The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Money moves to make if a shutdown stops your paychecks

Government workers know all too well what it’s like to be furloughed. Whether you’re a federal government worker, contractor or private-sector employee, any disruption in your income can throw you into a panic. (Dayna Smith/for The Washington Post).

Would you be able to survive financially if you suddenly found yourself out of work?

This is a question many people are asking themselves in the new year as they face job losses in both the private and public sectors.

For example, when we hear about a looming government shutdown, we usually think of the legions of federal employees who will be affected. But there are thousands of people working for government contractors who worry that they, too, might be pulled into the political tug-of-war.

If the government closes, many contractors can’t work. And unlike federal employees, they may never get back those lost wages. Some will be able to take leave to ensure they get paid, but that means sacrificing their vacation time.

And let’s not forget that there are thousands of other workers across the country who have been told they’re losing their jobs in the new year.

Last week, Wal-Mart announced it’s closing 63 Sam’s Club stores. It’s unclear at this point how many workers will be affected, because some might be transferred to other locations. Wal-Mart said it will convert up to 12 Sam’s Clubs to eCommerce fulfillment centers for online orders.

Meanwhile, 45 Kmart stores and 18 Sears stores are slated to close this month. And Macy’s expects 5,000 job cuts because of store closings.

Whether you’re a federal government worker, contractor or private-sector employee, any disruption in your income can throw you into a panic. It’s tough making ends meet. More than three-quarters of workers live paycheck to paycheck, according to research by CareerBuilder.

And it’s not just low-earning workers who are worried. One out of 10 survey participants earning $100,000 or more said they usually or always live paycheck to paycheck, as well.

In the CareerBuilder survey, 20 percent of employees said they’ve missed a payment on some smaller bills. Seventy-one percent of workers are in debt.

When you’re faced with a pending disruption in your income or you’ve been laid off, here are four things you must do:

Stop any aggressive debt reduction. Right now, you have to preserve your cash. You can’t afford to pay extra on your debt. You may need that money to keep the lights on or buy food. Concentrate on the essential expenses until you’re past this crisis.

Call your creditors. Put your pride to the side and get on the phone. Call every creditor and ask for a reprieve on paying your bill. Explain your situation and see if you can get a month or even two months of deferral.

Don’t be afraid of being turned down for more time. Better to ask for help than stay silent and suffer as you try to manage bills with money you don’t have.

Cut back on the nonessentials. Here’s something I found astounding in the CareerBuilder survey. There were certain things employees said they would not give up even when faced with a financial hardship. People said they wouldn’t give up cable (21 percent), eating out (19 percent), traveling (17 percent) and buying gifts for others (13 percent).

This is, as the saying goes, doubling down on dumb.

Cut what you can as soon as you can. Actually, lots of people not facing a shutdown or job loss could stand to revisit their budgets to cut the fat. My husband and I spent the last few months of 2017 combing through our budget to trim unnecessary spending. We got rid of subscriptions to magazines we weren’t reading. We changed cable companies to reduce service charges. And if it weren’t for our kids and their threats to smother us in our sleep, we might have gotten rid of our cable altogether.

Talk to somebody. If you’re covered by health care that provides behavior health services, go see a therapist.

My husband is a federal government employee, and the constant shut-down threats are nerve-wracking. And we’ve got emergency funds.

If counseling isn’t covered under your health plan, look for free services in your community. Don’t keep your angst bottled up. My fear is you’ll make some bad financial moves because you’ve got so much pent-up anxiety.

Maybe a federal shutdown will be avoided and a long spending agreement can be reached by the Friday deadline. Or there could be another short-term funding measure that keeps agencies open so that federal workers and contractors can get paid on time. I also certainly hope all the displaced retail workers find jobs quickly. But better to have a plan in case the worst happens.

Read more: 

The next face of poverty could be yours

What do you want to teach your children about money?

Start your new year with these money mantras