don't eat dinner until 7pm. Then the housework and shopping have to be squeezed into either your lunch break (if you get one) or before work. Which leaves you an hour or so in the evening to study. Add on commuting if you don't live next door. You don't have time to stop and worry about what you should do next. You just attempt to cram in as much as possible when you get the chance. There is a constantly growing 'To-Do List' that never gets completed. You consider yourself lucky if you manage to book a GP or dentist appointment during the week (why do they all seem to be closed outside of office hours?), and you silently curse when someone decides to get married or keel over and die because it means trying to haggle time off during the exact week that all of your colleagues decide to jet off to Majorca. There is no flexibility. High-school and college were pretty much the same. Other people set the schedule and stole the best hours of the day, so you had to fit everything else in the best you could.

I learned that should I ever be in the position to work for myself, my first task will be to plan the year, the month, the week and the day. I'll invest in one of those phones that shouts at you drill Sargent stylee when anything needs doing. If I can get it to yell like the guy in Full Metal Jacket, even better! I will try to schedule the work into the hours where I am most productive (morning/evening) and make sure I can actually get to dentist and GP appointments (my teeth are full of holes and there are several medical things that could have been treated a lot more easily had they not been left to get worse). I had time to catch up with things like that while I was unemployed, but lacked the finances to get things properly fixed, and this has come back to haunt me (surgery is not fun). Routine is my friend. But a routine that I have control over. I now have a routine that benefits my employer. I get a hell of a lot done, but they profit from my work. This needs to change.

The planning thing also applies to the work itself. It bugs me that I'm not able to organise my actual work during office hours. I get there early in a futile attempt at damage control. I start the day with several hundred bits of work that no one in the team has had time to do (through no one's fault - we are just drastically short on staff). I plan to get some of those completed to minimize the number of shouty clients on the phone. There are 23 people in the team and usually 4 of us taking calls. My boss walks in and hands me 3 projects that will take an hour each to complete if I spend all my time on that one task. After an hour, she gives me another project that will take 2 hours minimum to complete. Every few minutes I have calls from angry clients threatening legal/media action if I don't drop everything and sort out their problem. We've been told to prioritise these calls. I also have multiple email accounts that get filled by the minute and other employees walking over to ask questions that I have to stop and answer. Every day the post comes in with hundreds more of the previously mentioned bits of regular work. Around lunchtime my boss will ask if the projects have been done. They rarely are.

The work that does get completed is generally rushed, and I get really irritated at mistakes. I work with money and it needs to be accurate. Some of the work involves very large sums and requires focus. We never get to focus. Constant mega multi-tasking means that errors are constantly made by everyone, which leads to more angry clients. The office needs someone dedicated to just taking calls, but they won't do this. As a result, work either isn't done or is done inaccurately, nothing is organised so we can't give clients any time-lines (which leads to more calls), and everyone is exhausted and getting ill. Staff keep quitting, so we are constantly re-training rather than catching up on the growing backlog of work. Occasionally there will be a meeting where we all sit down, politely freak out over the situation, come up with strategies that take up even more time than the work itself, avoid the major issues of under-staffing and misplacement of existing staff, and start the whole process all over again. So... I've learned that either employed or otherwise, I prefer to have my day at least partly organised in advance if I want to get anything accomplished!

Another related discovery is that my productivity increases in correlation with the amount of guilt I feel about potentially letting people down. I need some sort of outside pressure to really push myself. If self-employed, I would make use of shared office space (or working lunches - I've seen these advertised near by) and join groups where other people hold me accountable for my work. I tested this recently with a few sole traders in my town. We meet up online roughly every fortnight and it makes me want to work harder so that I have something to show them and talk about. There is an additional social benefit to this. I hated being by myself all the time while unemployed. I had no money to go out and no one to talk to at home. The one thing I appreciate about my payroll job is the team itself. I've always been lucky to work with fantastic colleagues, and I would miss the banter. My job changed drastically at the end of last year, so I don't get to socialise much now (except getting yelled at on the phone), but it beats being completely isolated.

Lesson 6: Think outside of the box.

In fact, run far far away from the box. When the obvious option is moved out of your reach, you are forced to reconsider the problem and look elsewhere for answers. During my 'empty year', I took on any job I could to earn extra money - private tutoring, story-boarding for a small production company, offering my Excel skills and sorting out a local business owner's finances (which I could have charged a lot more for in hindsight). I picked up some very useful skills in the process, and discovered there are other ways to earn money outside of a regular payroll job. I went about finding these jobs in completely the wrong way, and wasted a lot of time and energy as a result. But if I lost my job tomorrow then I could probably survive as a freelancer or start my own company if I could get the funding. In fact, I am tempted to do this at some point in the future anyway.


