More than 800,000 government workers have been sent home without pay as some federal agencies, national parks and programs closed Tuesday after Congress was unable to agree on a budget.
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It remains unclear on how long parts of the government will remain closed as political bickering remains heated on Capitol Hill. It’s been almost two decades since the last shutdown, and some experts say this closure could last two weeks or longer.
“It’s true we’ve had shutdowns before, but we’ve never before had a Congress so divided,” says Jim Heafner, president of financial planning firm Heafner Financial Solutions. “Worker needs to play it safe and plan for being without an income for a long time. This could be over tomorrow, but I’ve never seen the contentiousness we have now in Congress.”
Government workers deemed “non-essential” aren’t allowed to come to work until Congress passes a budget. The government's fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, and it has nearly 3 million civilian employees on payroll. During the stoppage, furloughed workers aren’t allowed to come to work—even voluntarily—and are prohibited from using their government-issued smartphones or computers.
For workers sent home, it is unclear whether they will receive retroactive pay. The last shutdown occurred in 1996 and lasted 21 days, and affected workers were given retroactive back pay. However, the decision is at Congress’s discretion, and expert say the tight budget might make back pay a less-than- certain guarantee.
To continue to make ends meet during their time out of the office, financial experts recommend workers create a budget that lists all of the expenses from the last two months in addition to revenue sources. Once everything is laid out, prioritize all essential costs and identify any spending that can be cut.
“We find that 90% of the people we work with have never taken pen to paper to find out how much they are spending,” says David Flores, a counselor with GreenPath Debt Solutions. “When they do, almost everybody discovers they are spending a lot more than they realized and find many areas of where they can cut back.”
The furloughs are the latest blow to federal workers that have also had their pay frozen at 2010 levels with no cost-of-living increases. To help keep their heads above water, financial experts offered the following budget tips to furloughed workers.
Talk with Your Family. Communication is key to make sure everyone understands the new income situation and knows it’s time to tighten the belt, says Heafner. “Discuss the new budget and spending expectations, lay everything out on the table to make sure everyone understands what’s happening.”
Get Lean. Take a good look at the budget and find any areas that can be cutback. Flores suggests looking at memberships that aren’t being used or can be put on hold until the paycheck returns, and re-evaluate any magazine or newspaper subscriptions that could be found online at a cheaper price.
The key to making significant cutbacks is being honest with what is labeled as essential spending. “Groceries are essential, but is that 15-pack of chips essential? Not really,” says Flores. “Get picky, really start comparing prices and looking for sales.”
Use Credit Cards Right. Everyone knows they should have an emergency fund that covers three to six months of spending in case of an emergency, but that’s rarely the case, says Tom Karsten, president of Karsten Advisors in Fort Worth, Texas. Workers relying on credit cards to make ends meet during the furlough should use cards with the lowest interest rate and only put necessary items on the card.
Delay Big Purchases. To avoid racking up debt, Karsten suggests pushing off big purchases during this time of uncertainty. “If the washer machine breaks, now is not the time to buy a new one, just get by with a laundromat until you have more clarity.”
Call Creditors. Flores says it’s always worthwhile to call creditors and utilities companies in a crisis situation to ask for payment postponement or any other available help.
“In particular, with credit cards, a lot of holders are paying for insurances for just this situation,” he says. “People pay $5, $12 a month to cover surprises like an unexpected layoff and don’t even know it; it might be handy to look at the bills to see what you are paying for and ask for the coverage.”
Consider Part-Time Work. If there’s any upside to the government slimdown, it’s the timing, says Karsten. “Depending on how long this goes, now is the time of year retailers are looking to add seasonal workers which can help bring in a temporary income while lawmakers sort out their problems.”
Watch for Fraud. Unfortunately in the event of any crisis, scammers look to take advantage of vulnerable consumers.
"Be careful of fraud. Whenever there is panic or crisis, there are too-good-to-be-true deals that scammers market to the unsuspecting," says Heafner.