5 Tips for an Effective Job Search When You Are Broke

If you don’t have money to pay for things (for example, new clothes for a job interview, or even a haircut), you can still do an effective job search when you are broke.

Too often we tend to think, “Well, I can’t pay for two lunches, so I can’t take anyone out to lunch, even thought that is how you network today.” Or, “I need a couple hundred dollars to present myself well for that group interview,” etc.

We get hung up on “I can’t afford any of this stuff so I’m at a disadvantage.

In this post I want to focus on five things you can do in your job search when you are broke… even when you are broke. My assumption is you have some basics, like internet access, a phone, access to transportation, etc. If you don’t have these you are likely not reading this… but if you are, look for assistance from the state, a church, etc. There are lots of programs that help severely disadvantaged people to get to their next step and get to a position of self-sustainability.

This post is more for the person that might come to one of my presentations at a public library or a job club. Let’s start with:

Job Search When You Are Broke: Skip Lunch and Go for the Short Informational Interview

I’ll never forget Chris K. (you know who you are, thank you Chris!) who agreed to meet me for lunch during my nasty job search. We had a great conversation but Chris didn’t know I was in transition when we met for lunch. During out lunch it became clear. While I was prepared to pay, Chris felt sorry for me and wouldn’t let me. He covered the $20 or so for our lunch.

job search when you are broke lunch dilemma

I was so, so grateful that I could put that $20 elsewhere, even though I considered it an investment into my job search.

But you can’t count of that. Don’t invite people to lunch hoping they’ll hear your situation and then offer to pay. My rule of thumb is that if I invite you, I pay. I rarely split the bill. My phrase has been, “You pay next time,” which means I’ve enjoyed my time and I’d like to meet again.

If you are broke, though, you have a couple of options. Either don’t do things that cost money (breakfast, lunch, coffee, etc.), or borrow a few hundred bucks from someone and use that for very strategic, important lunch meetings.

One alternative to a lunch is to simply do informational interviews. These can be done from your phone or computer (on zoom, for example). They can be done at the person’s office, or at a park bench, library, or other place you can meet without feeling obligated to buy something.

What’s more, informational interviews are one of the most powerful networking techniques I’ve learned about. I created a Pluralsight course about informational interviews and think they are spectacular. Imagine doing one every 30 minutes… you could do four in the time it might take you to get to a lunch meeting.

Sure, lunch is fun, but if you are trying to optimize your job search when you are broke you need to make sure you focus on outcomes rather than the luxury of a chill lunch.

Job Search When You Are Broke: Borrow Money When Appropriate

I know not everyone is going to be able to borrow money but if that is a possibility you need to seriously consider it. I have borrowed money from my parents during job searches. Treat this money with the utmost respect and make sure you don’t waste it on things outside of getting your next job. Figure out how to make every dollar stretch, and use the money only on things that are critical.

job search when you are broke prioritize your spending

And, make sure paying the loan back is your number one priority, as much as possible.

For me, borrowing money is hard. I don’t want to be a taker. I don’t want to feel needy. But there are times in life when I’ve learned I need to humble myself and just realize I can’t do everything on my own. I need to remember I need help. And, I come to realize people are willing to help me. It helps that I haven’t taken advantage of people, and that I pay people back as soon as I can.

But when you are in transition, when your paycheck has run out, when you risk losing your stuff (car, house, etc.), and when the financial burden is so overwhelming, it makes sense to reach out for a lifeline. Maybe you borrow $100 for five strategic lunch meetings or new clothes for the interview. I’m not saying to borrow thousands to finance your life and pay for multiple streaming services, I’m talking about borrowing money for things that can help you land your next job and help you get back on your feet financially.

I know this is hard. I’ve had this conversation a few times, asking for a loan. My parents wisely consider this a gift, expecting to not see the money every again (although I pay them back every time).

As someone who has helped my kids and some close friends, I do the same. I’m anxious to help, if I can, and I’m not going to let a small loan get in the way of our relationship. But be careful… not everyone feels that way. Just be responsible and respectful. And if you ask, and they say no, respect that, too.

Job Search When You Are Broke: Win the Mental Game of Have vs. Have Not

Isn’t it amazing that when we don’t have something we can tend to focus or fixate on it, or on getting it? I’ve been thinking about this for the last few weeks… trying to be really purposeful about what I have in my life and cutting down on the feelings of “if I only had this, then I could…” or “If I could just buy a ___ I’d be happier.”

These are self-defeating thoughts.

