If you’re a furloughed government employee, you are likely feeling a good deal of stress and uncertainty about how to manage your finances during the government shutdown. While missing a paycheck is a financial moment no one wants to experience, there are many ways you can keep your financial health intact. There’s no need to panic just yet: use this time to take stock of the situation with these five steps.
Determine your priority payments – and pick up the phone
To start, take stock of your current financial responsibilities. Figure out what bills need to be paid now and what can wait. Because it’s still unclear how long the shutdown may last, it could prevent several of your next paychecks getting to you on time. Determine if you have any payments you can defer or pay the minimum on, and most importantly, contact your lenders and utility providers.
Housing costs are likely your top of mind payment. In times like these, know that it’s okay to dip into your emergency funds to cover this monthly expense. If you don’t have enough to cover your current housing bills, contact your lender or landlord and explain the situation. Ask if they can grant you an adjustment of the payment due date, or if there are other services they can offer you to help during the furlough time.
Many companies and financial institutions are offering assistance programs for furloughed employees. For example, Chase has set up a special assistance line for impacted federal employees. Start by calling the number on your debit or credit card, and they will route you to the right person. Additionally, all four major U.S. mobile phone service providers have said they will work with individuals to set up a payment schedule that won’t negatively affect service. When negotiating with each company, be sure to write down all of the instructions you are given over the phone, and take note of the date, time and person who shared the information with you just in case there are any questions in the future.
Supplement your savings
If you don’t have substantial savings to draw from, a number of credit unions are making offers for workers, including short-term low-or no-interest loans, and payment deferrals. A zero-interest loan will allow you to borrow money without having to pay any interest on the amount borrowed.
Currently, Launch Federal Credit Union is offering a 0 percent interest rate for loans up to $3,000 to federal employees, and Navy Federal Credit Union is offering them up to $6,000. You can also find options available from the U.S. Employees Credit Union and Justice Federal Credit Union. Chase is also waiving fees for government employees who have direct-deposit set up.
You can also dip into your 401(k) accounts, but it will have a few tax implications. IRS regulations impose strict restrictions and penalties on early withdrawals, which is defined as making distributions while still under the age of 59 and a half. However, there are a few ways you can withdraw funds without having to incur a 10% excise tax penalty on the amount withdrawn.
For starters, you can likely qualify for a 401(k) loan which allows you to withdraw funds from your account with the promise of paying it back later to the same account. A word of caution on these types of loans — interest will be charged on the amount taken and repayment starts almost as soon as the loan is taken out.
Given the current situation, you also can qualify for a hardship withdrawal. You can use this money to cover living expenses to prevent eviction or foreclosure, medical expenses, and higher education costs. But it is worth noting that 10% penalty is not waived for hardship withdrawals.
File for unemployment
Furloughed government employees and contractors are typically eligible for unemployment benefits under the Unemployment Compensation for Federal Employees Program. Eligibility and waiting periods vary by state, so look up your state’s unemployment website for more information. Most states will pay up to 26 weeks of regular benefits. If you receive back pay after returning to work, you will need to repay your unemployment funds to the state. Your state unemployment agency will provide you instructions.
File your taxes early
Despite the current shutdown, tax refunds are expected to be available on time, meaning your refund can provide a solid supplement to your emergency fund spending. Despite the Government Shutdown, the IRS will begin processing tax returns on Monday, January 28, 2019 and provide tax refunds as scheduled. You can get started now and be first in line for your tax refund!
TurboTax is already accepting tax returns and will securely hold them for transmission to the IRS and States once they begin accepting e-file.
Look to your community
Several businesses are offering “furlough freebies”, including free meals, discounts, other assistance programs to help government employees. Additionally, see if your local social services or religious organization is providing temporary relief efforts. Look to friends and relatives for ways to save: host a potluck and have everyone bring a dish (who says you can’t enjoy friends and family with a good meal?)
Although there is a lot of turmoil right now hopefully these tips can give you peace of mind as you navigate all of these challenges. This moment of change is the perfect opportunity for you to make adjustments to your finances you may have wanted to make previously. The Senate recently approved a bill that will require that all government employees be paid as soon as the government reopens. The bill will have to next be approved by the House of Representatives before it can go into effect. So, be sure to stay up to date on the latest so you can plan for when to expect your back pay.