The partial government shutdown has had a serious impact on 800,000 federal employees, including those with “essential” jobs who are required to work without pay. A quick look at news and social media (especially at Twitter’s #ShutdownStories) reveals tales of anxiety and sometimes outright terror.
If we aren’t affected ourselves, an all-too-human reaction is to avert our eyes from the misery, silently thanking Deity Of Choice that we aren’t government employees. We’d do much better to take the shutdown as an object lesson.
Even if we don’t work for Uncle Sam, we can’t truly know that our own employment is rock-solid. We can’t predict layoffs, illness, or our companies closing down or being sold to a new owner who slashes personnel by one-third.
However, there’s a way to prepare for such crises. It’s called a Financial Fire Drill, and it’s both simple and crucial.
The FFD is a focused look at essential expenses and how you might cover them during a no-work period, plus a list of resources that answer all the what-ifs.
Sound scary? On the contrary! It’s liberating as heck to determine how little you could get by on if push comes to shove: If I lose my job or there’s another shutdown, we could actually get by on as little as $1,000 dollars a month until times were better.
A healthy emergency fund is useful for such an occasion. Some money wonks suggest you have three to six months’ worth of expenses saved; others insist you need a year’s worth. While that’s a fine theory, it isn’t always possible.
Besides, the whole point of having the EF isn’t just to spend it! It’s there in case of emergencies that can’t be covered any other way. And if it took more than three months to find a new job or recover from your illness, you’d still have bills to pay – and no more financial cushion.
That’s why a financial fire drill is multifaceted. Rather than relying solely on the money you already have, it gives you a range of strategies.
How Much Do You Need?
Start your FFD by determining your household’s absolute baseline expenses in four categories: food, rent/mortgage, utilities, and essential debt service (things like child support and your auto loan).
“Baseline” is the key word here. For example, if you currently pay extra on your mortgage, you’d stop doing that temporarily. Luckily, “food” is the simplest (although not always the easiest!) thing to cut back on; during a crisis you’d nix meals out temporarily and switch to basic (but still healthy and delicious) home cooking.
As for utilities, consider what’s essential. Cable television isn’t really a baseline expense, for example — you could do without for a few months. If you keep your house overly heated or cooled because you like it that way (versus because someone in your home is medically fragile), then it would be time to look for ways to cool off naturally or to stay warm while turning down the thermostat. (This isn’t punishment. It’s prudence. It’s smart use of available resources and, maybe, a little bit of short-term sacrifice for the sake of your future financial goals.)
Add up the baseline expenses and you’ll have the number you need to beat. If you can come up with that amount every month, you’ll manage.
- Related: How to Create a Bare Bones Budget
Finding the Funds
Now that you know how much you need, where will you get the dollars? Best-case scenario: Your household has another income source that will mostly or completely cover those essentials. Obviously this would be super-double-awesome, but it probably isn’t going to happen in every case.
- Read more: 13 Ways to Beat the Single-Person Penalty
Not everyone can apply for unemployment. (I can’t, because I’m a private contractor.) If you don’t know whether you’re eligible, find out. Then bookmark the U.S. Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop page, so you’ll be ready to file if necessary. The page also has links to employment and training programs and other useful information.
One of the most important things to note is how much you could expect to get if you qualify. Ideally, it would be enough to cover your monthly baseline. But even if it is, that’s not the end of your financial fire drill.
- Read more: Building a Smart Job Loss Plan
Pulling in Extra Dollars
Going from month to month on just-enough can mean serious anxiety. We’re doing OK now, but what if the car breaks down and I can’t job-hunt? For this reason, your FFD needs to include ways to bring in extra dollars.
A part-time or occasional job (“side hustle”) is one way to do it. Websites like SideHusl.com and 1099Mom.com are a good place to start. They have job possibilities you might never have imagined.
While the gig economy has its issues, it can be a godsend to those in temporary straits. Driving for Lyft or Uber can take a toll on your vehicle beyond, but some say the pay and tips can be lucrative.
