How We Turned Unemployment Into a Game. And Won!

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, patinaΒ 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).

Unemployment game

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)Β 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. unemployment the gameWe 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!

One thing we never sold because we never figured out what it was. Any ideas?

One thing we never sold because we never figured out what it was. Any ideas?

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).



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  1. Maggie, this is the *coolest* story ever. And you lived it! Seriously, when I got to “Move to Cambodia at the 1 year mark of unemployment.” my jaw straight-up dropped. That takes guts with Penny already on your team!

    I love the sheer resourcefulness that you guys had throughout this entire time period, especially since you framed it as a game with rules. It’s a widely applicable approach, because if you’re setting your own rules, you can make them fit your circumstances, no matter what they are. It also sounds like you gained a TON of really applicable skills in the process.

    Honestly though, my favourite part of this is reading the story of this time in your lives. It’s my favourite kind of post, so thank you for sharing it – I feel like I know you better!

    • MaggieBanks

      Thanks Des! We did learn a lot of great things, had a lot of interesting things pass through our hands, and were actually able to enjoy nearly a year of living in an amazing beach location! Might as well make the best of things, right? πŸ™‚

  2. Impressive! I’m always intrigued how people overcome obstacles (especially financial ones), despite the odds being stacked against them. I’ve been wanting to put quite a few things up for sale. This article has inspired me to light the fire and get our stuff on Craigslist πŸ™‚

    Mrs. Mad Money Monster

  3. I love the tenacity and grit that this post shows. I never cease to be amazed at the resourcefulness of humans who refuse to give up. So many fabulous lessons in here!

    • MaggieBanks

      Thanks Penny! We sort of miss those days and want to return to just doing what we want to do (minus the applying dfor jobs). Because we learned to enjoy the simplicity of things, we actually learned to enjoy ourselves at a very stressful time.

  4. a woman

    do you know what you have? tenacity , hope, and an educated uncle. Everyone needs an uncle like this.

    • MaggieBanks

      I know! We are so grateful for him. He passed away a few years ago and we miss him dearly and his ecentricities. I’m sure I’ll talk more about him in the future. He was a great guy.

  5. A profitable hustle. I have heard a few stories of people having success flipping furniture. The key is knowing what to buy and at what price in the first place.

    • MaggieBanks

      Which we did not know. Thanks again to the uncle! Shipping greyhound is also key. But we don’t have that option any longer in Alaska! πŸ™‚

  6. To repeat most other commenters, impressive indeed! It’s amazing what you can do when you’re forced into a situation. I like the idea of setting rules for it too, keeps it in perspective.

    • MaggieBanks

      Thanks! We knew we weren’t the only ones in that situation in 2009, so we had to do something to get ourselves through it. We’re glad it all worked out!

  7. Michelle G

    Great post! New reader here, wanted to pop in and say I really enjoy the mix of personal and useful content.

    • MaggieBanks

      Thanks Michelle. And welcome to the party! It’s always great to meet readers.

  8. Wow you guys are awesome! Instead of whining about your situation you used your network (thanks family!) and tenacity to do what you had to do, to right your situation. Is this going to be a side hustle once you reach FI??

    • MaggieBanks

      Maybe. We really enjoyed it and tried to keep it going, but in Alaska, the thrift stores stink and shipping is super expensive. So we had to give it up. It depends on where we’re at. But we idid really enjoy doing our own thing. And I think early retirement will probably turn into a similar game. Which is part of the reason we’re not saving more than we are. We enjoy some hustle! πŸ™‚

  9. I’m so impressed that as a family of 3, even with no rent and utilities, you made it on $3K over the course of 10 months. Well done!

    I’ve sold furniture before, but it is usually trash finds that my husband hauls home that I want out of the house promptly.

    • MaggieBanks

      Yeah, the Craigslist selling is depressing. I don’t like it. But there is something awesome finding something that someone somewhere has been looking for and passing it on to them. Thanks for stopping by, Hannah!

  10. Maggie! The more I learn about you & your experiences, the more your “aspirational” title is truly more on the audacious side. πŸ™‚ This is amazing, and what a wonderful family you have (& awesome uncle!) to help you out in a time when you, Mr. T (& Penny!) were hustling hard. What’s great is that for the game you only had a few parameters. You focused hard & accomplished what you wanted to! When you add to many factors, goals can get complicated. Although, I know you are all loving Alaska & it’s beauty – I am hopeful that one day you all will move back to Oregon. πŸ™‚

    • MaggieBanks

      For the fisrst few years, we always said that Oregon was the goal – or Washington – to be fair. πŸ™‚ But now, who knows? The world is our oyster! Cambodia is still in our sights. Maybe we’ll do that for awhile. But maybe we’ll eventually settle back in the otherland of Oregon. We’ll see. Should be an exciting ride! πŸ™‚

  11. Beth

    Great story. I’m glad you guys won the game!

    As far as the mystery picture…it looks like a wine holder…could there be a piece missing for the glasses to hang off? Just a guess.

    • MaggieBanks

      we considered a wine holder… but it’s too small for a bottle to fit in the main part of it. But it’s still possible!

  12. How inspiring! Changing your mindset about adversity, by turning it into a game, can make a huge difference in your perspective. I’m working on a “game” for our debt payoff for 2016. Hopefully, it will encourage us to go above and beyond so we can finally kill our consumer debt. Then, on to the student loans.

    • MaggieBanks

      There’s a huge amount of research backing the gamification of hard things. Making it a game totally helps us do it!

  13. Wow, just wow. Such a cool story, Maggie! Those chairs you sold are just like ours — which I found for $100 for four at a flea market. Best find ever! I’m so super impressed at how resourceful you guys are, and how you hustled to make things work during a tough market… and with a kid! You guys rock. πŸ™‚

    • MaggieBanks

      Those are some great chairs. I do prefer the ones we walked away with out of that whole recession business. – look up Heywood Wakefield dogbone chairs and table. We totally refinished them and love our dining set so much. It’s sort of the reward from that whole unemployment game!

  14. Wow! You story is amazing. This is awesome. What a way to turn the proverbial lemons into lemonade. I’m sorry to hear your uncle passed away.

    • MaggieBanks

      It’s alright – his ideas about money would not have treated him well later. Plus, he was actually a rock star in France, so he knew he’d probably die young. Like I said, more on him later… πŸ™‚

  15. Oh wow, Maggie, what a great story, And so incredibly timely for me, as I will officially be unemployed starting on January 1st (unless I can line up a job in the next six weeks). I’m honestly fairly nervous about it. This post was an awesome reminder that attitude is everything. Thanks. πŸ™‚

    • MaggieBanks

      I’m excited to see what your game ends up being! Maybe you’ll turn it into doing your own thing full time! πŸ™‚

  16. This is an awesome way to approach a tough situation! I would think that by turning the situation into a game, you probably took a little bit of the stress of the stress off your shoulders (even though I’m sure it is impossible to ever fully get rid of it). The important thing is that you were able to find a method that helped you guys successfully get through unemployment. Much better than just giving up and thinking there was nothing you could do to help the situation!

    • MaggieBanks

      Thanks Thias! It definitely did help cut the stress of a very stressful situation. It was a tough time for a lot of people. I think we would have been a lot more down if we saw everyone else succeeding, but no one was. So we just had to do the best we could.

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