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Financial Lessons from the Shutdown

It’s important to develop healthy savings habits.

In the aftermath of the 35-day partial government shutdown, many federal employees, contractors and others who have their livelihoods linked to government operations realized just how close to the financial edge they have been living. Thousands of furloughed government workers, who missed two paychecks, struggled to cover the costs of basics like housing and food. One furloughed employee told told CBS News she had only $1.06 in her bank account, describing the situation as "terrifying."

According to a study by the organization Prosperity Now, about one third of households lack basic savings accounts, and fewer than 60 percent say they are putting money way for an emergency. Forty percent of Americans are one missed paycheck away from poverty.

Saving money is like going on a diet. It isn’t easy if you have developed spending habits that don’t allow for healthy savings. Most federal employees save for retirement in the Thrift Savings Plan. And as it turned out, for many federal workers, retirement savings were crucial to making it through the shutdown. Kim Weaver, director of external affairs for the TSP, said in an appearance on the television program Government Matters that the shutdown saw a 26 percent jump in employees’ hardship withdrawals and a 5 percent increase in loan applications.

The hardship withdrawals do not need to be repaid, but the distribution is taxable and subject to a 10 percent early withdrawal tax penalty if the participant is under age 59 ½.

As for loans, the TSP recently told participants that “due to limitations of employing agency/service payroll systems, some payroll offices may not be able to deduct loan payments from back pay. If your loan payments haven’t been taken out of back pay, you should submit your loan payments directly to the TSP…”

Although having retirement savings to fall back on in an emergency can be very helpful, it’s always best to have a cash reserve, too. Most financial advisers recommend keeping three to six months of living expenses in a cash account in preparation for an event such as the recent furlough.

How do you structure your finances to be able to build a rainy day fund? I recently was discussing this with Dennis Damp, a retired federal manager and author of a popular benefits and retirement newsletter for government employees. He recommends increasing your savings allotment with every pay increase by putting half of it away in a savings account. “Because federal employment is considered secure, many don't take the precautions they should to prepare for emergencies, such as a shutdown,”  he said. Even if you’re currently living paycheck to paycheck, you can start small and grow your savings over time.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is the importance of putting away money where you don’t see it. Since my husband is the better saver of the two of us, he had a savings allotment taken out of his paycheck and deposited into a credit union savings account rather than our joint bank account. This savings account paid for cars and vacations, and ultimately helped us achieve our retirement goals by allowing us to handle unexpected expenses. We avoided debt like the plague.

I have referred many federal employees, especially young ones, to a 16-page publication called If You Can: How Millennials Can Get Rich Slowly, by William Bernstein. He lists five hurdles that must be overcome to save for retirement:

  • Even if you can invest like Warren Buffett, if you can’t save, you’ll die poor.
  • Finance isn’t rocket science, but you’d better understand it clearly.
  • Those who ignore financial history are condemned to repeat it.
  • We have met the enemy and he is us.
  • The financial services industry wants to make you poor and stupid.

As the government and private companies have moved away from generous stand-alone pension benefits and with the potential for shutdowns, furloughs and layoffs, it’s vitally important to develop healthy savings habits. It isn’t too late to start taking the first steps toward achieving financial independence.