How to Make the Most of Your Unemployment Benefits

Unemployment benefits can be essential if you have lost your job and need financial support. Here are expert tips to help you maximize your unemployment checks.

Losing your job is stressful, and unemployment benefits can help you stay afloat while you look for another job. The pandemic saw record levels of unemployment, with nearly 23 million Americans collecting unemployment benefits in 2020, according to numbers by the U.S. Department of Labor. While the levels have decreased (the current number of people receiving unemployment benefits as of October 2021 is about 3 million), the overall employment rate is still lower than pre-pandemic levels, according to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

If you find yourself without a job and qualify for unemployment insurance, here are the best practices to follow so you can make the most of the unemployment benefits you receive—and get the maximum amount of money you're eligible for.

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Apply for benefits as soon as you're unemployed.

File a claim with your state's unemployment department as soon as you find yourself without a job. This is because it can take two to three weeks for your claim to be reviewed and verified, and for you to receive your first payment. This way, you get as much support as possible without having to go through all of your own money while you wait for your first unemployment check.

"Starting early is essential so you can get the maximum benefits before you land your next job," says Irene McConnell, executive coach, hiring manager, and managing director at Arielle Executive. You will only receive payments from when you applied for unemployment benefits, not for any weeks before you applied—so be sure to file a claim right away, so you get the full amount you're eligible for.

Once you apply for unemployment benefits and get approved, make sure you certify each week (or once every two weeks depending on the state you live in) to continue receiving checks.

"To maximize the benefits, be careful about your state laws and be vigilant while filing your claims," advises Steve Anevski, CEO and co-founder of staffing platform Upshift. Any errors can delay your payments. You will not get benefits for weeks that you don't certify for.

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Keep track of the jobs you're applying to.

Part of filing your weekly or biweekly claims is showing proof that you are actively looking for a job in the meantime.

"The specifics vary from state to state, but job search records usually require names, dates, addresses, and numbers of all employers contacted, along with the job titles you have applied for," says Dror Zaifman, financial planner and director of digital marketing at fintech company, iCASH.

Keep track of these in a spreadsheet or on paper, so you can provide the information each time you certify for benefits or if the unemployment agency requests to see it.

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If you run out of eligible weeks, apply for an extension.

Unemployment benefit amounts are usually paid to you over period of 26 weeks (though some states have fewer, such as 13 or 16 weeks). If you run out of your benefit amount or exceed the number of weeks, you might be able to apply for an extension. If you're granted the extension, you could receive unemployment benefits for another 13 weeks.

"If the labor market conditions in your state are worse, the extended benefits can be granted for another seven weeks," says McConnell.

Extended benefits are usually granted when a state has high levels of unemployment, according to the Department of Labor. The federal pandemic unemployment benefits extension ended as of September 2021, but check with your state's unemployment agency to see if you might still be eligible for an extension.

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Choose to get your unemployment benefits without taxes withheld.

Ensure you're getting the most money upfront by choosing to have income tax withheld on your unemployment benefits. Just remember: You will have to pay it back later.

"When the next tax season starts, you'll have to pay those taxes," says Justin Nabity, certified financial expert. Still, it can be helpful to receive the maximum amount possible with each unemployment check.

Related: How to Get Federal Help to Pay Your Rent

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