With Congress as bad example, rethink your budget

Furloughed federal workers have been promised that they will be paid once the government opens again.

Even so, let me offer some advice to those people with jobs they thought were secure. Do what you can, as soon as you can, to create an emergency fund. Make it a priority.

Yes, you’ve heard this before. Yet here we are again, and workers across the country, including non-federal employees and government contractors whose incomes were also affected by the shutdown, are feeling the financial pain after missing one paycheck or getting just a partial paycheck.

The Washington Post asked people to participate in an online survey about how the shutdown had affected them. Almost two-thirds said it had hurt them daily or threatened their livelihood. Here’s what some workers wrote:

California: “Check to check, like most folks these days. Furlough put me back even deeper.”

Colorado: “Just worked out our budgets though Nov. 15 — half a paycheck this pay period and at this point no paycheck by Nov. 1 — currently over $300 in the hole and seeking delays to monthly payment for car, insurance, credit, student loans, mortgage.”

Virginia: “No work equals no pay. No savings equals bad, really bad.”

Massachusettes: “I am a federal employee supporting a spouse in graduate school with student loans of my own to pay. Even if I get back pay, paying the immediate bills will be a significant challenge. One of the reasons I was attracted to this job was because of its ‘stability.’”

With all due respect, the shutdown should be a wake-up call for all of us. You can’t count on your job always being there, even in positions or careers that have historically been viewed as unemployment-proof.

I say this because often in financial workshops I have conducted, some participants, government workers in particular, would argue they didn’t really need to worry about having several months of expenses saved up. They felt secure in their jobs. Or I would get push-back from people who believed they couldn’t lose their jobs and therefore didn’t need to put away three to six months of living expenses.

By the way, don’t fret about having to dip into your savings. That’s what an emergency fund is for — to address a financial shutdown in your life.

I am fully aware that many people have overwhelming financial demands. I know some are barely making it because they have large families or medical bills or are taking care of others who have fallen on financial hardship. I’m not fussing at you. You are doing the best you can. But if you’re just getting by, that’s all the more reason to cut expenses and put the savings in the bank.

I’m talking to workers who can do better and should do better with what they earn. They have run up a bunch of bills and can’t figure out how to save. Still, I understand.

In many parts of the country, including the Washington metropolitan area, you have to contend with the high cost of housing, food, gas and transportation. If you have children, it’s the high cost of day care or private school tuition or the seemingly endless fees for the kids to participate in sports or other extracurricular activities. I’m a parent. I get that.

But it all comes down to choices. You can’t do it all. Not even folks making millions can live paycheck to paycheck. How do you go broke on $200 million? By spending $201 million.

During various shutdowns in sports — National Football League or the National Basketball Association — we heard about players complaining about not having money to keep up with their expenses. In those cases, we shook our heads and sneered about their overspending. But how similar are you to those players?

Your expenses are different and not as large but you still overspent. You spent too much on your college education and now have student loan debt that is burdensome and preventing you from saving. You’ve bought a home that you really can’t afford because the monthly mortgage payment doesn’t give you the leeway to save. For a long time, long before sequester-demanded furlough days and the current shutdown, you’ve blurred the line between your needs and wants, not really distinguishing the two.

Only you truly know your financial situation and if you could have budgeted better to save more. Only you know if life events out of your control make missing one or two paychecks disastrous.

But if you can handle the truth, let the shutdown be your financial reset button when you get back to work.

Michelle Singletary: michelle.singletary@washpost.com.

Washington Post Writers Group

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