My best career tips for a recession from someone who went from unemployed to being my own boss

Broke Millennial founder Erin Lowry as a recent college graduate in 2011.
Courtesy Erin Lowry

The day after I graduated from college in May 2011, I loaded up my car and started the 11 hour drive from Western New York to my parents' house in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I would be living for the time being while I looked for work. 

The Great Recession of 2008 technically ended for the United States in June 2009, when the economy started growing again after four straight quarters of decline. Even two full years later, the job market was still struggling, especially in my chosen fields of journalism and entertainment. 

Many of my close friends decided to pursue graduate school. The idea of taking on student loans concerned me, and frankly, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do yet, which meant I was going to figure out how to make it work. I'd sent out nearly 100 applications during my final semester of college. The only lead I had at the time was to be a bookseller at the Books-A-Million near my parents' house. I didn't get that job, either.

By finding ways to grow in jobs that were initially just meant to help pay the bills, I was able to save money, build connections, and launch my career. By 2016, I was earning $70,000 a year. When I took the leap to become my own boss, I started running a company dedicated to helping my generation navigate money and work. 

Here are the tips I found most helpful as I managed to thrive, careerwise, even in the fallout of a recession. 

Turn to your network 

Two weeks after graduating, I received a phone call from one of my many job applications. It was from the head of the "Late Show with David Letterman" page program. She asked if I could fly up to New York City for an interview, and after that meeting I landed the job.

My resume ended up on her desk through a college connection. During an alumni weekend, I met a recent grad who had also worked as a page. We stayed in touch and when it came time for me to apply for the program and then later prep for my interview, he was happy to help. I've found that the best way to build connections is by reaching out to people who have career trajectories that inspire you and having conversations without an agenda.

When you make an ask, be specific about why you want to talk to this person, not a broad question of whether you can "pick their brain." Go in with the intention of actually building a relationship. Think about the value you can bring to the interaction, not only what they can do for you. 

Utilize all your skills 

While I was relieved to be employed and grateful to land in my dream city of New York, the page gig alone wasn't enough to cover my bills. Within days of arriving in New York, I was hunting for both an apartment and jobs to supplement my income. I needed to think creatively about my skill set and type of work I could take on, especially since my midday hours were all booked up by my job at the "Late Show."

The best way to build connections is by reaching out to people who have career trajectories that inspire you and having conversations without an agenda.

Within six weeks, my days were highly scheduled from 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. I got a morning barista gig; I spent my afternoons working in the page program; and I held babysitting jobs at night.

Throughout this period in my life, I learned how important it is to find time to pace yourself and do things you enjoy, even if you're on a budget. So I became something of an expert at finding free or heavily discounted activities around the city. 

Set attainable goals and celebrate your wins 

Big savings goals can often feel out of reach when you're operating on a tight budget. Instead of feeling demoralized, I focused my attention on incremental steps I could take. 

I started with knowing the exact figures I needed to cover my monthly expenses of rent, food, utilities, my cellphone bill, and transportation. Then I would plan coffee shop shifts and babysitting jobs to make sure that I could hit slightly above that number to give me some flexibility at the end of the month. With all that in mind, I set an attainable goal of saving up $500 within six months.

Soon, by sticking to that plan and by putting all my tips immediately into savings, I had added to my emergency fund, and I was able to reward my hard work with Greyhound bus trips to visit my now husband. 

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Factor in the importance of benefits 

At the end of the one year page program, I had some choices to make. I had made $23,000 working three different jobs and almost 80 hours a week. I wanted to stay in New York, but my schedule didn't feel sustainable.

I reached out to my network again and another alum told me about a paid internship program at the boutique PR company where he worked. It was a chance to apply my skills in a different context, and there was a likelihood that it could lead to a full-time job, with benefits like health care, paid vacation time, and a 401(k) with a 4% match that vested immediately. 

I got the internship and by the end of the summer of 2012, I'd been promoted to full-time employee. The salary was $37,000 a year. It covered most of the essentials for New York City living, but not everything, which meant I still needed to babysit to supplement my discretionary spending. Still, knowing my medical expenses would no longer be out of pocket, and that I was investing in my future with the 401(k), made the experience all the more valuable. And I knew I was moving in the right direction.

Build a foundation and bet on yourself 

While all this was going on, I needed a creative outlet. I started a blog called Broke Millennial, where I could talk about the financial questions people in my generation had and what I had learned about saving and investing. I began consulting, and when I was interviewed by media outlets about millennials, money, and work, I would ask the writers and editors if they were hiring. 

In 2014, I had an opportunity to beta-test a new financial technology startup. While testing their site, I noticed they had a section for a blog, but it wasn't populated with any content. When I asked about their plan and they asked if I had any suggestions. I responded, "Yes, I can run this." Within two weeks I'd submitted a job proposal, gotten hired, and left the PR agency for this new adventure.

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When I graduated from college, I never thought I would work for a fintech company, but I had built up the skills to make the most of this new opportunity. 

Along with the new job, I continued freelance writing, starting doing speaking engagements, and participating in occasional brand partnerships. I also continued to babysit. Over the course of three years, while working at these full-time jobs, I saved all my side hustle money. I started with a salary of $50,000 and by the time I decided to leave, in 2016, I had negotiated a raise and was making $70,000 a year. 

When I got my first book deal in January 2016, it felt like a sign that I could build Broke Millennial into a larger brand and it could be my sole focus. But before I did that, I wanted to be certain that I had a secure financial foundation in place. In the final months of working at the fintech start-up, I started saving my entire salary and tried living off my side hustle money to simulate what it felt like to earn variable income again. 

In November 2016, I finally took the leap into self-employment to focus on building a real career out of Broke Millennial, I had the financial runway to take a risk.

I know I'm better at my jobs today because I started with customer service experience. At the time, I didn't see it as a career move. I just needed to pay my bills. But it turned out to be a smart choice.

It's a good reminder that a job that is available right now may not seem related to your future career goals. But each job teaches you skills you can carry with you to the next opportunity. In my experience, taking that approach is one of the smartest ways to get through tough economic times and recessions. 

Erin Lowry is the author of  Broke Millennial," "Broke Millennial Takes On Investing," and the forthcoming "Broke Millennial Talks Money: Stories, Scripts and Advice for Navigating Awkward Financial Conversations." You can find her at Broke MilliennialTwitter, and Instagram.

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