Jennifer Roberts’ 11-year-old daughter recently had baseball tryouts. As a growing child, her cleats were too small. Instead of buying her a new pair, Roberts had to tell her daughter to “squeeze in her little toes” and make the cleats work.
Squeezed is how a lot of federal workers and their families are feeling these days.
Roberts’ husband is an essential federal employee who reported to work without pay during the recent record-breaking partial government shutdown. After plowing through their savings, Roberts had to start getting smart with her money, being careful to ensure her family had enough to pay the bills and buy food. That meant skipping such non-essentials as new baseball equipment and a trip to see the new Lego movie.
During the shutdown, the Roberts family blew through their entire savings of $4,800. A new survey from Prudential reveals she isn’t the only one: 62 percent of surveyed federal workers exhausted all or most of their emergency savings during the shutdown.
Roberts works full-time in Orange County, California. She says she’s thankful for her job, but is now faced with the challenge of rebuilding her account. If another shutdown occurs, she may be forced to take a loan from her 401(k).
“It does irritate me that I might have to do that,” Roberts says. “You put that money away for when you’re ready to not work anymore. I’m thankful I have the safety net, but still.”
Another shutdown seems unlikely, but…
The longest shutdown in history is over, but what’s next for federal workers, contractors and their families remains unclear.
The 35-day partial shutdown ended on January 26 with an announcement from President Donald Trump of a temporary deal. Trump, who originally shut down the government amid disputes over funding for a U.S. and Mexico border wall, agreed to temporarily fund the government through Feb. 15 while talks and negotiations continued.
On Feb. 12, lawmakers announced a tentative deal to avoid another shutdown at the end of the week. A final deal is expected only before current funding ran dry.
Trump has expressed his dissatisfaction with the new deal but has indicated he doesn’t want another partial shutdown.
“I can’t say I’m happy,” Trump said in a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, according to the Wall Street Journal. The comment is leaving many uneasy about whether the new deal, which would fund the government through September, will pass.
On Wednesday, CNN reported that Trump intends to sign a border security deal to avoid another shutdown. But families directly impacted by all this aren’t happy with the speculation.
“I don’t know if another shutdown will happen,” Roberts says. “I certainly hope not. I think it’s foolish. If you have people working, they need to be paid. But you just never know.”
Ripple effects from the shutdown still being felt
About 800,000 furloughed federal workers went without two paychecks during the partial shutdown, and are expected to receive back pay. An estimated four million contractors were also out of work during the shutdown, and will not receive back pay.
The Prudential survey found that almost half of survey respondents fell behind on bills during the shutdown. Roberts says she spent hours on the phone, calling her banks and lenders to explain her situation. She said Bank of America waived her payments for January, which she described as “incredible.” She says some other creditors, however, weren’t as accommodating.
“I had to be proactive and figure out my finances,” Roberts says. “Not everyone is willing to do that. It required a lot of legwork.”
Roberts is still juggling her bills. Her husband has received both of his back-pay checks, but now is missing a regular paycheck.
“The lack of communication is astonishing from the agencies that are processing the checks,” Roberts says. “It’s just like, ‘Oh, well, that sucks for you! We’re sorry!’”
On a larger scale, the ripple effects of the shutdown throughout the economy continue to be felt.
In total, the White House estimates the shutdown cost the economy 0.1 percent in GDP. The estimate was double the government’s original estimate, and exceeded more than $5 billion.
Experts worried about how the shutdown would impact data collection, much of which halted during the funding lapse. In a column for the Brookings Institute, Robert Shapiro, chairman of economic advisory firm Sonecon, warned of the dangers of the U.S. economy “flying blind.”
“What’s happening with trade affects the decisions by thousands of companies about how to manage their certain spending, investments and inventories,” writes Shapiro. “With no public data on recent imports and exports, those decisions have to rely more on guesswork—and more companies than usual will simply guess wrong.”
On a smaller scale, small businesses felt the trickle-down effects of the event. According to a survey by CNBC and Survey Monkey, 35 percent of small-business owners nationwide reported a “sales slowdown” as a direct result of the shutdown; 13 percent said lost revenue was a direct result of a contract with a government agency, which was affected by the shutdown.
