How to Survive a Government Shutdown
Government shutdowns rarely involve quick and smooth resolutions. No one has ever accused the federal government of being light on its feet.
While these annual stare downs over government funding get more and more contentious, the trouble doesn’t have to filter down into your own finances. Though the most recent deadline passed without a shutdown, the same situation could reappear if Congress doesn’t act before the next deadline, Nov. 15.
“The last deadline chaos should serve as a reminder to get your financial ducks in a row,” Joe Camberato, CEO of NationalBusinessCapital.com, said. “Start by establishing an emergency fund. It’s a financial lifeline when you’re facing uncertainty.
“Beyond that, try to pay down credit card debt to give yourself more financial flexibility in case the unexpected occurs. Even if you don’t end up needing it, it’s a move that can also improve your credit score.”
That advice applies to all consumers, but especially if you’re one of the 2.2 million federal employees and 1.7 million active military, whose paychecks are threatened. There are places to go that can help you stay afloat financially.
“There are a range of government programs that can provide a safety net during a shutdown,” Camberato said. “You’ve got unemployment insurance for replacing lost income. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for assistance with food costs. Medicaid to cover medical expenses, and various housing support programs.
“However, you may not need these if you’ve done some financial preparation for such emergency situations.”
Unfortunately, many workers have not. In the Federal Reserve Board’s 2023 report, 63% of adults said they could cover a hypothetical $400 emergency expense using cash or its equivalent. That’s down 5% from 2021.
Only 14% said they could handle an emergency expense between $100-$499, while 18% said the largest expense they could cover with savings was under $100.
That’s a lot of people on razor’s edge financially. It wouldn’t take too many missed paychecks to disrupt a family’s economic stability, even if those paychecks are later reinstated.
What Is a Government Shutdown?
A government shutdown occurs when Congress doesn’t approve funding for the federal government by the Oct. 1 fiscal year deadline. By law, federal agencies can’t spend or obligate any money without an appropriation from Congress.
There are 12 annual appropriation bills that set the funding levels for federal agencies. If Congress fails to enact some by the Oct. 1 deadline, a partial government shutdown occurs. If it fails to enact any of the 12, a full government shutdown occurs, and federal agencies must cease non-essential functions until Congress acts.
There have been three shutdowns since 2013, including the longest one in history – 34 days – in 2018-2019.
Who Is Affected by a Government Shutdown?
Non-essential federal workers are furloughed in a shutdown while essential workers – law enforcement, active military, TSA, air traffic controllers – continue to work, but without pay.
Though a 2019 law mandates furloughed workers receive retroactive pay when they return to work, a pay interruption could severely disrupt a family, especially one carrying mortgage and credit card debt.
Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are not funded through appropriation bills and thus are not affected. The U.S. Post Office uses its own revenue stream and also isn’t affected.
Some 2.1 million active-duty military members and reservists would go without a paycheck with ripple effects spreading to family members, veterans and others who are part of the country’s defense network.
The U.S. Travel Association estimates the travel sector could lose roughly $140 million a day during the shutdown.
Some national parks may remain open, but visitor centers and facilities are closed in a shutdown.
Recipients of federal food assistance programs such as WIC and SNAP benefits could be affected if the shutdown lasts for a significant period of time.
Tips for Surviving a Government Shutdown
The last government shutdown, in the Trump administration, was the longest at 34 days.
A month without a paycheck could cause you to miss a mortgage or car payment. The expectation of retroactive pay might ease the stress of a shutdown, but a missed paycheck can have serious consequences.
It’s important to have a proactive plan and not just sit back and wait for an agreement to fund the government. Ten steps to take to manage your finances:
1. Review Your Government Payment Needs
What percentage of your family income will be interrupted during a shutdown? What percentage of your bills do you pay with the government income you’ll have to do without?
Will the person missing a paycheck be asked to work through the shutdown? Or will they be furloughed and have the opportunity to earn money through a side job?
Minus that paycheck, and depending on the household income, a family might qualify for help for low-income Americans. There is more help out there for people with disabilities and several programs for those in need, everything from single parents to those having trouble paying their electric bill to programs offering help for seniors and widows.
2. Contact Your Creditors
If you are going to miss payments on credit cards, home or auto loans or any other monthly obligations, call your card company or bank or credit union. Explain your situation and ask them for temporary relief.
If you’re expecting the Mr. Potter villain from “It’s A Wonderful Life” on the line you might be surprised. Many are willing to help.
