Amanda and her kids - how they handled the government shutdown

How My Family Survived the Government Shutdown

Back in 2006, I met my husband while he was serving int he U.S. Marine Corps. We fell in love. A few years later he decided to leave the military life behind, but he wanted to continue to serve his country. So, after college, he began a career in the federal government.

In 2012, we got married and welcomed a daughter in 2013. And soon after her arrival, we decided that I would leave my job as a graphic designer and become a stay at home mommy.

This meant we were a one income family. But that was okay because government jobs are secure. Right?

As a young professional my self-worth was tied to my paycheck and career. So I struggled with the change to being a stay-at-home parent. Yet time passed and we welcomed a son in 2015. Then, I knew that I had made the right choice for my family.

This confidence in our decisions was tested Christmas of 2018.

On December 22, 2018, there was a partial shutdown of the U.S. government due to a lapse in funding. This meant 800,000 federal employees (including my husband) would be furloughed or asked to work without pay until Congress passed a budget.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t a new thing in Washington. Our family had been through 3 or 4 shutdowns already. They are unpredictable and could last a few hours or span a few weeks. So, we did our best to ignore the news and enjoy the holidays. We were sure by the New Year this all would be resolved.

No one could have known we had just entered the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

Reality Check

Clock counting time of government shutdown and how it impacted one family's budget

After the holidays we tried to get back into our normal routine. But there was one thing that was definitely amiss. My husband was at home and unable to return to work. President Trump and Congress were unable to reach a compromise and were making threats that this closure could last “months or even years.”

Did they say YEARS?

That is when panic set in and my insecurities about being a stay at home mom returned. How would we be able to pay all our bills if my husband didn’t have a job for years? Why had I quit my job?

We were now a NO income household. And there was no end in sight.

We felt like we were caught in the middle of a political game of chicken with no idea how long the “game” would last. My husband served, in various ways, under 3 different presidents and never once let politics affect his job performance. But now politics were literally keeping him from doing his job!

He let me know that this situation was out of our control, but how we handled it was up to us.

It was time to sit down and come up with a plan!

Time to Think Ahead

I am a frugal gal, but I also love to shop. (I know! I’m a walking contradiction…)

I’m a stay at home mom whose definition of  “self-care” often means grabbing a coffee and roaming the aisles of Target for things I didn’t know I needed. Doing this a few times a month (okay, more like once a week) was a way for me to de-stress and mentally relax for a few hours.

Woman rolling into Target happy

As the shutdown continued to drag on, my anxiety grew. And my favorite way to handle stress began to spark fear instead of bringing me joy.

The news seemed to run nothing but stories of families like ours, struggling to make ends meet.

They told of families selling their cars to make the mortgage payments. People rationing insulin because they could no longer afford medication. Parents being forced to return unopened Christmas gifts to buy groceries instead.

Local restaurants began to offer free meals to those who couldn’t afford it. Food pantries popped up to help families who were unable to afford groceries. All I could think about was “How is this happening in our community, we can’t let this become our reality.”

Finally, one night after we had put our kids to bed my husband and I decided enough was enough.

We sat down and decided to prioritize our spending and make a plan to get through this. We made a list of bills that were due every month (mortgage, car payment, insurance, phone bill, school loan, utilities, gym memberships etc.).

My first thought was holy sh** we spend a lot of money, quickly followed by, this is going to be harder than I thought!

Defining Our Priorities

Once we had a list of all our monthly bills, we decided to see if any of them could be deferred. I wasn’t thrilled about this idea because I knew we would still be on the hook for the interest we accrued during the deferment period, and on a personal level, it is embarrassing to admit that you can’t pay your bills. But in the end, if doing this could help us financially survive this tough time, it was time to put aside my pride and make the call.

Ultimately we were able to defer our car payment, grad school loans, and a few utilities.

Once we knew that we didn’t have to worry about paying those bills, we could now focus on the ones we still had to pay. With a better idea of what we were working with, we took the following steps.

  • We totaled the remainder of our monthly expenses
  • Looked at our savings account to figure out how many months we could cover using our savings
  • Looked at our credit card limits. (We avoid using credit cards but have them in case of emergencies)

Once all of our bills we accounted for, we started to make changes.

Reducing Unnecessary Expenses

We decided to freeze all frivolous spending (sorry Amazon Music, Target and Starbucks!).

We ate at home, canceled date nights and stayed off of Amazon.

As a family, we took advantage of free activities when we went out and played board games and did crafts at home with the kids. When the kids were in bed, instead of ordering a movie and takeout, we made dinner together and watched our DVR.

I made a grocery list and stuck to it, instead of running to the store every few days which always led to impulse buys. Each week I printed out coupons and based our meal plan on what the grocery store had on sale that week.

By making these simple, but meaningful, changes we determined we could last 6-7 months without any income. More importantly, with these changes, we were able to ensure our family would have some financial stability in these uncertain times.

On January 16, 2019, 25 days into the shutdown, Congress passed a bill promising back pay for all government employees. Finally, I knew we weren’t going to obliterate our savings and rack up debt because of this shutdown.

When the government reopened we would be able to replenish our savings and pay off our cards.  I still would have days riddled with anxiety, but we were lucky to be in the position we were. There were many other families who were much less fortunate.

What We Learned From the Shutdown

On January 25, 2019 legislation was passed, essentially postponing the shutdown for 3 weeks. All federal employees were ordered to return to work while Congress worked to pass a budget for 2019.

Now that my husband was back to work and life had fallen into a familiar routine, I was able to reflect on what was arguably the longest 35 days of my life!

I had learned so much from this experience and to my surprise, some had nothing to do with finances.

Family is Everything

Even though the past 35 days were scary and our income uncertain, my family got to spend every day together. While this might sound terrible to some, I still like my husband (most days) so having him around 24/7 was kind of nice.

This experience strengthened our marriage and gave us extra time to make memories with our kids.

We Can Have Fun Without Spending Money

Going shopping or to the movies will always be a fun way to spend a day, but it is not the only way our family can enjoy ourselves. We can have just as much fun playing at home or visiting a local park.

We May Spend More Than We Need Too

Prior to this, we lived within our means, but budgeting was not something we did.

We could definitely be accused of overindulging ourselves and our children.

Now, we have re-evaluated our finances and are more mindful of our spending. Some things like cooking at home, shopping for sales and couponing are things that I enjoy. I feel good seeing there are things I can do as a stay at home mom that can save my family money. Now we are focused on putting more towards savings, as well as using the snowball method to pay down our debts.

Looking Towards the Future

Currently, we are less than two weeks away from the possibility of another shutdown. If Congress fails to agree on a budget by February 14 the government could close again.

While I hope this doesn’t happen, the reality is that it might. But by using the lessons from this past shutdown I know that the next time something like this happens we will be better prepared.

To me that knowledge is priceless!

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How Amanda's Family Survived the Government Shutdown

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