Unemployed (or Preparing to Be)? These Sites Could Be Your Best Friends

As the economy continues to suffer, many people are cutting their budgets, looking for work, or preparing a plan of action in case a layoff comes. Fortunately, the Web offers some powerful new tools to help with those tasks. After asking some experts and a number of unemployed friends for recommendations, I put together a list of sites that can truly make a difference, whether you're conducting or anticipating a job search, or just trying to tighten the purse strings during these bad economic times.

Quicken Online

If your job does go away, a smart first step is to declare martial law on your budget, paring down or eliminating all but the most essential expenses. I've never (seriously) maintained a personal budget, but doing so will likely be one of the new experiences this downturn introduces me to. Since I'm unlikely to cut my broadband connection until I'm literally starving, I looked for a solid (and free) online budgeting tool--one that could pull information from elsewhere on the Web, and that was accessible from anywhere.

I settled on Intuit's basic and free Quicken Online service. The setup took all of 3 minutes, and before I knew it the service was pulling my income and expense information from the last nine months from my online bank account. The service reads every line item and intelligently applies a category to each (rent, food, entertainment, income, and so on), and then it charts where your money is going and gives you ideas on what you can cut back or eliminate. Quicken miscategorized a few of my entries, but correcting them was a snap. The service also sets up a series of alarms and reminders for when your bills are due, so that you never incur another late charge. You can have the reminders sent to your e-mail or to your cell phone--and yes, there's an iPhone app. (Also recommended: Mint.)

LinkedIn JobsInsider

One of the greatest comforts if you are unemployed (or if you're anticipating that you will be soon) is having a strong network of professional and social friends. Networking on sites such as LinkedIn, which focuses on career-related social networking, can be a powerful way to spread the word that you are looking for work, to advertise your expertise, to get difference-making recommendations from friends, and to find out about job opportunities.

But you already know that. What's new is that LinkedIn is developing some cool tools to help you while you're hunting for job opportunities. The company has introduced a downloadable browser add-on called LinkedIn JobsInsider that tells you, in a pane at the left side of your browser window, when you have a LinkedIn contact who might be able to help you with specific jobs you've found while searching on job boards (like Monster, for example). Whether you have an "in" with a particular employer can make the difference between expending effort in pursuing the opportunity or spending time looking for something better.

"In fact, one LinkedIn contact can make all the difference in the world," says Julie Erich, an insurance industry recruiter based in San Francisco. "Put yourself in the shoes of the hiring manager who has 200 resumes on her desk. She is busy and is looking for ways to reduce that pile to set of solid finalists who will make it to the second round." The mention of a mutual friend, in the real world or on LinkedIn, can cause the hiring manager to move your resume to the top of the pile, Erich says. "It can get you an interview, [whereas] without that mutual friend you might have been lost in the stack."

As you might imagine, LinkedIn and sites like it have seen a dramatic uptick in popularity since the economy took a nosedive. A spokesperson told me that LinkedIn has seen a 65 percent increase in recommendations (your friends/contacts saying nice things about you at your profile page) since December 2008. Meanwhile, she says, the number of applicants per job listing on LinkedIn has doubled over the last 6 months, while the number of job listings has plummeted. These days, a new member is signing up with LinkedIn at a rate of one per second.

SimplyHired

You've already heard about the large employment sites, such as CareerBuilder, HotJobs, and Monster. I'm not a big believer in such sites, and I don't often hear people talking about how wonderful any one of them is. Instead I recommend a relative newcomer called SimplyHired, a startup with financial backing from News Corporation, which owns Fox Networks.

SimplyHired does for (to?) job sites what Kayak does for travel sites: It aggregates job listings from all over the Web, including from the big sites. SimplyHired now lists about 4 million jobs. I did a few sample searches on the site for marketing positions, and saw openings from perhaps ten different job boards, along with postings that came directly from the hiring companies. The listings give the basic information about the opportunity, and then link you out to the listing at the hiring company's site or at the job board.

I like the fact that SimplyHired takes advantage of the job data it aggregates to benefit its users. For instance, the site mines the data to produce both salary averages and employment trends (the number of opportunities listed month-to-month, for instance) for the type of job you're looking for. SimplyHired also offers a couple of tools that seem to be more than window dressing. One is a Google Maps mashup where you can plot out various commutes to the same job--pretty useful, since the commute is an obvious factor in deciding whether to pursue a particular job listing.

DesperateDollars

DesperateDollars is filled with ideas for making money if you find yourself in really dire straits--things like getting tattoos for money, growing and selling your own food, doing for-pay surveys and secret-shopping assignments, volunteering for paid clinical tests, or donating sperm, blood, or hair. The site isn't the prettiest thing in the world to look at, but I found the assortment of money-making ideas entertaining, as well as somewhat of a comfort: It's a reminder that the world doesn't end if you lose your job. With a little creativity, in times of desperation you can still go out and bring home the bacon.

Free Napkin

FreeNapkin is like an eBay for free stuff. The site is a magnet for two types of people: folks looking for an easy way to recycle stuff they don't need by finding a new home for it, and those who are trying to cut costs by getting used stuff for free instead of going out and buying it. The "givers" post pictures and information about the items they want to dump, and the first FreeNapkin "claimer" to call dibs on the item wins it. The claimer pays the shipping on the item, or picks it up in person (the site filters the donations by city).

People have given away everything from dogs to farm equipment on FreeNapkin. I've never donated or claimed anything on FreeNapkin; but judging by the number of listings, the site seems to work well. FreeNapkin is no marvel of fancy Web design, but it gets bonus points for hitting squarely on the need to conserve and reuse things in tough economic times.

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