What Military Families Need to Know About a Government Shutdown

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In the event of a government shutdown and missed military paychecks, try to stay calm. Come up with a plan for your family to weather the crisis, if it occurs. Look carefully at expenses, and see where you can slash expenses till your paycheck catches up.

What should you do if there's a government shutdown? Some of the best advice for military families, in every situation, is to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

If a government shutdown occurs due to budget bickering in the halls of Congress, what does it mean for you?

First, understand what would actually happen in the event of a shutdown. Then, realize that thousands of military families before you have survived one or more shutdowns. It is not the end of the world. Congress is not deliberately trying to ruin your life, although it may feel that way in the moment.

I lived through several government shutdowns as an active-duty military spouse. One of them, during the Carter administration, resulted in delayed military paychecks. It is survivable, and probably with little damage if you react in a level-headed and responsible manner.

A government shutdown doesn't really mean a total shutdown of the government. Only non-essential functions are paused. Certain essential functions must continue. The military is one of them, along with other agencies like Social Security.

So all military personnel will continue to report for duty as usual. Paychecks may be delayed, but will arrive eventually.

Some civilian government employees, which include some military spouses, may face temporary furloughs. In the past, they were eventually paid for the furloughed time, but there is no guarantee.

Military members will be paid, although checks may be delayed for a few days to a few weeks.

To help ease your fears, here are a few recommended do's and don'ts in the event of a shutdown.

What Not To Do In a Government Shutdown

  • DON'T PANIC. You will survive. And if you keep your head about you, your family could even end up in better shape.
  • DON'T rush out to get a payday loan. That could be the most detrimental choice, as the interest rates, fees and penalties can be high and they could ultimately damage your credit rating and increase your family's debt load.
  • DON'T give in to any knee-jerk overreaction. Take a wait-and-see attitude, but have a contingency plan. There's a good chance Congress will solve the problem. They usually do.
  • DON'T worry that you will be evicted, that your car will be repossessed, or that your credit will be ruined if your payments are late one time. They won't. Late payments aren't even reported until after 30 days. Evictions and repossessions generally don't happen until you've missed several payments (usually three or more).

What To Do In A Government Shutdown

  • DO stay calm. Come up with a plan for your family to weather the crisis. See where you can slash expenses till your paycheck catches up. If it's not essential to survival -- milk for the baby, not sugary snacks for the kids -- it can wait. No new clothes, no movies, no eating out, no non-essentials until you get paid. Less beer and fewer cigarettes would be good for you, too.
  • DO be prepared to talk with your regular creditors and explain that your family depends on your government paycheck, and until it arrives, you will have no way to pay them. Promise them that as soon as you receive your paycheck, you will pay them. Then DO IT!
  • DO notify creditors not to take any automatic debits from your bank accounts if your pay is delayed
  • DO ask your bank to waive any overdraft fees and your creditors to waive late payment fees.
  • DO consider banking with an organization that understands the military lifestyle, such as USAA.
  • DO email your landlord or mortgage holder, plus all regular creditors such as utilities and telephone, to explain your situation if your paycheck will be delayed. Emails are better than phone calls as they create a permanent record for you and them.

When my family went through a shutdown, I sent letters explaining that my husband was on active duty, and that due to circumstances outside our control, our pay was being delayed until Congress reached agreement. I continued that I was very sorry, but until we received our pay, we would be unable to pay our bills. Then I thanked them for their understanding and their support.

I don't remember having a single problem as a result (other than some stress over it). The budget tug-of-war was prominent in the news, and they knew I was telling the truth. It helped that we had a history of making our payments on time. This was a long time ago, but I think only one paycheck was delayed, and everything was fixed before the second paycheck came due.

Once this crisis (if it turns out to be one) is over, use it as an opportunity to sit down with your spouse and have a serious conversation about family finances. Let this be the first step toward creating a family budget that will allow you to set aside some savings so you won't panic in the future. You don't want your family to perpetually be one paycheck away from disaster.

Janet Pearson of Military-Money-Matters.com is a former Navy JAG officer and military spouse.

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