3. Create an Emergency Budget
The government distinguishes between essential workers and non-essential workers. Do the same with your expenses.
Ask yourself what creditors have to be paid immediately? Who can we put off for a month or two? Do we really need both cars? Should we eat all meals at home?
In order to cut your expenses, you need an accurate accounting of them.
“Be precise (in your accounting),” Camberato said. “You want calculated decisions, not wild guesses.”
4. Identify Community Resources
Look for a food bank where you can get donated or reduced-priced food. Are there thrift stores in your area? Good quality clothing and other merchandise is donated every day at Goodwill and other thrift stores. See if civic groups or churches help with utility bills.
5. Find Professional Financial Assistance
A free phone call to a nonprofit credit counseling agency can help you review your budget, your debts and assist in devising an affordable consolidated repayment program.
“They can offer guidance, help set up a budget, and sometimes work better terms with lenders, helping you find a way out of the debt maze,” Jeff Rose, founder of GoodFinancialCents.com, said.
6. Discover Income Opportunities
Some federal employees deemed “essential” must continue to work through a government shutdown while others are furloughed.
Depending on your situation, investigating a side job that fits your schedule can help you pay the bills and maybe even lead to a permanent gig when the shutdown ends.
If you have maintenance skills that would be useful around a home or apartment such as painting or carpentry, ask your landlord to trade them in lieu of rent. Consider delivering pizzas or becoming an Uber, Lyft or Amazon Flex driver.
7. Sell Unused Items
Social media sites such as eBay and Facebook Marketplace make it easier than ever to sell those golf clubs gathering cobwebs in the garage or the baby clothes and toys your child has outgrown.
Nearly everyone has something of value – furniture, musical instruments, collectibles – that could be sold.
8. Use Your Accounts Wisely
The money you’ve painstakingly saved is no doubt a temptation in a prolonged government shutdown or a particularly dry stretch between income opportunities.
If you must tap into your savings, do so wisely. Start with your savings account, where withdrawals carry no penalty, and the transactions are typically completed quickly.
There are tax implications and penalties associated with other accounts such as CDs (unless it’s a no-penalty CD), IRAs and 401(k)s. Taking withdrawals from those accounts costs you in penalties and taxes and also in compound interest.
What about personal loans?
“Be cautious about that, and ideally, use that option only as a last resort,” Camberato said. “Taking out a loan during a financial challenge can complicate matters, especially if the situation goes on longer than expected.
“You certainly don’t want to find yourself struggling to repay the borrowed amount during a difficult time. If you decide to go this route, create a detailed forecast using all available information to make sure you can manage the loan responsibly.”
9. Review Travel Plans
Travel is costly. The money you’ll spend on airlines, hotels, food and transportation could easily add up to a mortgage payment or more.
Travel can also be fraught with stress and airline delays given the shortage of TSA agents that routinely occur in government shutdowns.
National park services were also disrupted during the last government shutdown. Take stock of how the shutdown is affecting various travel sectors before venturing out.
10. Avoid Large Purchases
If you can, of course.
A friend and her husband, both federal employees, needed a new HVAC system a few months ago. They had no choice. For obvious reasons, they have concerns about how a prolonged government shutdown could tax their finances with a large chunk of their emergency fund gone to an essential purchase.
In general, though, it’s wise to hold off on purchases like cars and spending on home renovations – or any large purchase that requires financing.
Many businesses stepped forward with offers to assist federal workers through the last shutdown in 2018. Phone companies like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint made a “flexible” payment plan that included dealing with late charges.
Several utility companies made similar pitches and credit unions stepped in with options to take short-term, 0% interest loans or skip payments for a month.
Help is out there. Whether you’re a federal employee or not, financial challenges are disruptive and it’s crucial to have a plan that’s nimbler than the federal government.
About The Author
In his 40-plus-year newspaper career, George Morris has written about just about everything -- Super Bowls, evangelists, World War II veterans and ordinary people with extraordinary tales. His work has received multiple honors from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press and the Louisiana Press Association. He avoids debt when he can and pays it off quickly when he can't, and he's only too happy to suggest how you might do the same.
- Terkel, A. Carman, J. (2023, September 27) See how long past shutdowns lasted – and which parties were in power. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/government-shutdowns-how-long-lasted-years-parties-power-rcna117508
- N.A. (2023, September 27) Government shutdown to begin Sunday if no deal is reached. What to expect. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/live-blog/government-shutdown-begin-sunday-live-updates-rcna105685
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