It’s been 8 weeks since we started experiencing the dramatic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In that time, we’ve all borne witness to how this virus can impact our families, our communities, and our livelihood.
Unemployment is on the rise – the labor department reported that another 6.6 million people filed for unemployment benefits last week. Most city dwellers were not prepared for this kind of catastrophic event.
So this article is my way of doing a public service for my fellow developers and designers.
There are plethora of articles about computer programming languages and technologies for web and mobile application development. But there are few that talk about the elephant in the room: the real-life struggle of web developers and designers.
Whenever I go to hackathons, I meet people who are either unemployed or freelancing. I also meet aspiring coders who just graduated from coding bootcamps and are looking for jobs. Sadly, some go to this event for the free food and temporary shelter because they can sleep at the venue.
Many designer and developer jobs are dispensable. Doomsday does not require an event of biblical proportion – all it takes is to lose a client, or get laid off from your current job.
If you live in California, our state has labor law called “At-will employment.” It is a term for contractual relationships in which an employee can be dismissed by an employer for any reason (that is, without having to establish “just cause” for termination), and without warning, as long as the reason is not illegal (for example, firing a person because of their race or religion).
The employers can outsource web and software development to programmers from another country for a fraction of the price. For companies who’d rather hire someone still based locally inside United States (whether on or offsite), some would prefer to hire you as an individual contractor. This means no company benefits (paid sick leave or vacation), no health insurance, 401K, and perks that a permanent employee gets.
Here are some things freelancers can do in order to survive in this uncertain time while waiting for their big break or permanent employment.
This is at the very top of my list. I learned this the hard way.
My appendix ruptured years ago, and since I didn't have medical insurance the doctor did not want to perform surgery.
His exact words were, “You've got no money to pay me. Just go home!”
I was in so much pain the nurse gave me a shot of morphine. It made me so dizzy that I vomited.
If it wasn't for the good Samaritan who fought for me and my rights as a patient, I would not have gotten my operation.
I tell you all of this to emphasize how important it is to have health insurance here in the United States. Make this your priority whether you have a job or not.
Even if you need to go out of your way to visit different clinics and do research about how to get free or low cost insurance, do it. Do not procrastinate on this.
It will cost you nothing to figure out how to obtain health coverage, but it will cost you and your family so much more if you end up in a hospital bed.
Some basic ways to save money
Need vs want
Some of you might say your money is just enough to pay the bills and there is no more left to put aside for savings. I hear you, I’ve been there too.
How about cutting down unnecessary expenses? In my case, I cut down on junk foods. I like to eat something crunchy while I am working, but I changed it to banana with almond butter. For me it works because the combination of the two is delicious and it fills me up easily and curbs my craving for junk foods.
One banana costs 10–29 cents, and the almond butter will last me for two weeks if I consume it daily. I also tried to snack on celery sticks and carrots – I never thought I would like them, it gave me the same effect (crunchy) I get from eating chips. Now I enjoy eating beets and fruits for snacks whenever I am craving something sweet.
When I go shopping, I ask myself this question before making a purchase: “Is this a need or a want?” If the answer is need, I will buy it. If not, I will pass.
What do I get from this anyway? One time my tire got punctured by a big nail because I parked next to a construction site. If I hadn't cut down on the unnecessary things, I wouldn't have had the money to buy two new front tires.
I asked my dad to give me a AAA Auto Club membership as a birthday gift instead of a purse or clothes. So it did not cost me a penny to get my car towed all the way to the car mechanic’s shop. A towing company charges around $200–$300 depending on the location, so I saved a good deal of money by getting a AAA card and the savings from affiliate stores discount that comes with it.
Switch to a prepaid cellphone. I used to pay $100/month on my cellphone bill, so I switched to prepaid and it saved me 40%. Plus I am not tied up in a 2-year contract which will can gravely affect your credit score if you can't afford to pay the bill and the cellphone provider puts your account in collection.
A low FICO score may affect your employment opportunities at big companies when they run your credit. You will also have to pay higher interest when you buy a car or make any other large purchase. And more often than not, if you decide to get your own place, you will be charged a higher rent.
Your chance of purchasing a home will be negatively affected as well, as debt delinquency is a red flag to banks and mortgage brokers. Even if you are paying cash in full, it's quite risky because they will report you to the FBI for possessing hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.
Did I go too far? I think that's a good thing to know right? They don't teach that in computer science school.
If you are subscribed to Netlifx, Amazon Prime, Hulu, or YouTube Red, how much time do you have on your hands to watch movies from all these platforms? Unless they are required to do your work, think about which one(s) you use less often and de-activate them until you are making more money.
There are numerous ways to save. The key ingredient here is to seek for other options and to cut down your excess.
After my surgery, it took me 6 months to recover. As I mentioned before, my job is dispensable. I got replaced one week after my surgery because I was working on a project that had a strict due date.
I was working at that job for only a couple of months before my medical emergency. The money I was able to save from my two months of freelance work went towards my rent while I was recuperating. My friends from church gave me food that lasted for one week. But I did not want to abuse their kind gesture since they also have their own families to support. I did what I had to do — I went to food banks.
I lined up there for some months. The thing with food banks is you do not have that much of a choice when it comes to creating a recipe. The first one I went to gave me a can of apple sauce, green beans, one box of oatmeal, pickled jalapeño, and peanut butter. So I bought a box of crackers from the dollar store and ate peanut butter and crackers the first few days.
The second time I went there, I was able to talk to other people falling in line. They told me that in one day, they would usually visit 3–4 food banks to come up with a good recipe.
I had a car so I volunteered to drive them around because they were senior citizens and I sympathized with the ordeal they were going through every week to get food. They couldn't find work because they were considered unemployable because of their age and limited capacity for hard labor. They had to live with their children who were also struggling.
What I learned from this experience was to do food prep during times of plenty. Every time I go to the grocery now, I will buy extra canned and dry goods that have a long shelf life. I do not buy in excess because it will only be wasted when the expiration date comes and I was not able to eat them or forgot about them.
For example, I will get 2 cans of tuna, something not superfluous. One is for immediate consumption, the other for a rainy day. If you go to the market every week, then in one month you will be able to save four cans. In one year, you will be able to save up 48 items. That means if you lose your job or income, you know for sure you have food to eat for 48 days. This is what I call a life line – it will gave you sustenance until you find another job.
One item is a base number or something to start with. To make it more realistic, get 3 items extra to cover for three meals a day. If you have free time, cut some coupons or shop at the place where they have a promo. This is doable if you work at it a a bit.
Fasting has a number of benefits – it promotes blood sugar control by reducing insulin resistance, it helps fight inflammation, and it improves blood pressure. You will have healthy skin and will loose weight as well.
Fasting also made me realize that I was not going to die if I didn't eat solid food for three days or more. That will get rid of your anxiety about not having food on your table. So you will have the clarity of mind to think about a new game plan in this time of famine.
When your food supply is running low, you should slow down your consumption as well. Once you've experienced fasting, you will acquire a discipline to tame your food cravings.
If you are not ready to do a three day fast, you can do intermittent fasting instead. I tried it while I was on a ketogenic diet and I lost 5 lbs in two weeks. It also gave me more energy to spend on important things that I need to take care of.
Get a bus pass
Finding a new job means you need to go to employment agencies or job interviews. Based on my experience, parking fees are common specially if the office is located inside a building with nearby restaurants and shops.
Depending on the location, the cheapest parking is usually $2/hr by meter, while inside a parking lot it may cost from $10 to $30. Not all companies provide parking validation.
There was a time I only had twenty dollars left and I spent it all by paying a parking fee during a job interview. But I did not get the job. It was painful, it is hard to explain if you have not been into the same situation.
So get a bus pass and load it up when you have extra money. Even though I have a car, I will only use it to go to places that are not accessible via public transportation. I am saving my gas for something more important.
One year I hinted to my friends that I wanted a bus pass for Christmas and not things that shine and glitter. What I was asking for was practical and essential. This is applicable if you live in a place that has this type of transportation system.
My point here is to prioritize what is pragmatic.