How federal contractors are handling shutdowns
Over the past three decades, the federal workforce has consistently been shrinking. Politifact finds the number of contractors has spiked as governmental attrition, or not filling open positions, has continued to increased under the Trump administration’s plans of a targeted hiring freeze.
Federal contractors have no rights as civilian workers during a shutdown. These workers get no pay while the government is shut down, and do not receive back pay like furloughed federal employees do.
There are bills introduced in the Senate and the House to make back-pay available to low-wage workers contracting for the government, Reuters reported.
“They clean office buildings and keep us safe and secure and serve millions of meals a year,” Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minnesota, who introduced one of the bills, said during a press conference at the Capitol. “Why should these hardworking people be forced to pay the price of the shutdown themselves?”
The lack of protection could cause government contractors to seek employment elsewhere, draining the government of not only resources, but valuable talent, as reported by Vox.
How one couple is preparing for another shutdown
Candice Bennett’s husband, who cannot be identified due to the nature of his role in the government, was one of the furloughed employees. The pair live in Lorton, Virginia.
As the shutdown continued, Bennett, who is 43, began pulling money out of her IRA to cover the couple’s bills. Since she took a distribution before she came of retirement age, she faces a penalty and will be taxed on the distribution.
“There wasn’t really much of another choice,” Bennett says. “We’ve got bills to pay.”
When asked of how the early withdrawal will affect her long-term retirement plans, she explains how it isn’t her main focus right now.
“I’m just not going to think about it at this point,” Bennett says. “Will it be impactful? Possibly. But one of the other things that was making me nervous was I was taking out of a market that’s volatile. I really don’t have the luxury of planning when I was going to take that money out. I was at the mercy of the market.”
Bennett, who owns her own business, saw how other federal employees out of work were turning to their hobbies as side hustles. She decided to open her own sewing services, called Shutdown Sewing. She provided low-cost sewing repairs and creations to federal employees.
The side hustle, Bennett says, “went viral” enough for her to file for a sales tax license with the state.
While the side business took off, the impact of the shutdown took an emotional toll on Bennett and her husband. She described the 35-day period as a veil of uncertainty, like holding one’s breath for a long period.
“Emotionally, I went into a fight-or-flight mode,” Bennett says. “We have reserves, and we can hold, but how long can that last? We weren’t panicked, but we weren’t happy about it. This isn’t something that’s sustainable.”
What is most important to Bennett, however, is that the business can now be used as a financial floatation device in the event of another shutdown — which she worries about.
“I don’t trust the tentative agreement,” Bennett says. “Until a deal is actually on his desk and signed, I don’t have assurance it’ll be OK.”
Tips for handling disrupted income
Consumers facing disrupted income might find themselves in a bind, but there are steps you can take.
Loans from retirement money should be a last resort. You can borrow against your 401(k) through your employer. Those with IRAs can also turn to the accounts in times of need. According to the IRS, consumers can take money from their accounts and avoid taxes or a penalty by “rolling over” the distribution. As long as you redeposit the money (along with any required withholding) into the account or another retirement account within 60 days, you will not face a penalty. There are rules on how this should be done, so make sure to follow them carefully.
Some banks and lenders offered relief during the previous partial government shutdown. While facing financial trouble, it’s helpful to call your lender directly to explain your situation and come up with a plan.
More important is to build an emergency fund of six months’ worth of expenses. Start small, even putting as little as $5 each paycheck into a high-yield savings account is better than nothing. Over time, consumers can start saving even more as they become more confident in their finances.
It’s also helpful to identify discretionary expenses and determine exactly how much money is leaving your bank account, Bankrate senior economic analyst Mark Hamrick says.
“The foundation to all of this is to live beneath one’s means, not to live at the break-even point,” he says. “Unfortunately, too many Americans walk that tightrope precariously so, and whether it’s a partial government shutdown or whether it’s a situation where layoffs are announced by a company, it reminds us that unexpected events do occur.”