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New lessons, and new jobs

After spending most of the year desperate for employment, Bobbie and Juan Wilson and Rick Rose - the participants in the 2009 Color of Money Challenge - are working full time again.

They all have jobs.

After spending most of the year desperate for employment, Bobbie and Juan Wilson and Rick Rose - the participants in the 2009 Color of Money Challenge - are working full time again.

For this Challenge, I decided to focus specifically on people who had lost their jobs. The Wilsons and Rose agreed at the beginning of the year to allow me to follow them as they looked for work. They opened up their financial lives, revealing the things they did right and wrong, all of which made dealing with their job losses easier and harder at times.

Today, the Wilsons and Rose are grateful they will no longer be counted among the millions who are out of work.

"I'm just glad we finished the series with everybody finding work," said Rose, who was hired in August as marketing and communications manager for a new partnership between the Brookings Institution and the John M. Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis.

Part of what I did with the participants was look at how they handled their money before their unemployment. Rose was a good money manager, although he could have been saving more for retirement.

The Wilsons, like many Americans, used credit too much and didn't budget.

What all the participants learned was that whatever they did wrong before they lost their jobs, it was magnified once the regular paychecks stopped coming.

"I feel like a lot of money was wasted because we didn't know where it was going," Juan Wilson said.

Over the year, I showed the Wilsons how to budget. Together they used to earn $98,000 a year and yet had little saved. They often had several hundred dollars a month in overdraft fees.

I put the Wilsons on the envelope system. Aside from some bill-paying online, they started putting into envelopes money from Bobbie's paralegal job. The envelopes were labeled with whatever expense they had to cover. I told the couple to put the debit cards away because they weren't coordinating with each other before pulling money out of their bank account. I also recommended that they meet once a week to talk about their budget. This is especially important when funds are tight.

The couple are no longer paying overdraft fees. They meet every Wednesday to discuss what bills have to be paid. They've decided to save what Juan earns to help build an emergency fund. They are finally working as a team.

"I honestly believe that without this help setting up a budget, Juan and I would not be together today," Bobbie Wilson said. "I actually do not miss our debit cards. I don't miss the credit cards. I don't miss any of it. I have definitely realized from this year that we need to have savings to make it through anything that happens."

The unemployment was hardest on Juan.

"As a man, you feel disgusted when you can't find work," he said.

Wilson had hoped to find employment in the information technology field, and he's taking courses to help prepare him to become a Cisco Certified Network Associate. For now, he's happy that he landed a night-shift warehouse job earning $10 an hour.

"I feel good," he said. "I need the money, and I'm still looking for a job in the computer field. But at least I have something."

In many respects, the Wilsons and Rose were representative of the unemployment trends that have developed as a result of the recession.

Rose reflected the upward trend of long-term unemployment. It took him 15 months to find a job. The median duration of unemployment was 20.1 weeks as of November, up from 9.9 weeks in November 2008. The average duration of unemployment is now 28.5 weeks, up from 19.2 a year ago.

"Resilience is important," Rose said. "I feel like I'm in a good spot and at a kind of place were I can flourish professionally."

The Wilsons typified people who take any work they can get, including part-time jobs and contract work. Juan and Bobbie both worked part time when they couldn't find full-time employment.

The number of people working part time for economic reasons was 9.2 million last month, according to the Labor Department. These workers were settling for fewer hours because their jobs had been cut back or because they were unable to find a full-time job.

Bobbie Wilson is working as a contract paralegal. Her contract has been extended, but she doesn't know for how long.

"Not being permanent causes me a lot of anxiety sometimes," she said.

Although the unemployment rate, now at 10 percent, is edging down, there are still 15.4 million people out of work, more than twice the number in December 2007, when the jobless rate was 4.9 percent.

"This year has been tough," Bobbie Wilson said. "It's rough out here no matter what they are saying on the news."

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail address is Reader can also follow her on Twitter at: SingletaryM. Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

(c) 2009, Washington Post Writers Group