There are still areas that I am aware I need to develop. Sales and marketing is still not my strong point. I am happy being loud and opinionated in certain environments, but I need to expand on this and build my confidence in any environment. Perhaps I should take up a weekend job as a door to door salesman or join a theatre troupe? I need to develop more ways of walking up to total strangers and telling them 'this thing I can create or do is epic! You need this in your life! Give me money and I will make it happen!' And I need to specialise more. I have a few general areas that I am good at (two of which I love and cannot live without, another that I don't mind, and one that I've learned through necessity) and lots of things I can do fairly well if required. They sort of overlap in places. I need to perfect those skills and focus on maybe a couple that I can throw all my energy into and profit from.

I now regard my unemployed year as having been a wonderful opportunity to test out my ability as a potential business owner! At the time it was one of the worst experiences of my life, but looking back I think it did me a lot of good. When things go wrong, there is always something to learn from the experience.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

A Quick(ish) Lesson On Finance


I've wanted to do this for a while, as I know a few of my family now read this blog and many of them have little understanding of what finance is or how money works. There are several brilliant in-depth essays out there that explain the process in far more detail than I can in my five minute posts. But I'm also aware that the individuals with the least understanding are also the ones least likely to sit and read through a long essay with lots of technical language and numbers (don't beat me).

So here's the bite-size version with pictures!

- Currency -

Traditionally, 'currency' consisted of gold, coins, shells, buttons... more or less anything that could be used as an I.O.U when two or more people agreed to exchange goods or services at different times. It was essentially a store of value that could be redeemed in another place and time and from any other person that agreed to accept the currency.

It didn't really matter what was used as long as it was difficult to replicate and easy to store (for example, apples would be a terrible currency to use as they rot very quickly). Salt was apparently a favourite in the Sahara and East Africa during the Middle Ages. The word 'salary' actually comes from the Latin word 'salarium' (the root word 'sal' means 'salt') which, according to the Oxford dictionary, was the money paid to Roman soldiers to buy salt (my English degree is totally relevant to finance, dad)! People also liked gold and it's still considered valuable today since it's in fairly limited supply and (so far) impossible to create from scratch. 



- Banks -

Banks were initially invented as a way for wealthy people to store and protect their gold, buttons, or whatever currency they used. Smaug's lair in J.R Tolkien's The Hobbit is the image I always have when I think of old-school banks. A giant creature defending a huge stash of treasure from people wanting to steal it! A small fee was paid in return for the bank's service and a receipt was given out listing the amount deposited.

- Money -

Physical currency is only a fraction of the money supply today. Eventually, people started trading the receipts instead of the currency itself, and as a result the banks decided they could earn more by issuing loans backed by the currency they held in deposits. The loans were essentially I.O.Us for I.O.Us of real value.

(This is the point where I like to quote Lewis Caroll's Alice In Wonderland: "You used to be much more...'muchier.' You've lost your muchness.” I think that just about explains finance from this point onwards.)

- Interest -

Things got a bit boring for a while and then the people cottoned on to the fact that banks were making money out of the currency they had entrusted to them. So 'interest' was invented: an I.O.U to pay an I.O.U based on the I.O.U the bank was earning from the original I.O.U in their vaults. Simples. The interest paid to depositors was less than the interest paid by borrowers, so the bank was still earning a living even though the amount of currency they were storing hadn't really increased.

- Inflation -

Considering there were now more I.O.Us in the system than actual goods/services (look up 1931 gold standard for more info), the value of the I.O.Us dropped in real terms as more I.O.Us were printed on the I.O.Us. I found a nice graph for the UK to illustrate my point (everyone likes a good graph):


To clarify; if tomorrow everyone took their money to the bank to reclaim the promised currency at the same time, there would be many many disappointed customers. Money follows the very basic economic rule of supply and demand - if we've got more, it's worth less. That £5 note that bought you 10 loaves of bread in 2001 now only buys you 3. The amount of currency you need to purchase the same value in goods has now inflated. In 1920's Germany during hyperinflation, Reich Marks were literally worthless as currency and there are various reports of people burning money to keep warm as the paper it was printed on held more value as fuel. Inflation is also affected by how difficult the items are to grow, make, find, etc. More I.O.Us or less items mean inflation goes up.

- The 'credit crunch' -

Unfortunately, this system of borrowing on borrowing on borrowing value has expanded even further due to the continued threat of economic system collapse if it ever stops working. When an entire global population is reliant on a system to work, then it is in everyone's interest to keep it from falling apart (regardless of how ridiculous it seems). Runs on individual banks have happened in the past - Northern Rock comes to mind as a recent example of what happens when too many people panic at once and try to reclaim the value of their I.O.Us.

