How to Survive a Government Shutdown: from a fed in the trenches
While the timing of a government shutdown, and subsequent furlough, is never ideal, this particular shutdown could likely not have come at a more inopportune time for the majority of federal workers. The weekend before Christmas, when many have spent a substantial sum on food, gifts, and travel, not to mention the start of a new year. When most are looking forward to spending time celebrating with loved ones and setting goals for 2019, many federal workers are feeling the effects of a spending hangover or are caught in a holding pattern as they wait to see what the immediate future holds.
Trust me. I’ve been here before and I’m here with you now. I went through a shutdown and furlough for sixteen days back in 2013. In fact, federal furloughs have plagued many administrations and are far more common than most people think. Over the years, I’ve come up with a few ways to make the effects of a furlough and the lag in pay a bit more bearable. So without further ado, here are the steps I take when faced with a lapse in pay.
Yes, you read that correctly. Cry. Feel free to let it all out and take the time to whine, vent, and complain to a coworker, family member, friend, dog, or therapist. Feel better? Now that it’s out of your system, it’s time to pick yourself up and move forward. No more wallowing. I know it’s scary, but take a deep breath. We’ll get through this together.
Take a look at your deductions:
During most federal furloughs, it is common for employees to receive one last partial or full paycheck after the shutdown has been announced. Use this time to your advantage by logging into your self-management account and taking a look at your current withholdings. Some steps you could consider taking are reducing your 401k/TSP contribution to the minimum that your employer is willing to match. For example, if you regularly contribute 15% of your pay, but your employer only matches 5%, consider lowering this check’s contribution to 5%.
You might also consider punching in Code 99 on your tax withholding to ensure that all of your hard earned cash from this last check is deposited into your bank account rather than the government’s tax coffers. After all, if they aren’t paying you, why should you pay them?
*If you take these measures, do not forget to log back in and adjust your withholdings to the normal settings once the crisis has been averted. Otherwise, you will be faced with a sad investment account and a large tax bill come next year. These are drastic measures and best avoided if at all possible.
Trim the fat:
As we near the first of the year, it’s always a good idea to take a look at your finances and decided what particular goals you want to work toward in the next twelve months. A furlough gives you even more reason to evaluate your financial situation. Take a good, long, hard look at your current budget and decide which categories are essential and which you can go without. I’ll give you a hint; food, shelter, medical care, and basic clothing are the only true essentials. This doesn’t mean you have to forgo unnecessary spending forever, but it can help you to define your priorities during the current state of affairs.
I actually have two different budgets; one for emergencies, when saving money is crucial and another for when my income and cash are flowing as usual. For instance, I’ll continue paying my mortgage, utilities, buying groceries, and taking my pets to the vet as scheduled during the furlough. I will however, be postponing buying new clothes, books, and events like going to the movies until my pay schedule returns to normal.
I also find it can be helpful to create a wishlist of all the things I want to buy, but deem nonessential. I often find that I no longer want the item after waiting a bit, but either way the list is there if there is something I decided to postpone purchasing.
Ask for help:
Believe it or not, there are some banks that will continue to deposit the typical amount of an employee’s paycheck into their account during a furlough. If your bank does not offer this service and you need the cash, it never hurts to ask if they would be willing to extend this courtesy.
While your at it, you may also want to contact your mortgage company and other financial institutions to see if they would be willing to accept delayed payments without penalty. Some mortgage companies have been known to postpone payments until the end of a furlough, when pay resumes.
Get to work:
I am considered an essential employee so I will be showing up to work as scheduled. I have often found that morale and camaraderie are significantly higher during these times. People have a tendency to band together and help one another out because they know that everyone is facing similar difficulties.
For those who are considered nonessential and are faced with copious amounts of free time, the same rule applies. Use this time productively. Take advantage of the extra time you are able to spend with loved ones this holiday season. Get to work on that project you’ve been promising yourself you would start, but never seem to have time for. You might also consider using your free time to volunteer or help someone who might actually have it worse off than you (they’re out there, I assure you). I’ve found that focusing on helping others is one of the best ways to prevent myself from ruminating on my own problems.
Remember this too shall pass:
It may take a while for the politicians in Washington to get their priorities straight, but like all things, furloughs eventually pass and if past shutdowns are any indication, federal employees will receive backpay for the time they spent working or waiting it out at home. Though it’s certainly a terrible inconvenience, we will all get through this and our lives will go back to business as usual. At least until the next government shutdown, but you’ll be ready for that one!