January 2009 found Mr. T graduated and thrown into a pool of software developers without jobs. Unfortunately for him, he also had no full-time experience. He found himself applying for the same entry-level jobs for which people with 10-15 years of experience were also applying. Everyone was desperate. I wasn’t much help since I was still a graduate student working on my thesis and Penny was less than one year old. To help expedite Mr. T’s job offers, we moved into my parents’ beach house on the Oregon coast so Mr. T could be within driving distance of the Portland and Seattle metro areas. Within a month of moving in, all the big tech companies in Oregon and Washington had announced layoffs. What we thought would be a 2-4 week stay in the beach house became a more permanent housing situation as we faced the uncertainty ahead. We counted ourselves among the 30+% of millennials living with parents (though not technically with my parents).
Luckily, we had been frugal during college. We had no debt and had even managed to save money. I don’t remember exactly how much we had, but it was enough for a down-payment on a small house. Moving away from college had cost me my on-campus job and graduating had cost Mr. T his. For the first time in our lives we were unexpectedly unemployed and faced no prospects. Our days were filled with job applications, searching for job postings, writing a thesis, and taking care of Penny.
Around this time, my uncle decided to also move into the beach house. He’s a nomad art trader. He taught us how to buy and sell. Though we spent the majority of our days applying for jobs for Mr. T, we spent our evenings learning how to refinish furniture, burnish wood, patina brass, and scan auction catalogs for potential finds at thrift stores. And the games began…
We set the game parameters:
- Attempt to earn enough money to pay the bills.
- Try to avoid tapping any savings.
- Apply for jobs like crazy.
- Move to Cambodia at the 1 year mark of unemployment.
The recession made things a bit more tricky since people stopped buying a lot of junk when they were nervous about finances, so eBay was slow. But we weren’t trying to make money. We won if we broke even.
By the end of January, we were jumping in deep. With my uncle’s guidance, we bought $154.53 worth of junk that we turned into $707.43 ($485.97 profit after shipping, fees, and the initial purchase costs). Our first big break were a set of Danish chairs. We paid $10/chair and sold them almost immediately for $500 (including shipping).
The game heated up in February when we had a semi-annual car insurance payment and an annual health insurance payment due. We bought $533.13 worth of stuff and made $1137.18 of profit which paid for both bills and food for the month.
Because we paid no rent, no utilities (thanks mom and dad!), and owned no cell phones, all we had to cover was food, gas, car insurance, health insurance, and my tuition.
In March, I had to attend a conference in Chicago for school, and in April my final tuition payment was due. The conference travel would cost about $400 (thanks to a grant and some frequent flyer miles) and tuition was $300 (since I was only taking two thesis credits and my graduate program subsidized half of my tuition). Luckily, we got our biggest profit we would get the entire year on eBay on a single purchase. We spent just over $100 for two shelves and a table that were sitting in a lady’s yard with some broken down cars. The shelves and table were gold and a bit rusty. Thanks again to the uncle who knew exactly what could be done with them and had the guts to knock on the lady’s door and offer to buy the junk in her yard. Mr. T and I then spent HOURS the next few weeks with steel wool and ammonia scrubbing those things like crazy. It turns out that beneath all that 90s gold and rust was amazing chrome! They looked amazing when we were done. The first shelf sold right away for $499 (conference:paid!). A few weeks after that, we were able to sell the other shelf and table together for $750 (tuition:paid!). After shipping and fees we were able to make over $1000 on just those three items.
Sure, those ten months of unemployment (mooching housing from the parentals) were stressful and so uncertain, but turning it into a game helped both our spirits and our finances. We learned what we were capable of doing. We also learned a great deal about ownership. My uncle always said: “Everything I have is for sale. If you offer the right price, I’ll part with it.” We were dealing mainly in “stuff,” but my uncle had traded some amazing works of art in his time. He said that things and art aren’t meant to be hoarded or hidden. They are meant to be loved and passed on. In his lifetime, he was able to have a lot of “stuff” in his life. But just as easily, he was able to send it along.
Our total profit (after all fees and purchases, etc.) January-October only ended up being $2727. But it paid the bills. We won the game. But it got better!
Mr. T got a job offer in mid-October and we moved to Alaska (forgoing the last step of the game – move to Cambodia at the one-year mark of unemployment). Because we didn’t touch our savings during ten months of unemployment, we were able to buy a small house for our family in Alaska. And we timed it just right. In 2009, we had a total income of $9,038, so we qualified for earned income credit and we also bought our first house, so we qualified for the $8,000 first-time home-buyer credit (and had one kid for another $1000). The total amount we had contributed to federal taxes in 2009 was $6! And our refund was $12,012!
Our winning scores: $2,727 earned on eBay, $0 from savings spent before October home purchase, and $12,012 from the government (we gave them an interest-free $6 loan! gasp! But I guess the 2000+% return made up for it).