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The sequester’s wide reach

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There’s one thing for certain about the looming federal spending cuts. Even if there’s a deal to avert the blanket cuts, things are going to get financially tight for a lot of people who least expect it.

First, let me just say I dislike the name “sequester.” It’s a cold-sounding word being used for a cold end result. Yes, we need to pay our debts. Yes, the federal government has borrowed too much for too long. But the way politicians — Republicans and Democrats — are handling the so-called budget fix is a poor excuse for a measured and humane way to find the needed cuts.

To sequester means to set apart. And in the context of the budget debate and the scrambling to avoid $1.2 trillion in automatic federal spending cuts, a lot of money will be separated from people who need it.

Perhaps you’re thinking that because you don’t live in or near Washington you won’t be affected. In the week leading up to the day the spending cuts take effect, only a quarter of Americans said they are following the issue very closely, according to a national survey by the Pew Research Center and The Washington Post.

But people, you must pay attention. Your personal finances may play a part in this political drama. The cuts ($85 billion for fiscal 2013) will affect more than just the government employees who may get furloughed or lose their jobs. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the sequester could result in a loss of about 750,000 jobs this year. And although the cuts will fall heavily on public-sector workers, they will be felt across all sectors, the National Women’s Law Center points out.

If President Obama and Congress don’t reach an agreement to reduce the deficit, 40 percent of Americans say it would be better to let the automatic spending cuts go into effect, according to Pew. Just 30 percent of those surveyed thought their own personal finances would be harmed in a major way.

But there are side effects to sequestration. “The indiscriminate cuts have the potential to stall the beginnings of economic recovery because lost jobs and reduced assistance mean people will have less to spend,” a report by the Coalition on Human Needs concluded.

When people’s salaries are reduced or they lose their jobs, they have no choice but to cut. They stop shopping or eating out. They ditch vacation plans. They also cancel the services of others. All those cuts can lead to other furloughs or job losses.

During a recent online discussion, I received this thoughtful yet haunting note from someone anticipating being furloughed: “In the past, the potential sequestration and furloughs would have me stressed out beyond words. But thanks to you, we’re in an OK place. We have no debt other than our mortgage, we have some emergency funds, and we’ve got things we can cut back on. My problem is that I really feel badly about having to cancel the housecleaners we have, because I know money is tight for them.”

I don’t have a problem with people spending for such services if, as this reader has done, they are doing a great many things right financially.

Yet for many, the spending cuts will hit much harder and deeper than concern about canceling housekeeping services. For those Americans, it’s a matter of finding the money for basic needs such as housing and utilities.

With so much to lose, many people are asking me what they should do.

Don’t assume you won’t be affected.

Whether the cuts are delayed during a last-minute deal or take effect immediately, cuts are coming. Whether it’s now or later, many people will have to deal with some financial shortfall.

My advice? Plan for the worst and hope for the best.

Meticulously comb your budget. Every personal expense should be considered for elimination or reduction. Figure out the minimum it takes to run your household without all the frills you’ve been used to. Should you get laid off, it will help you from scoffing at jobs offering much less than what you used to earn.

If you’ve been promising to start or increase an emergency fund, do it now. Add up what it takes to run your household for a month, then save for as many months as you can.

If you’ve been on an aggressive debt-reduction plan, stop. Your goal is to stockpile cash and lots of it. Make just the minimum payments or stick to your regular payment schedule.

And yes, until times become plenty again, feel bad for others, because that’s the humane thing to do. But cut the services that you can’t or won’t be able to afford.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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