A Department of Homeland Security employee who lives in Northern Virginia says the prospect of a full month without pay forced her and her husband, another civilian federal worker, to apply for unemployment benefits, food stamps, and free school lunches for their two children. “The next missed paycheck will be a game-changer for us,” she said in an email Tuesday. “If the government opened last week, we would not have applied for assistance.” The family was low on cash savings because they had recently renovated their basement so her disabled mother could live with them. Both of their kids have special needs and receive private therapy outside of school, but tight finances forced the family to decide which child could skip that therapy during the shutdown.
A second missed paycheck doesn’t just double the hardship imposed by a single skipped payday. Marty Reid, a certified financial planner in Charlotte, North Carolina, said that while people should keep an emergency fund with enough cash to cover at least three months of essential expenses, most families don’t have that level of reserves, even if they’re not typically living paycheck to paycheck. “Even with households that have higher incomes, oftentimes they simply don’t have the cash reserve that they should,” he said. The publicity surrounding the shutdown means creditors are likely to allow postponed payments for mortgages or auto loans. A typical family may struggle with more than a single missed paycheck, tapping into retirement savings—but that means they lose out on long-term growth and risk taxes as high as 50 percent on withdrawals, Reid warned. He added that the shutdown’s timing could accelerate interest penalties for families who put holiday purchases on their credit cards.