5 steps to stay afloat in a government shutdown
By Miranda Marquit
Nov 08, 2023
Read time: 3 min
Whenever a government shutdown looms, millions of government workers, contractors, and military servicemembers face the possibility of an interruption to their pay. Plus, millions more whose work is closely connected to government services—like private companies that support the military, restaurants near national parks, or anyone in the travel industry—could also see their income come to a screeching halt. The ripple effect could extend to almost every corner of American life.
It’s stressful, no doubt. Especially with uncertainty around how long a shutdown might last.
Let’s take a look at government shutdowns and some of the things you can do to manage your finances if your paycheck stops.
What happens to workers during a government shutdown?
During a government shutdown, federal workers are in two categories:
Essential: These are federal workers who must keep working during the shutdown, even though they don’t receive a paycheck during the time the government isn’t funded. The law says they have to show up. Think servicemembers, air traffic controllers, and the FBI.
Non-essential: If you aren’t on a necessary project, you’ll be placed on furlough. You won’t work, and you won’t receive a paycheck during the shutdown. Think science researchers, NASA, national park employees, and the folks who process your tax returns.
Even if your pay isn’t interrupted, your financial situation could be affected if agencies you rely on lose their funding, like Head Start, SNAP (food stamps), and FEMA.
All federal workers will eventually get their back pay. Contractors and others, on the other hand, might permanently lose that income.
Even if you get back pay, the fact that you don’t have money coming in regularly can cause a budget crunch, especially if you don’t go into the shutdown with a strong emergency fund. For contractors and people in affected industries, missed income can have a lasting negative impact on finances.
5 steps to deal with a government shutdown
Here are some things you can do to get through a shutdown.
1. Prioritize spending and payments
List the expenses that are most important to keep paying with the money you do have, and the ones that can be dropped from the budget temporarily. If a shutdown is looming, do this ahead of time.
The highest priority expenses are usually legal judgments, criminal debt like court fines or restitution, housing, utilities, and your car loan. In other words, prioritize any expense that, if missed, would cause severe consequences in the near future.
The next tier might include child support, taxes, and student loans.
Cut way back on saving, retirement contributions, and your debt payoff strategy. If you have emergency savings and can keep up with minimum payments on your debts, you should do so. But hold off on making extra payments.
Use the Achieve MoLO app to get a clear view of your income and expenses
2. Call your creditors
Creditors aren’t likely to forgive your debt if the financial hardship is going to be temporary, but many creditors and landlords are willing to give you a break during a government shutdown. Prepare them for the situation and tell them you won’t receive pay. In some cases, they might let you skip a payment or put you on a hardship plan. There might still be fees and interest, but you might find short-term relief while you’re not getting paid.
3. Learn what resources are available in your community
Get familiar with the resources available in your community. This might be an exercise in humility. Find out where you can get free food so you can spend less on groceries while your income is interrupted. This could feel very uncomfortable, especially if you’re a high-earner. Do it anyway, because it’s a financial decision, not a moral one. You might also find agencies and local groups that can help you cover utility costs and fuel for your car if needed.
4. Get side work if you can
Depending on where you live, you might be able to line up side work for money while you’re not getting paid. Before the shutdown, find out what your job allows. You should be able to drive for a ride-share app or pick up a part-time job in your neighborhood. But if you’re a federal worker, there are restrictions on work that relates to or conflicts with your job.
5. Consider asking family and friends for help
People who care about you want to help if they can. They might be willing to buy your groceries, pay a bill, or help you fill up the tank. Reach out before the shutdown happens, because they might need time to prepare, too. Accept help if it’s offered.
Making it to the other side of a government shutdown
Do your best to prepare ahead of time to reduce the impact on your financial well-being. Fund a 3-month emergency fund as soon as you can if you don’t have one already. That means enough money to pay for everything you need and all your bills for three months with no income. Government shutdowns do happen. It’s especially important for government employees to have funds on hand to weather financial storms, particularly in October each year after the fiscal year ends.