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Fired? Don't panic — plan

TODAY Financial Editor Jean Chatzky says losing your job doesn't have to be a diaster.
/ Source: TODAY

A few years ago, actress Annabelle Gurwitch — whom you probably know best from her years hosting "Dinner and a Movie" on TBS — was fired from an off-Broadway play by none other than Woody Allen.

Tough stuff, so of course she wallowed for a little while. But once she started to tell her tale around town she learned that not only had pretty much everyone experienced the hatchet, many people were willing to talk about it.

Result: Gurwitch's new book, "Fired! Tales of the Canned, Cancelled, Downsized and Dismissed" and the Showtime documentary that parallels it.

"So many people are finding themselves out of a job these days. It's happening across the country, because jobs have gone overseas and companies are downsizing. It's really a universal thing," said Gurwitch, who interviewed dozens of interesting (and funny) people for her projects including Felicity Huffman, Bill Maher, Bob Saget and "Super Size Me"'s Morgan Spurlock.

I've certainly been there. If you haven't — well, I hate to say it, but there's a pretty good chance you will be some day. In fact, even if you have, there's no guarantee it won't happen again. So why not be prepared? Here, a few things to do and know today, just in case ...

  • Being employable is every bit as important as being employed. You may have a job, but that doesn't mean you won't need another one in the future, as Gurwitch and others have learned the hard way. So don't sit back and let your resume gather dust.
    Not only will constantly updating it be more effective than struggling to remember your accomplishments, but you'll have a clean copy ready and waiting for you if you ever need it. This also means you may need to take a class or two to maintain skills you have, but aren't currently using.

  • By the same token, keep in touch with your contacts. "It's a smart strategy to keep your network going all the time, so consistently check in with old bosses and old colleges," advised Robin Ryan, career counselor and author of "60 Seconds and You're Hired." Often old contacts are the best source for new opportunities.

  • Have a cushion for the blow. I can't stress it enough — having a financial cushion, an emergency fund, is key to weathering a job loss. You should be automatically contributing to a savings or money market account each month, so you have some cash — about six months' worth — tucked away for situations just like this.
  • But there are other ways to prepare for a lay-off as well, and at the top of that list is staying informed. It is simply not fun to be the last to know when you're getting the boot. Sometimes there just isn't any warning, but more often there are signs everywhere. "No one can get away with being complacent anymore," said Gurwitch. "You have to really follow what's going on in the news and in your industry." In this age of mergers, layoffs and downsizing, checking the business pages daily will definitely put you a step ahead.

  • Don't burn your bridges. As tempting as it is to scream and cry as you walk out the door, restrain yourself. You are very likely going to need these people for a reference, especially because you are now officially on the job market. Perhaps more than that, though, is the fact that people in your industry know, and talk to, other people in your industry. If you make an embarrassing exit, it isn't going to stay within your office. Word will rapidly spread to other companies -- your potential employers.

  • Take some time to think. First, go ahead and have a good cry — you deserve it — or punch something, preferably something lifeless. Then it's time to take action, and that starts with figuring out what exactly went wrong. Was it the company, or the work you were producing? Are your skills on par with the demands of your supervisor? Be honest —sugar coating the facts won't help in the long run.

  • Dig in. It's time to hit the job boards running, but do it wisely. Resume blasting — sending the same resume and cover letter to many companies hoping for a bite —is a bad idea, experts say, as is posting your information on online job boards. Quality is better than quantity, so go to the Web sites of companies or industry organizations that truly interest you, and see if any openings are posted that fit your skills. Also, polish up your tools. You're going to need a cover letter (no form letters allowed -- tailor your letter to each position for the best results), and possibly a refresher course in interviewing, computer skills and negotiating for salary.

Finally, spend the rest of your downtime doing something good for your psyche, exercising perhaps. "You can spend 20 or 25 hours a week looking for a job -- after that, you're wasting your time," Ryan explains.

She also notes that losing your job is one of the most stressful experiences humans undergo, so try to control minor depression by finding something you can not only accomplish —run a 10K, knit a blanket, really training your dog — but that you'll feel good about.

Additional reporting by Arielle McGowen

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .