Federal Employees Should Plan For Shutdowns, Not Get Caught Penniless After One Delayed Paycheck

Federal Employees Should Plan For Shutdowns, Not Get Caught Penniless After One Delayed Paycheck

In some cases, living paycheck-to-paycheck is unavoidable. In other cases, people need to wake up and take a long look at their foolish finance habits.
Christopher Jacobs
By

The end to the longest-ever federal government shutdown allows those involved—whether active participants or innocent bystanders—an opportunity to take stock. Congress will now return to a debate regarding border security funding. Meanwhile, federal employees and contractors will count the effects the five-week long shutdown had on their personal situations.

In some cases, the latter may want to take the opportunity to re-assess their financial planning and priorities. Although it cropped up seemingly out of nowhere—few observers during the week before Christmas saw the longest government shutdown in history on the horizon—the damage the lapse in appropriations inflicted on many families surprised me in its scope.

Shutdowns Aren’t the Only Employment Threat

While I spent several years as a federal employee, I never lost pay during a government shutdown. That said, I recall some very frank discussions about who would (and would not) get paid while working in the Senate during the debt limit fight of 2011. Moreover, since on Capitol Hill one’s boss can lose re-election, or worse, in an instant, I was well aware of the ephemeral nature of my paycheck. (And if my time working in Congress didn’t make me realize paychecks can disappear in the blink of an eye, running my own business has.)

Having served in that environment for years, I found it difficult to comprehend the many stories of federal employees unprepared to miss even one paycheck. I recognize that in some cases—Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners, for instance, with starting pay of only around $30,000 annually—circumstances dictate that federal employees must live paycheck-to-paycheck.

But senior federal employees making $80,000 to $100,000 per year, or more, should have long since placed their days of living paycheck-to-paycheck in the rearview mirror. Because financial troubles can lead to the revocation of security clearances (individuals with high personal debts are more at risk of manipulation by foreign powers) families ought to have placed a premium on financial stability, as one monetary hiccup could have long-lasting career complications.

Part of federal employees’ financial stress stems from the comparatively high cost of living in and around the nation’s capital. As someone who first took out a $330,000 mortgage while making only $60,000 annually as a Capitol Hill staffer, I can relate to the dilemma that skyrocketing home prices and rents can pose to household budgets. Successive promotions and raises, coupled with two refinancings of my mortgage during the Great Recession, made my financial situation easily manageable. Had I remained with a mortgage totaling five times my income for several years, however, I would have faced greater financial jeopardy from an unexpected expense.

But financial stability also requires separating needs from wants and focusing on the former—if not to the total exclusion to the latter, then to the degree necessary to keep one’s budget in line. That involves discipline, like buying less home than the maximum mortgage one qualifies, for instance, or recognizing the difference between transportation as a need (buying a used car and keeping it until it dies) and transportation as a want (leasing expensive cars every few years). It may also mean passing up on other luxuries, from new clothes to nice furniture to travel experiences.

People Need Budgets, Just Like Government Does

An example from my personal history: Seven years ago, I thought about attending the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in London. I desperately wanted to see the Olympics in the city where I had lived and attended graduate school. But on reflection, I realized that the tickets, last-minute airfare, and assorted expenses could easily have approached $10,000. While I had that amount of cash on hand, I could not spend nearly half of my emergency savings on a luxury—even one that fell into the “once in a lifetime” category. I didn’t go, because I couldn’t afford it.

Four months after those opening ceremonies, I walked into a television studio in New York for “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire!” and walked out later that afternoon significantly richer than when I entered. In hindsight, I wish I would have known I was about to receive a financial windfall, because I would have gone to the London Olympics in a heartbeat. But I didn’t know that at the time of the Olympics; I made the right call based on the information available.

That story comes with an ironic twist. A month after I walked into that studio in New York, I spent time chatting with my American University students on a Monday evening. Somehow my lecture wandered into a discussion about the importance of financial stability, during which I quoted a favorite aphorism: “When the going gets tough, the tough have cash.”

The following Thursday, I sat in a room a few miles away, and heard my boss announce his surprise resignation from the Senate. Suddenly, my boss’s departure put my paycheck in jeopardy, in a way I hadn’t even dreamed of when advising my students three days previously. It made me thankful that I had decided not to go to London, because I could easily envision a set of circumstances where I had no financial windfall, no paycheck, and a sharply diminished emergency fund to try and tide me over.

The government shutdown provided countless similar examples of such personal financial disasters, whether realized or narrowly averted. As hard as the circumstances the hundreds of thousands of federal employees faced the past few weeks, hopefully they will provide all of us with the important lesson that no paycheck is ever 100 percent secure or certain—and we should plan our financial lives accordingly. Because when the going gets tough, the tough should have cash.

Mr. Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, a policy consulting firm based in Washington. He is on Twitter: @chrisjacobsHC.

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