The government shutdown is a direct reminder for hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers that even so-called “safe” government jobs can’t always be counted on for an income stream.
Although some federal workers may get back pay once the shutdown ends, in the meantime countless federal employees and their families face a huge financial burden: trying to make ends meet without their regularly scheduled paychecks.
Regardless of whether you work in the public or private sector, being furloughed, having your hours slashed, or having to deal with a pay cut can happen to anyone. To survive that kind of financial shock, you need to create your own safety net. You also need to know what to do (and not do) amid this type of economic emergency.
Here are five ways to build a financial cushion, handle your bills responsibly, and weather an unexpected pay reduction or an interruption to your normal paycheck.
1. Slash Your Expenses Immediately
When a financial shock happens, many people have a tendency to keep their same spending patterns and not make any immediate adjustments. But that’s a big mistake. When life throws you a curve ball, such as a lowering of your income, you never know how long the situation may last, nor how long its effects may linger.
So do yourself a favor and free up as much cash as possible in the short term by reviewing your expenses closely and deciding what you can eliminate now. Don’t wait for things to get worse to cut back.
Are there any luxury expenses that you can scale back on for a few months? Can you cancel some subscriptions for a while? Will you be able to save more money each month by working out at home instead of paying gym fees? Look for ways to immediately cut down on your expenses and make a note of how much you’re saving so you can put this money directly into a savings account or use it to pay upcoming bills.
2. Prioritize Your Bills
We all know you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip, right? Likewise, you may not have the cash or savings on hand to pay every single creditor you owe—at least not immediately. To handle this situation, you’ll need to modify your spending plan and establish a new budget you can live with.
Create a spending plan that covers only your basic expenses, and then prioritize your bills based on due dates and the importance of the obligation.
If you’re facing a long-term reduction in pay, think about what constitutes your “must pay” bills. For example, if you need your car to get to and from work, don’t get so behind on that car note that the repo man comes and takes your vehicle. And you do need to keep a roof over your head, right? Of course you do. So pay the rent or the mortgage. But cable TV is not really a necessity when you’re in a cash crunch.
Cut excess spending and set a savings goal—even a very modest one—for each week. These savings can be put directly towards your savings account and help you get things back on track when your work situation stabilizes.
3. Get a Side Hustle
To build a savings cushion more quickly, think about increasing your income with an entrepreneurial gig or a part-time job. The goal is not only to add to your income stream, but also to diversify it. Reliance on a single paycheck can be a risky proposition in today’s economy. So make sure you consider ways to pull in cash outside of your job.
I know it can be tiring to work a nine-to-five and then have to work some more elsewhere. But if you can run any kind of home-based business, or even work for someone else a few hours on the weekends or at night, you may be able to put most of that extra paycheck directly into a savings account that will help you ride out tough economic times in the future.
4. Be Proactive With Creditors
It’s not fun to deal with creditors when you don’t have the money to pay your bills. But that doesn’t mean you should stick your head in the sand and just pretend the bills don’t exist.
Instead of just “wishing for the best” and ignoring debts or upcoming payments, be proactive in dealing with the people or companies you owe. If you know beyond a doubt that you won’t be able to pay a bill because the money simply isn’t there, reach out to the creditor with a phone call or a letter.
Simply explain your situation briefly and ask about your options. You may be surprised by creditors who are more than willing to work with you because you’ll be in the minority of consumers who are at least being responsible enough to deal directly with creditors rather than ducking phone calls or letting payments lapse without explanation.
5. Avoid Hard Money Loans
In times of financial distress, it’s common for people to turn to “fast” money when they need cash quickly. But think twice before seeking “help” from hard-money lenders or getting yourself into a jam with a payday loan or a vehicle title loan.
I know you may desperately need to pay the light bill or buy food, but explore other options first. Can you borrow money from a relative or friend (and of course pay them back)? Is there something you can sell to raise cash? Or do you even have a credit card you can use?
Tapping a line of credit or even taking a cash advance from a credit card is far more preferable than taking out payday loans, many of which have annual interest rates of 400% or so. Not to mention that people who take out payday loans tend to get locked into a vicious cycle of repeated borrowing with these high-interest rate products.
These five steps won’t solve all your money problems when you’ve been furloughed or hit with a pay cut. But they should help you survive this financial shock and come through the event stronger financially in the long run.