Finances & Money Frugality

Financial Fire Drills: Utilizing Social Services

by Abigail Perry

Abigail Perry lives in Seattle, WA with her husband. Her blog, i pick up pennies, is about frugality and debt-reduction in and among obstacles, such as disability, low-income and life its own self.

There has been some talk in the PF world lately of running financial fire drills: determining just how you’d survive in case of a layoff. This brings up questions that many of us fail to ask ourselves beforehand:

  • How much would I get from unemployment?
  • Would it be enough to cover my current outlays?
  • If not, how much would I have to cut?
  • Which items would I cut first?
  • How could I make my money stretch even farther?

These are all excellent questions to ask — especially as we face bleaker and bleaker news about companies’ downsizing, as well as a troubled job market. By going over your expenses, you can ensure that, if the worst happens, you’ve got a plan.

But is the plan thorough enough?

Yes, you’ve crunched the numbers; you’ve done a bit of homework about unemployment benefits. Perhaps you’ve even abstractly considered applying for social programs.

But do you know anything more exact? Do you know how much you’ll get in benefits? (Most state sites will explain how to approximate your earnings.) Do you know which social programs you would need or even which ones you’d qualify for?

The time to do the research is now, before the stress of a job loss hits. Losing your job is a huge blow for anyone. Most of us experience myriad emotions — anger, terror, shame, guilt, confusion, stress — almost all of which can leave you frozen in inaction. And when it comes to being unemployed, time is not on your side.

Unemployment Benefits

Action is vital when you find yourself unemployed. That’s because the unemployment office is — say it with me now — part of a bureaucracy. In this case, “bureaucracy” coming from the Latin: “Never goes anywhere and requires forms in triplicate.”

Jokes aside, bureaucracies tend to move slowly. Some might even say ploddingly. So when you planned for your unemployment, did you take into account any lag time between the layoff and the first check?

Most state unemployment agencies will take 2-3 weeks to accept your application. During this time, your work records are reviewed, and your newly-ex-employer is contacted, just to be sure your claim is valid.

Some states also have a one-week waiting period after acceptance. In other words, you file for unemployment two weeks in a row, but don’t get paid for the first week.

What does all this mean? Essentially, once you get around to applying for unemployment, it could be up to a month before you see any benefits. Technically, your checks could be delayed even more if your employer decides to add insult to injury by contesting your claim.

So it’s important to factor this wait into your “financial fire drill.” It’s all well and good if you’ve figured out how to survive on your unemployment checks. But how will you survive until the checks get there?

Social Services: The Five W’s

Social Services: Who (qualifies)?

Your first plan of action should be finding out if you qualify for help. If not, you don’t waste any extra time. I explain how to find the department later on.

When figuring out eligibility, you may have a relatively easy time, or a much harder one. Some states make the income limits readily available on the department’s website. Others aren’t quite so helpful, in which case you’ll need to actually call the department.

Important note: Once you get someone on the phone, you need to politely, but firmly, refuse to get off the line until they answer your question. They are going to try to get you off the phone as quickly as possible to deal with all of the other cases and calls. So be sure they’ve answered your whole question before you let them hang up.

Obviously, if you’re way over the income limits, your search ends here at least for government help. We’ll discuss non-government organizations (NGOs) further on.

But what if you’re relatively close to the income limit? Well, you may actually have some recourse.

Depending on your situation, you should consider claiming one fewer unemployment check per month. With a lower income, you may qualify for benefits that make up for the missing money. To find out, you’ll need to get on the phone again and find out what you’d qualify for with the lowered monthly amount. Then you can decide whether it’s worthwhile.

As an added benefit, your unemployment benefits will last longer, which in this market may just be crucial.

Social Services: What (help can you get)?

If you meet the basic income limits, you should start to learn about the programs your state offers. In general, though, there are a few basic programs most people will apply for: cash assistance, food assistance, medical coverage, and TANF. Food assistance, better known as food stamps, is probably the most common kind of assistance. The term “stamps” is a tad outdated, though, since benefits are now loaded onto debit cards for easy use.

Medical coverage is generally either Medicaid or the state-run, low-income insurance plan. These plans make insurance more accessible, but also tend to have extensive waiting lists or are accepting fewer applicants.

If you have children, you may qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which offers work clothing, transportation, vehicle repair, educational expenses, tools and equipment, and relocation expenses. You may only qualify for some of those, and there are time limits regarding how long you can receive assistance.

Also be aware that some states have programs to help with utility bills. In Washington, if you have food assistance, you get a discount on phone service.

Social services: Where (do you go)?

This might seem like an obvious thing. But do you know the name of your state’s department for social programs? A lot of people don’t. In fact, I didn’t; at least, not until I needed to apply for the services.

So I want to start off by stressing that there’s no reason to be embarrassed if you don’t know anything about this process. Most people don’t until they actually need the help.

The tricky thing is, each state seems to have a different name. Here in Washington, it’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). Oregon has the Department of Human Services. Idaho? Department of Health and Welfare.

So, if you don’t automatically know what your state’s calling it, there’s a relatively simple way to find out. Two actually.

You can do an Internet search with your state’s name and some basic keywords: department, human services, food stamps, health services or social programs.

Alternately, you can use a phone book. Turn to the blue pages, skim through those until you find “State” and then start reading under “Department of” until you find a likely candidate.

Social Services: When (do you get an answer)?

You won’t get a firm answer from the department until you’ve had an appointment with a staff member. This person will review the answers on your application (generally by asking them again). You will then be told what, if anything, you qualify for.

The fastest way to get an interview is to take your filled-out application directly to the office. Once you’re there, you can get an interview time, or will be told to wait for one of the staff members to have time to see you. (In Washington, if you show up by 8 a.m., they’ll make sure they fit you in. As in, at some point before 5 p.m. Bring a book.)

If you choose to send in your application, you’ll generally receive a letter of acknowledgment about 10 days later. This will tell you when your interview is. Generally, it’s about 2 weeks away.

Social Services: Why

Because you pay taxes like everyone else. Because the only shame in this is what you bring with you. Because it can actually be healing to learn you can depend on others.

Social Services: How (do you apply)?

Obviously, the first step is to obtain an actual application. You can pick one up at the local office, or you can call that office and have one mailed to you. Alternately, you can print one out from the web, or fill it out online.

You can then drop off the application in person, mail it in or, if you’re working online, simply press “submit”.

Are you done?

There are a lot of non-profit organizations that offer help to those in need. In particular, these organizations will be more willing to consider individual circumstances in relation in income etc. That said, in this economic climate, many funds are going to be stretched thin. So be prepared to try several agencies.

Pretty much any religious organization or foundation has funds to help the needy. Some may give preference to their own congregations. But many, like Catholic Community Services, don’t require you to have a specific denomination. For a more comprehensive list, check with your social services agency. Also good is the United Way.

Finally, we come to food banks. These should be listed many places, especially with the non-profits you’ll be checking out. Washington’s food assistance program homepage has a link for food banks, so be sure to check your own state’s site.

Generally, you will need to bring your ID and a piece of mail with a current address on it. This will allow the organization to verify that you live in the area they service. Once the registration is done, the process is relatively simple. The only thing to remember is that there can be a wide variance in quality (and quantity) of food among these places. So it’s in your best interest to check out more than one food bank.

If you are uncomfortable using a food bank, consider volunteering. This will help you get a good first pick of the food, but you’ll also be giving back.

What else?

Okay, I’ve give you a pretty good overview of unemployment and social services. But there are plenty of other factors to consider, many of which are based on personality:

  • Will you keep busy by concentrating on frugality, or will you be too low to function well? This should be taken into account when figuring out realistic frugality levels.
  • Are there side jobs you can do in your free time? Have you looked into doing studies or donating plasma, etc?
  • Since you’re home more, will you need to increase your entertainment package, such as cable and a movie subscription service? Or will you feel better lowering your bills?
  • What are the first items you’d cut? What would you fight tooth and nail to save?

There are probably plenty of other items I haven’t mentioned. What would you consider in building a realistic unemployment budget?

Photo by Clementine Gallot

About the author

Clever Dude


  • Wow, I am floored by the detail of this post. Very well done. As a landlord in a low-income area, I commonly refer people to these programs when things go bad for them. Here in Indiana you’d be surprised at how quickly you can get things in motion if you are prepared. It’s those people who aren’t motivated or prepared that get lost in the system.
    Once again, very nicely written!

  • Don’t forget if you are a 1 income household (or if your other income doesn’t have health insurance) to get an estimate of the cost of continuing health insurance! COBRA premiums for me when I lost my job in December were going to be $500 a month for just myself!

  • OH and because the company I worked for was a contract company it took almost 4 weeks to get my first unemployment benefit.

    There was a delay while the Unemployment Office verified that I asked for and was not offered another contract with my company.

  • Excellent read. Well organized and very thoughful. I really enjoyed reading this and it gave me a lot to think about.

  • There’s also a federally funded, state-managed program called Lifeline. here‘s a link to the website.

    I’d suggest using it to get a prepaid cellphone which are less expensive than the ones with the contracts.

    Great article on the subject here.

  • Senior Value Phone from Tracfone is also a good option, especially if you do not qualify for a free phone. It is only $20 to buy and $20 every three months for airtime. That’s not very expensive.

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