The Miss Jobless Chronicles: White-Knuckling It

Ed. note: “The Miss Jobless Chronicles” is a weekly series written by Caitlin O’Toole. Read the rest in the series here.

When your unemployment check clears your account at 2:23am Wednesday morning, 2:22am Wednesday morning is the best time of the week. My heart races and I break a little bit of a sweat. At 2:20am I log onto my bank’s web site and check out my balance. I keep hitting the refresh button until the money hits my account. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh Sometimes I do this like 50 times. (No, I’m not obsessive.) When it hits, I get a little pang of joy that shoots through body. Then I do my “twirl around in the office chair” dance — which consists of two or three 360-degree rotations complete with flailing of the arms. My downstairs neighbors must love it!

If you’re on unemployment, you know what I’m talking about when I say that Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays are usually “white knuckle” days. Means you don’t have anything left from the prior week’s flow and you’re just getting by. For me, it means I’ve poorly managed my week’s money so that the contents of my refrigerator include catnip, a Hoegaarden, and a one-third-full bottle of lite Italian dressing. (I feel starving, but at least the cats get stoned.) And then there’s the can of lentil soup in my cabinet (which I am scared to open anyway because roaches play house in the cabinet). The soup’s been here since I moved in. Um, that was 2003. Oh god. Does soup go bad? I keep it there so when my mom visits she sees that I have soup. And moms who know you have soup in your cupboard are happy moms.

There’s not a lot to spend money on at 2:23am on a Wednesday morning, but you can find shit to spend it on if you try. The deli up the street opens at 5, so I usually hit it and get an egg sandwich and a coffee. That’s the lap of luxury. I have to resist other temptations (downloading tons of music, buying stuff at Amazon) or i could blow my whole week’s economic “plan” in a matter of moments.

As I eat my sandwich, I start to map out exactly what I’m going to spend my money on for the week. (By now, it’s early Wednesday morning — like 6am.) Some goes towards paying off my credit card debt, some goes in the rent pile, some goes in the utilities (phone) pile, a lot goes to food, and then I put aside a little for socialization — which often ends up going into the food pile. The piles go into envelopes, which go into my closet.

The envelope trick totally doesn’t work for me, btw. I don’t even know why I still do it. I have little willpower. Like, I’ll see a CD I want to download for $9.99 and I realize that I don’t have an envelope labeled “CD downloads.” So I take $2 from each of five envelopes and create one for downloads. That means $2 less for food, $2 less for socialization, and $2 less in three more categories. (With a penny left over!) I can usually get by doing this once in a while, but more often than not, it bites me in the ass. Like, it’s better to have $2 less for groceries than it is $2 less in your transportation envelope. That’s almost a whole subway ride less than you had before. Which means you can go somewhere, but not get back. Like, great — hello? I’m in Queens. But I can’t get back because I downloaded the new Heart CD and now my transportation envelope is empty. Which means I have a lot of music to listen to when I have to WALK back to the city. See? It gets messy.

Or, like, I’ll say to myself — I want to go out Friday night AND Saturday night. So I’ll just eat ramen noodles two nights in a row so I have enough money. Epic fail. I’m too bloated to want to go out at all. So I have the extra money, but I look hideous and you could pop me with a pin. The extra money should go to extra things — like birthday presents, and an “emergency” or two that may pop up. More often than not, it doesn’t.

Going to the grocery store is usually the first order of business on Wednesday morning. I’ve been clipping coupons and I’ve changed stores. Food Emporium is cheaper than Gristedes. (It’s also not as filthy, but that’s another column altogether.) Sometimes, they have three Lean Cuisines for $10 — as opposed to $4.99 each. Soda is $1.69 a bottle, as opposed to $2.69. And the chicken doesn’t look like it’s been dead since 1971. The downside is I have to walk further, but I just bring a big bag and suck it up.

Some people have this ritual where every time they get a $5 bill, they put it in a special pile and let the fives collect for a while, then do something special with what’s accumulated. I don’t have that kind of self-control, so I’ve been saving change and trying to teach myself to not dip into it. Then, I figure, each week, I can bring the change to a bank that has one of those change-counting machines and cash it in. Then that extra money goes towards paying off my debt. Looks good on paper, right? Doesn’t work for me.

I’m curious about how other people ration their unemployment checks to last a whole week. Do you use the envelope method? Does it work for you? Let me know your tips and tricks!

caitlinotoole.pngCaitlin O’Toole is a New York City-based writer and editor. A native of Washington, D.C., she began her illustrious journalism career as a Washington Post paper girl. She has since written and edited for Sesame Workshop Digital, Star Magazine, The National Enquirer, Glamour,, and Washington’s City Paper. Her work has also been featured on Fox News, ABC, MTV and VH1. She lives in Chelsea with her two cats, Lucy and Ethel. She can be reached for work at her LinkedIn page and Tweets at @MsOToole.