If you need to, you can sleep in your car
This may sound ridiculous, but training pays. If you own a car, empty the trunk and fold down the back seat (if you can). See if you will fit in there. If not, fold back the front seat as well until you feel the most comfortable. But it is not going to be that comfortable unless you have a truck, van, or SUV.
Depending on the size of your car, get a low height airbed, foam mattress, pillows or anything that will serve as a cushion to protect your back from the hard surfaces.
Your car will be twice as cold or hot compared to your bedroom. So get your thickest blanket if it is winter. Get a small luggage or any bag that will fit one week's worth of clothes that you will wear on a daily basis, especially if you go to work. I know people who go to work every day after sleeping in their cars. I was one of them.
Sleep in your car as long as it is parked inside a home or private property. Do not sleep in your car if you are parked in the street without checking the ordinances where you live. Your car could be confiscated and it will cost you an arm and a leg to retrieve it at the compound. Sleeping inside a car on public property is illegal in California.
So ask your church or neighbor if you can park your car inside their property. Look online where homeless people park to sleep. You may not need the information today, but it is golden when that time comes that your landlord kicks you out or changes the lock on your door.
These are basic necessities provided that you have the resources to start with. Your situation could be more complex. Some people sleep at homeless shelters, in tents, parks, and anywhere possible.
I stayed at a transitional home or sober housing at one point in my life (even though I do not drink). The social worker recommended it to me because it was a house and a safe place. It was not free though. I paid my rent and bills every month.
The only upside is you do not have to come up with a deposit which adds to your moving expenses. The not so good thing is I had zero knowledge and experience living with people rehabilitating from drugs, crime, mental health, and physical abuse. So it was a challenging and chaotic environment that I had to endure to survive. This chapter of my life was one great story of redemption, and you can read it here if you are interested.
Knowing you will be able to survive in a financial crisis will help mitigate your fears. Because fear block us from pursuing our dreams and cripples our ability to thrive. Remember, the main topic of this article is "survival".
I wish the rainy days would not come, but there is no security in any type of job. I do understand why you chose this freelancer's life.
- You want a less stressful job.
- You want time for yourself and your family.
- You want stay away from office politics.
- You are exhausted from long hours of commute
- And most of all, you are sick and tired of toxic people at work sucking the life out of you.
But life sometimes throws us a curve ball. We are here to learn from each other's experiences and to be prepared for our own share of ups and downs.
Stay home, stay safe, and level up
The company that I joined recently ceased their operation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So I am using this free time to learn WordPress REST API at Lynda.com and APIs and Microservices at freeCodeCamp.org.
I use freeCodeCamp's curriculum for my Coffee and Code meetups and coding boot camp. My students (kids and adults) likes the Responsive Web Design course. You get praise and kudos every time you complete the code correctly, and it is motivating.
What I like about freeCodeCamp is that you learn to build real-life projects that you can add to your portfolio. You also earn certifications, and it helps you prepare for coding interviews. Thousands of coders around the world are using freeCodeCamp and I recommend that you give it a try too.
The book Soft Skills: The software developer's life manual offers techniques and practices for a more satisfying life as a professional software developer. In it, developer and life coach John Sonmez addresses a wide range of important "soft" topics, from career and productivity to personal finance and investing, and even fitness and relationships, all from a developer-centric viewpoint.
In The Clean Coder: A Code of Conduct for Professional Programmers, legendary software expert Robert C. Martin introduces the disciplines, techniques, tools, and practices of true software craftsmanship. Martin shows how to approach software development with honor, self-respect, and pride. He talks about how to work well and work clean, communicate and estimate faithfully, face difficult decisions with clarity and honesty, and understand that deep knowledge comes with a responsibility to act.
One last thing I'd like to share is that reading helped me during my dark times. Aside from programming books, I also read about existentialism, stoicism, and psychology.
Recently, I've read The Plague by Albert Camus, Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. For the past two years, I spent hundred of hours reading the Collected Works of C.G. Jung. If you work in a creative industry like design or film making, his books will tap into your psyche and unconscious. And my favorite is Liber Novus, The Red Book.
And lastly, I think one of the best things you can do to survive and thrive as a human being is to practice being brave.
Thank you for reading, I hope this story inspires you.
[Top photo: Me and my team at the NASA Space Apps hackathon]