The same thing occurred on a global scale during the so-called 'credit crunch' a few years back. Governments and companies lend I.O.Us to each other as well as the banks, and if too many players ask to exchange the I.O.Us at once then it causes a knock on effect. Everyone suddenly panics that there isn't enough to go around and starts to demand their share of the value. I personally don't believe the issue was ever a lack of I.O.Us, as the banks have the ability to create an almost infinite amount of digital currency these days. It was likely mass confusion over the redeemable value of the currency, causing all the major players to halt production of any more I.O.Us of I.O.Us. Which, if you think about it, is very silly considering all the original I.O.Us no longer hold the same value they did to begin with! If that didn't make a lot of sense, don't feel bad. Most economics undergrads struggle with the concept. Fortunately, the very clever people in charge printed a lot more I.O.Us, which will TOTALLY fix everything (lucky us).

- Value vs Population -

Most of the money in circulation today is a giant ocean of I.O.Us with a few tiny islands of actual value (land, food, water, materials, workforce, etc) dotted around. I imagine it looks a bit like the universe, with lots of dark matter and a few clusters of stars and planets gradually drifting apart. Oh yeah, pretty deep stuff for a Saturday afternoon! Here's a nice picture of part of the universe:


In the UK, the average debt per household is around £13,000 and the average in savings about £3,300 (www.aviva.com/media/upload/Family_Finances_Report_July_2013.pdf). This doesn't include mortgage or car loans. That's a lot of I.O.U-ness (sorry, I said there wouldn't be lots of numbers). According to mainstream media, we are now recovering from the recession and well on our way to sustained growth. The stock market is thriving once again, unemployment is falling, business is growing. Yet the amount of real value redeemable per person is shrinking due to inflation.

There are various ways of calculating wealth. I'm old-fashioned so I tend to consider mainly those things that a human needs to survive on this planet - shelter, food, heat, etc. Anything else is of secondary importance and useful only as a store of value to trade for the really valuable items that keep us alive and healthy (basically, more I.O.Us).

So let's start with land. Land is quite useful for growing food, providing materials and space for shelter. Or it can even be used as shelter itself. Ask any military bod. In the UK, there are 260+ people per square kilometre of land (going by the World Bank figures). This is increasing by the year. Less land to go around, and that's assuming the land is shared out equally to begin with - it isn't. In fact, you're not even allowed to fight people over it like they did in Medieval times, for... reasons (which I think is completely unfair)! I'm not going to discuss house prices in any detail here, as I believe they are artificially inflated right now due to government intervention. But I would expect the natural costs to be on the increase regardless.

Food is another important one. Intensive farming methods have kept prices lower than they would otherwise be. However there has still been continual inflation in this area (if you're not used to graphs, bear in mind this one shows the percentage increase in price, not the price itself):


Fuel - again, your I.O.Us buy less fuel today than they did last year or the year before that. I mentioned rising utility bills in a previous post:


So... the I.O.Us are worth less and less actual value. The best way around the issue for the average person, as far as I can see, is to focus on obtaining value first and foremost. Collecting I.O.Us only benefits you when the potential redeemable value is increasing (when I started this blog I was just seeing how much money I could save up for the sheer hell of it, but these days I want to own a house/land outright and plan to put that money into something of value when I have enough). I'm not a Marx groupie, but he was right when he pointed out that the ruling class own the means of production. Everyone needs to eat continuously during their lifetime and there's a good reason that the richest people own the most land (and for the record, a mortgage does not constitute land ownership - until you pay it off, the bank is technically the owner). Sort out the basics like land, shelter, food production, textiles for clothing, fuel, tools, and then worry about flashy cars, swimming pools, and the latest fashion.


n.b. Alice In Wonderland is a brilliant novel full of amazing advice that everyone should be forced to read at gun point. How can you argue with wisdom such as 'if I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn't be. And what it wouldn't be, it would'? Very sensible words!

Also n.b. This is all just personal opinion. I quit my Economics degree in year 2 because I thought a lot of it was very clever-sounding b*llocks that further complicated an already over-complicated system. I get paid a pittance to organise other people's money now, but still find economics and finance interesting. By the time I reach 30, I hope to have discovered the world's largest chocolate coin.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Burning Through Your Money?

With all the furore over increasing energy prices this winter, there has been a lot of debate amongst friends and colleagues over exactly how warm a house should be. I grew up in a large, draughty Victorian home and spent most winters outside in the snow. I can't remember ever complaining that the house was too cold, although there were definitely times when the condensation on inside of the windows would freeze and leave tiny leaf patterns on the glass. My parents spent several years slowly expanding the place, and for a while there was no central heating in half the rooms. But there were always blankets, fur throws, hot water bottles, jumpers and thick socks to wear if it got chilly. I suppose I was just too busy to notice the cold. I certainly never suffered for it.

