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Pay It Forward

Paycheck panic

About the author

Kate Ashford is a New York-based freelance journalist who writes about personal finance and health. She has written for Money, Real Simple and Redbook magazines.

Shutdown

Thousands of workers are furloughed as a result of the US government shutdown.

In the United States, thousands of government workers are without an income as the US government endures a temporary shutdown. For those living paycheck to paycheck, the longer the shutdown lasts, the harder the decisions will be — how to pay the mortgage, which bills to pay first. If you or your spouse lost a job or saw a temporary dip in income, how would you manage?

These worries are not unique to Americans, government shutdown or no. In Britain, more than half of employees reported job loss anxiety, according to a 2012 survey from UK research centre LLAKES. In India, about a quarter of employees fear job loss, according to Randstad India's first-quarter 2013 Workmonitor survey.

No matter where you are, losing a salary requires some strategic moves to stay afloat.

What it will take: This will depend on the economy and your position. At the very least, you will need enough cash to cover your basic expenses, which include mortgage or rent, insurance, food and utilities. A cautionary tale: a quarter of Americans have no emergency fund, according to a Bankrate.com survey.

How long you need to prepare: Financial experts recommend an emergency fund of three to six months of income. (Does it seem like an overwhelming amount? To make it more manageable, subtract taxes, which you will not be paying. Also subtract retirement and college contributions and any extra debt pay-down.) Supplement that fund while you still have a job by having a set amount of money automatically transferred to an interest-earning savings account on paydays.

In the US, residents have the option of applying for a home equity line of credit, or HELOC, if they have equity in their homes — even if they never spend a penny of it.

“We recommend that all of our clients get HELOCs,” said Burt Hutchinson, a financial planner with Integrated Wealth Management in Wilmington, Delaware. “Having a $30,000 line of credit on the house available to you is much nicer than running up a $30,000 credit card bill. It only costs you a couple hundred bucks to open one, and you can use it as you need it.” You will typically need a job to qualify for a HELOC, so doing it while you are still employed is your best bet.  

If you refinance or remortgage your home, you might also consider refinancing into a longer-term loan but making payments as though it’s short-term. (In the US, for instance, you might get a 30-year loan but pay it according to a 15-year amortization schedule. You can find some rough numbers here.) You will pay the house off faster in the short term, but if you face a job hiccup, you can fall back on a smaller mortgage payment.

Do it now: US government workers hurt by the shutdown should quickly move to file for government benefits, although they may have to be out of work for at least a week to receive anything, depending on their state.

For those outside the US who face a temporary loss of income, there are a variety of resources. In the UK, for instance, the main out-of-work benefit is the Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), which is at least £56.80 ($92.18) a week. The unemployed in New Zealand may receive assistance as long as they are actively looking for a job, according to Rod Mudgway, a financial adviser with Brackenridge Financial Solutions in Auckland, New Zealand. In fact, residents of Israel, Latvia, the Netherlands, Switzerland and France (among others) all enjoy generous unemployment benefits. 

Cut back on nonessential expenses. Look back at the last 90 days of spending and take a hard look at where your money has been going. “Finding one place to save $100 or $200 is better than $5 here and there,” said Brian Frederick, a financial planner with Stillwater Financial Partners in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Drop premium cable channels, nix the lawn service and the dog walker, and freeze your gym membership. Not a couponer? Here is your chance. “One big trend in the UK over the last few years has been the rise of discount supermarkets, such as Aldi, selling non-branded goods,” said Garry White, a senior investment commentator with personal investment firm Charles Stanley in London.

US government workers take note: if one spouse is working and the other is not, stop all retirement distributions until you gain a second paycheck again. Then move $10,000 to $20,000 of your 401(k) investments into cash. “That way, if you need cash you can access it pretty quickly,” Hutchinson said. “You can draw a loan against it if you have to.”

If a job loss means you are driving less than you were before, give your auto insurer a call. Using your car primarily for pleasure rather than a commute could mean a rate cut.

Do it later: If unemployment looks like it is going to last a while, contemplate making bigger changes. “I do not see people cancelling vacations right away,” Hutchinson said. “And they do not want to change their kids’ lives until they know things are really extreme. Usually they wait a month and if things do not turn around, they are pulling kids out of dance class.” You may have to cancel cable completely and downsize the luxury car.

Pay the important things first. As money gets tighter, remember that a roof over your head is more essential than a great credit score. If you have to choose between paying the mortgage and paying your Visa bill, choose the mortgage.

Find income where you can, whether that is a part-time job or on-the-side consulting gigs. “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” said Steve Siebold, author of How Rich People Think. “Even if it is a job with a much lower skill set and lower pay, or even temp work, you have to do what you have to do to get by.”

Do it smarter: Remember that every dollar you put on a credit card during a job crisis is a dollar you will have to pay back later — plus interest. “The temptation to start using credit cards will be huge, but be very careful and if you have to do this, use the cards with the lowest interest rates,” said Siebold. “This should definitely be a final option.”

If US workers need to borrow a significant sum and they or their spouse have a 401(k) retirement fund available, they should borrow from it, rather than withdrawing the money altogether. Paying the money back over time — with interest, which also goes to the account — is preferable to paying taxes and penalties now.