Government shutdown survival tips from someone who’s been through them

You will survive the government shutdown, if there is one. But it takes some planning and a little knowledge of what to expect. To get some thoughts from a vete...

You will survive the government shutdown, if there is one. But it takes some planning and a little knowledge of what to expect. To get some thoughts from a veteran of government shutdowns, Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked with former Postal Service Manager Abe Grungold.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin Abe, you have lived through more than one federal government shutdown, haven’t you?

Abe Grungold Yes. If you are a federal employee and you’re going to be facing a federal shutdown, you need to prepare both financially and mentally for one? Because during my 36 years of federal service, I experienced four of them lasting at least a week, and the last one was 35 days. And this can be a very stressful period for a federal employee and you need to be prepared.

Tom Temin I think the big difficulty or the one of the major difficulties is even knowing you’re going to get paid at the end of it doesn’t help with the situation of a month or so when you don’t get paid and you’ve got to still live through that period until you do get paid.

Abe Grungold True. You can be paid if your agency is going to allow it, but there is a possibility that you won’t be paid. But to experience a federal shutdown, you cannot take annual leave, you cannot take sick leave, and you basically have to be available to receive the email or phone call from your agency to go back to work. So you can’t just jump on a cruise ship for a week and have some fun. You have to be available and see if you have to report back to work.

Tom Temin Yeah, a lot of people say, oh gosh, they get a vacation and they’ll get paid for it at the end. But in fact, they have to be standing by for resumption of federal work and yet they can’t do any work while they are home. You’re not allowed to work. Correct?

Abe Grungold That’s correct. You’re not allowed to turn on your government phone. You’re not allowed to use your government computer and all your assignments or duties that you are working on on a day to day. Regardless of how urgent they are, they come to a full stop. So you basically have to be prepared to go back to work when they do call you back.

Tom Temin And getting back to the pay issue, if you’re not getting paid, you know, for those at the senior executive level or the higher GS levels and so on, maybe high end schedules, you know, 38 Title 38, if you’re a high level medical employee, you probably have means and savings to tide you over until those paychecks still come through. What about? Did you know people that are maybe a little bit more paycheck to paycheck because they are not at that level of pay to begin with?

Abe Grungold Yes, unfortunately, Tom, due to the high inflation that we’ve been experiencing the last year or two, a lot of federal employees are living from paycheck to paycheck. And, you know, it would be wise if you had 3 to 6 months of cash reserves on hand to pay your bills. But there are a lot of federal employees that cannot handle $1,000 medical bill or $1,000 automotive repair bill. They don’t have that ability in their budget.

Tom Temin And what about the psychological aspect of it? I mean, what does it feel like to say, hey, guys, gals, go home. Don’t turn on the computer, but wait for the phone call? And I guess you go back far enough to have had a BlackBerry when some agencies would collect them in a basket to make sure you didn’t do email.

Abe Grungold Well Tom, it is stressful. I remember during the Obama administration, I was listening to the TV every day waiting to hear when we’re supposed to return to work. That is the worst thing that you can do, is listening to the television all day. I think the best is just to listen to it in the evening. When you do hear that the federal shutdown is over. You need to keep yourself busy. And busy means exercising, cleaning out a closet. I did a lot of home projects during the 35 day shutdown during the Trump administration, and I accomplished a lot of things. You must stay busy because it wears on the day after day. And I can recall getting a paycheck during that 35 days and the paycheck said $0.00. And let me tell you something Tom. That is a punch in the stomach when you see that. And I got several of those.

Tom Temin I think that’s something I would probably frame and hang on the wall afterward. We’re speaking with Abe Grungold. He’s a veteran of several federal shutdowns, retired federal manager, also the owner of AG Financial Services. And what about the debtors? You know, the health insurance bills that you have to pay and so on. Did you find that they tend to maybe be lenient with the schedule of payments, knowing that they’re serving a federal customer who will be back at work eventually but can’t pay at this moment?

Abe Grungold Well, certainly your health insurance through your FEHB will continue to be paid through your federal agency. But if you come across some medical bills, you can be put on a payment plan and you can certainly tell the medical provider, look, I’m a federal employee. They see you have federal health insurance and you can explain to them that you’re experiencing a federal shutdown. This happened quite a bit with creditors. I believe a lot of the utility companies were giving a pass to people if they couldn’t make their utility bills for that month. They gave them a little leeway until they got back to work. Yes, you can notify these companies and say, look, I’m a federal employee. I’m in a situation and I will pay my bills. I just can’t pay them immediately.

Tom Temin Sure. And what about the possibility of getting temporary work during the shutdown? I think there’s mixed guidance coming out on that one also.

Abe Grungold Well, that is a very touchy subject because federal employees are supposed to get permission from their agency if they are doing any type of side work or side business. You have to get approval because you have to make sure there’s no conflict of interest. But I remember I did do some part time work during the Trump administration, certainly with my own business, but I also did some acting work during those times. And yeah, wherever you can make some money, there are ways that you can provide some financial income for yourself. I have some tips and there are some things that you could do immediately if you’re experiencing a federal shutdown, both simple steps and drastic measures, as I call them.

Tom Temin And what are a couple of the simple steps?

Abe Grungold Well, the simple steps are very easy. It’s eliminate all unnecessary expenditures, like going out to lunch, dinner, Starbucks and movie theater, lottery tickets, similar types of what I call entertainment type expenses. If you can cut those out immediately, you can build up a cash reserve quite quickly to carry you through a week or maybe two weeks.

Tom Temin Yeah. So put that $5 for a Starbucks. Or what does a movie cost nowadays? About 20 bucks, I think. Put that into a jar.

Abe Grungold That doesn’t include the hot dog and the popcorn and all that. I mean, it builds up. But if you can eliminate those type of day expenditures, you can have some extra cash. There are also some drastic measures that you can take, such as cutting off your cable or streaming service or looking for some old savings bonds that you have been given as a gift and cash those in, as well as possibly selling some items that are lying around the house. You could have a garage sale and get rid of those things that you need to get rid of and build up some cash that way. Another very important way to get out of this predicament is taking out a TSP loan. But that could take a week to ten days to do.

Tom Temin And no penalty if you plan to pay it right back.

Abe Grungold Well, there is a $50 application fee and you can get a personal loan quite quickly a week or ten days, and you could do it online. And that is, if you’re eligible to make a TSP loan. You have to have a certain level balance in your account. But that is like the most drastic measure you want to do.

Tom Temin Sure.

Abe Grungold And you certainly would pay back your TSP loan and you can do that quite quickly or on a schedule.

Tom Temin Got it. Maybe we should call you Abe “Scrounge gold.”

Abe Grungold Well, Tom, really, you know, I have thought of these things even before I was a federal employee. And while I was a federal employee, I. I said, you know, there’s a lot of things I can get rid of, old family jewelry, things that are lying around the house. I sold a lot of my daughter’s toys on Craigslist, and I got rid of a lot of things during a federal shutdown. So it’s almost like a spring cleaning and it puts money in your pocket. So, you know, it’s really just a way to clean house.

Tom Temin Sure.

Abe Grungold And build up a cash reserve.

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