When I mentioned this, I was surprised by the majority reaction. Many people expect to be able to walk around in a t-shirt and shorts during December/January and leave the heating on constantly. I'd always assumed it was just sick or elderly people that did this - my great grandparents' house felt like an oven! But out of 11 people I asked, 9 agreed they would turn up the heating before pulling on a jumper or pair of socks. Even more shocking to me was the handful that added they would open windows rather than turn the heating off when it became too stuffy! Perhaps I'm an oddity, but I generally have the heating off and bedroom window open in the winter. Anything less and I feel as though I'm suffocating!

I wonder if people actually feel the cold more these days compared to, say, the 1950's? It's common knowledge that the modern lifestyle is more sedentary, with most people driving to work, spending hours sat behind a desk, then sprawling in front of the TV in the evening. A couch potato will produce less body heat than a gym-bunny who is constantly on the go, so it makes sense that they would notice a drop in external temperature. Aside from the negative impact that a sedentary lifestyle has on health (move or die! - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-18880989), there is an obvious negative impact on an individual's finances.

With heating costs increasing at an average of 10% this year, will more people be encouraged to go out and exercise or wrap up to stay warm? Or have we become too lazy and spoilt to expect anything less than tropical temperatures indoors? For my own part, I'll keep taking the extra money and stick with the mittens! What 10% price increase?


Saturday, 26 October 2013

New Landlord, New Career

With the summer out of the way, I've had a chance to sit down and examine where I am now compared to when I started this blog back in 2011 - something any good life coach would recommend. Not that I've ever been to a guru of any kind, but I imagine it's the sort of good advice one would give. It's the sort of advice my mother would give and she'd make an awesome guru. She's one of those lovely, tree-hugging, world of peace type ladies that you get on the cover of Time, decorating tanks with pretty flowers. I doubt she's ever considered her own life goals, but if you're already at one with existence then why bother?

So far I've managed to save £10k on a fairly low income (closer to £11k once my salary reaches the bank on Monday), moved across the country in search of a job, have jointly taken over the literary scene in my local town, and I'm nearing the end of my degree. Which leaves me wondering what I should do next.

My immediate concern is deciding on a career, so that I'm ready to move on to better things once I get that piece of paper in my hands. I work with some brilliant people and I'll miss them a lot, but there's not much scope to progress in my current role and I mostly turn up at the office to rest and relax from all the work I do at home - it isn't challenging in any sense. It was always intended as a stop-gap until I graduated, and it's been fun while it lasted. But onwards and upwards, as they say!

(I'll also mention the new landlord, as it's taken an extra £70 out of my savings (on top of an increase in monthly rent - sob). Not a good development financially, but it may only be a temporary glitch if I end up relocating for work next year.)

So... off to job hunt!

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Very Quick Update

Busy working very very hard. Just adding some extra numbers to the pot.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

New Motto For The Year: GSD

I've had no time to write blogs in the last few months. Instead, I have been following my new motto: Get Sh*t Done (or G.S.D, as my mother taught me it's bad manners to swear)! So far it has worked well. In fact, I think it should be the new national motto for Britain. Don't wait for the government to save you - just GSD yourself! My partner and I started a local group just over a year ago, and this month saw the completion of a collaborative project that we are all very proud of. At the same time, I finished the biggest and most important (grade-wise) assignment of my degree, moved office and changed job at work, and finally finally completed a novel (which has been a very long time coming)! Today I took a day off to catch up on all the smaller tasks that had been put to one side, and figured I should update this blog as a reminder to myself of why I'm working every hour under the sun. I'm exhausted and have forgotten what a proper night's sleep feels like, but I also have an over-riding sense of wonder at everything I've managed to fit into the last few months! GSD, people!

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Spring Has Sprung!

Well, sort of. Then it disappeared again underneath a layer of snow... The weather has always had an obvious effect on my mood and therefore my finances. If it's cold, dark and gloomy outside, then it's always tempting to try and cheer myself up by splashing out on a new outfit, a meal in some posh restaurant, a gym membership (that I will likely never use again) or some other random purchase that will put a temporary smile on my face and leave a permanent dent in my bank account. So Britain is probably the worst place I could choose to live, considering the 3-hour summers we get here!

Hence my lack of update for February. All my willpower and Jedi skills were focused on just getting through the month without going crazy with the salary. And I think I succeeded. I had a couple of birthdays to pay out for, but otherwise I've done well. I reached the maximum limit on my ISA for this year, so opened a high interest savings account to act as a spill-over. I've also organised all my accounts on colourful spreadsheets that calculate how much interest I'm earning per day (still in the pennies, but it makes me feel good at least). Have now surpassed the £5k mark.