A job seeker might say, “If I only had ____ then I could do ____ and then get my job!”

To others, this sounds like excuses. Weak excuses. But these feelings can consume us!

job search when broke consumed with jealousy

As I was driving around town the other day thinking about this I realized that the best way I’ve found to combat those feelings is to focus on what I have, the good I have, the tools I have, instead of thinking about the things I don’t have.

I have email, I have a phone, I can talk to people, I have plenty of work asking for introductions and following up. I need to focus on getting to work and not wish I could have a lunch meeting every day. Lunch meetings, by the way, take a lot of time… for me it is about 30+ minutes to get ready, 20+ minutes to get to the restaurant, an hourish there, and 20+ minutes to get home. I’m spending over 2 hours, over 25% of my productive day, on one lunch?

I have a friend who would schedule four or five lunches a day at the same restaurant… same table. I recently went to breakfast with someone who did the same thing: he scheduled another breakfast with someone else right after I left. This optimizes those meetings since you don’t have to travel between meetings.

All I can say here is to shift your focus to what you have and get to work. I find that when I do that I push out any time or mental bandwidth to think, “oh, poor me, I don’t have enough money to do a proper job search, so I’m at a disadvantage and can’t do a good job search.”

Job Search When You Are Broke: Do a lot of Self-learning

When I lost my job in 2006 I hadn’t even heard of this whole industry called “outplacement.” Basically, companies of a certain size will pay for you to get job search help (resumes, coaching, etc.). The little company I got laid off from gave me a few party gifts (ahem) but outplacement was a multi-thousand dollar benefit and I’m sure they would have never, ever considered it.

I didn’t know what I was missing so I just went where I could: online. Unfortunately, I went in with some bad assumptions, so my information gathering phase was pretty light. It wasn’t until I was on a fast path to failure that I slowed down and tried to figure out what I was doing well and what I was doing wrong.

job search when you are broke pondering analyzing

My advice now, especially to people who can’t afford any help (outplacement, a coach, a counselor, a resume professional) is to realize that you are the most important person in this process, and that you need to own every bit of it.

That doesn’t mean you have to do this alone. I’ve spoken across the U.S. and it’s not hard to find free job search help. There are governments (usually state government but sometimes county), churches (“job ministries”), and unaffiliated volunteers who have found a venue but have meetings and resources to help anyone.

The Twin Cities area (Minneapolis and St. Paul) have an AMAZING collection of job search and professional networking resources they’ve been nurturing over the years. Houston, Atlanta, East Bay (by San Francisco) have free weekly network meetings for job seekers that can easily see hundreds of people every week. I spoke at one in the backwoods in Maryland where only six people came, but the host was clearly there to serve and help each person.

Find these free resources. Use them. Appreciate them. And maybe, once you land, figure out how you can support them (with money, volunteering, or at the very least being available for an informational interview or coffee chat with their job seekers).

If you have a hard time attending in person, look for online zoom meetings.

Complement your self-study with these resources. But make sure you do a lot of studying. It might sound like a waste of time but you should come up to speed on job search tactics. Find some networking books, read blog posts, watch videos or courses (my job search courses I recommend here).

I have a free six-session series here: Seminar: Job Search and Career. Study, learn, and don’t move forward on outdated assumptions and ideas.

Job Search When You Are Broke: Recheck Your Finances

I don’t want to sound too simple but, what can you eliminate out of your budget?

job search when you are broke check your budget

It’s embarrassing to cancel monthly payments to people, say little Johnny’s piano teacher, but if you need to then you need to!

Years ago my son was in Taekwondo when my wife and I decided to put it on hold until we could get in a better place financially. He was very motivated to work towards his black belt and was doing an excellent job. But we just couldn’t afford to keep him in.

So we quit and disappeared for a year or two. When we went back the excellent master said that if we were struggling financially we should have just let him know, and he’d work something out, but he really wanted my son to continue. My son’s interest and talent were definitely there and his master recognized that.

Talk to people you owe or pay money to, let them know about your situation, and let them know you need to take a break. You’ll feel so free when you free up some of your expenses.

One of the most important questions you need to ask yourself, as a job seeker, is #1 on this post: 14 Critical Job Search Questions to Ask Yourself. The question is:

  1. What is your financial runway?

Read that post to read my thoughts on it. You can increase your runway by decreasing your monthly expenses. Some of these will be no-brainers, some will be hard. But we’re in crunch mode. Do what needs to be done.

That’s it. What would you add?