Non-gig-economy jobs could be available near you, too. Now – before you need one – start investigating possibilities like delivering pizza, taking on a newspaper route (they’re screaming for drivers where I live), or working in retail or food service.
If you’ve got a college degree, you could look into becoming a substitute teacher. Applying takes time due to the need for a background check, so look into the requirements now. Start by contacting the school district to see if the demand is high.
Or create your own income stream. Let it be known through friends and on social media that you’re available to walk dogs, babysit, clean houses, or whatever you’re good at doing. Tutor kids or teens in math, Spanish, or whatever subject you know well. (Pro tip: Find out what tutoring goes for in your area, to keep from undercharging.)
Fix up the spare room nicely and look into options like hosting guests through Airbnb and Homestay.com. Fun fact: If you rent part or all of your primary residence for 14 days or fewer in a year, you don’t have to pay taxes on the money you earn. Really! See Chapter 5, page 18 of this Internal Revenue Service publication for the details.
Listing Possible Resources
The unemployment website mentioned above is just a start. The Benefits.gov site features more than 1,200 state and federal benefit and assistance programs.
One you really need to learn about is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the new name for “food stamps.” Each state has a different process, so take some time to learn about yours. For example, you might be required to provide your child’s birth certificate – got any idea where it is?
Feeding America has a food bank locator. Take a minute to look for local resources, and either bookmark the locator or make a list of what’s available nearby.
Another excellent resource is 211.org, a clearinghouse for social services. Put it on your list of places to call when things get hairy. However, no single resource is all-encompassing; fledgling or hyper-local organizations might fly under even 211.org’s radar. For that reason, be prepared to ask this question of any agency you wind up contacting: “Are there any other resources that could help someone in my circumstances?”
Anyone with student loans should learn about forbearance and deferment. The U.S. Department of Education tells more in this article, which also offers information on student loan consolidation and income-based repayment plans. If you’ve just been laid off you’re likely to be frozen with shock, fear or rage; learning more about your options now, when you’re calm, is a good idea.
Cut Some Costs, on Paper
As noted earlier, you’d cut back on extra mortgage payments and meals out. Brainstorm some other ways to pare down expenses. If push comes to shove, you could suspend that gym membership, cancel your cable service, put a temporary halt on 529 plan contributions, throttle back on your kid’s extracurricular activities, cancel any subscription services, re-think the way you entertain yourselves, and look for better deals on cellphone service.
An optional (yet recommended) tactic is to do some real worst-case scenario planning. Would it be possible to find a cheaper place to live? If so, could your buddy with a truck help you move vs. your having to rent a moving van?
Speaking of friends: If the tough times lingered, would a friend rent you a room vs. your getting an entire apartment? Would really good friends take turns letting you couch-surf?
Maybe your sister would take temporary custody of your cat or your cockatiel until you could afford to feed both the pet and yourself. Perhaps you could hire yourself out as a live-in nanny, to avoid having to pay for housing at all. (I know a young woman who put herself through college that way.)
Finally: If you’re carrying even a little bit of consumer debt right now, make it your mission to vanquish it as soon as possible. Paying interest is a horrible idea even when times are good; paying extra money out when there’s no money coming in is infinitely worse.
Yay! You’re Done!
Now: What to do with all this information? Why, you put it into a folder (real or virtual) and file it away under Hope This Never Happens.
Nobody wants to think about losing some or all of their household income. But better to think about it now than the day when your boss greets you by saying, “Clean out your desk” or your doctor calls and says, “We need to talk.”
Relatively few schools burn down each year, yet we have fire drills anyway. It’s part of keeping our kids protected. Give your finances the same kind of care and forethought by starting your own financial fire drill today.
Award-winning journalist and veteran personal finance writer Donna Freedman is the author of “Your Playbook for Tough Times: Living Large on Small Change, for the Short Term or the Long Haul” and “Your Playbook for Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs AND Wants Edition.”
More by Donna Freedman: