Note: This story has been updated to include additional responses from USAA.
Ask any financial planner for their best advice, and it probably involves saving.
How they advise you to do that might differ, but for the most part, money experts point to the value of planning and setting aside money for a rainy day, a crisis or — if you’re a federal employee — a loss of income thanks to a government shutdown.
Like hurricane season, it’s a possible disaster that lurks every year, but not every year guarantees a category five storm or a weeks-long shutdown a la 2018. But it’s something you should plan for anyway, said Stephen Zelcer, a financial adviser who has been working federal employees since 2007.
“I wish people would think about this not when they have a whole shutdown [already],” he said in an interview. “This is the type of stuff that forward-thinking planning helps.”
At the beginning of the last prolonged lapse in appropriations five years ago, about 380,000 civil servants were furloughed, while another 420,000 continued working without pay. In a survey by Prudential Financial of more than 300 federal workers or contractors who went unpaid in 2018, nearly half fell behind on their bills during the shutdown.
Federal employees are guaranteed backpay by law, but how that money comes is unpredictable. The legislation says that employees will get their paycheck on the “earliest date possible” after the government reopens, regardless of the next regular scheduled pay date.
And this year, unless Senate Democratic leaders and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., can broker a deal for a short-term budget extension by Oct. 1, all non-funded and non-essential government programs would halt. This could even impact military pay.
“That doesn’t help when your mortgage is due or your electric bill is due,” said Tammy Flanagan, another finance expert with Retire Federal. “So if at all possible, you want to have a cushion of cash set aside for those emergency times, whether it’s a furlough or anything else.”
The case for long-term saving
There are different philosophies about about to save, but Zelcer said a good baseline is to have several weeks or months worth of living expenses put away in the event of a loss of income. That’s a way to buy yourself time when you know you’re just temporarily in limbo, he said.
“So if you’re spending $10,000 a month and you need two months of time to traverse, $10,000 times two, that’s $20,000,” he said. “You need to have that money liquid and available.”
Flanagan acknowledged that saving that aggressively can be hard, especially for younger, less-experienced employees and with inflation making so many other demands of paychecks. So, if employees finds themselves facing a weeks-long furlough and without accessible cash to cover the essentials like rent, food or other bills, Flanagan said to reach out to bill providers and explain the situation.
“Call your mortgage company, call your electric company, and tell them what’s going on and they’ll usually give you some leeway,” she said. “But if you don’t call them and just don’t pay the bill, that can affect not only your credit score, but it can shut off your [utilities], so you want to be proactive on those things.”
Zelcer also encourages employees to diversity their income just like they would their investments. A secondary source of income, like a real estate property or a tutoring or consulting business, is not something that needs to produce the same salary as your current job, necessarily. It can be enough just to supplement it.
USAA members can apply for a no-interest loan equivalent to one missed paycheck (up to $6,000) if they are employed by an impacted federal agency and direct deposit their pay stubs into a USAA Federal Savings Bank account.
These members may also be eligible for a variety of payment relief options across USAA banking and insurance products, a spokesperson for the company said.
A spokesperson for Pentagon Federal said members may qualify for an interest-free loan in the amount of their net pay (up to $6,000) through its government furlough Direct Deposit Assistance program.
PenFed also offers an emergency relief loan at the lowest available rate for a personal loan product. Members do need to qualify for that loan.
And lastly, members who do have existing PenFed loans can take opt into skip-payment assistance if it’s expected to be short-term. Interest does continue to accrue on these loans, but a payment is not required.
Thrift Savings Plan
If there’s a lapse in federal appropriations, the TSP will continue its normal daily operations and the ThriftLine will remain open.
“The TSP will give participants with an outstanding loan a way to notify us that they are impacted so we can keep their loans in good standing through the shutdown,” spokesperson Kim Weaver said. “This includes new loans taken by affected participants during the shutdown, which are allowed based on an exception provided for in TSP regulations.”
Security Service Federal Credit Union
SSFCU, originally opened to serve employees of the U.S. Air Force Security Service Command and today serving more than 800,000 members in the Southwest, does not offer a no-interest loan.
“However in the event of a government shutdown, we work directly with our members impacted to find beneficial solutions for their individual circumstances,” a spokesperson for the company said, which could include adjusted payment due dates or the refinancing of a loan, for example.
A spokesperson for Navy Federal said it is closely monitoring the ongoing government funding negotiations and will provide members additional information as events unfold.
The spokesperson did not offer any current guidance about what kind of assistance may be offered to account holders. However, in 2019, it did circulate guidance on a zero-percent loan program.
As for other lenders who may be advertising low- or no-interest sums in the event of a shutdown, be sure that they are trustworthy, Zelcer said.
Sources of emergency cash
If you need to come into emergency money quickly to keep the lights on, Zelcer said employees can look into promotional credit card offers that will cover transactions with 0% interest for the first year or so.
That can work, Zelcer said, so long as “you enter that with the recognition that you’re just doing this temporarily, and you are very strict with yourself that you’re not going to start building credit card debt.”
Some employees may also look to borrow against their home equity line of credit and then immediately pay it off as interest will accrue, he added.
Every agency also has an employee assistance program that can offer legal or financial advice, Flanagan said.
Employees can also pause largely monthly contributions to a retirement account, like a Roth IRA, if they need to keep that money to tide them over.
“I wouldn’t take out less than the 5% because you don’t want to lose that matching agency money,” Flanagan said. “But if you’re putting in 10% of your pay and you don’t have an emergency fund, maybe drop it down to 5%.”
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.