The 2018-2019 US Government Shutdown was the longest in history and lasted for 35 days. Not only did I survive the shutdown, but I actually thrived during it. Here is my tale of surviving the government shutdown and about how my journey for financial independence affected my shutdown experience.
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A note about privilege
Before writing my story about surviving a government shutdown, I want to start with some disclaimers.
My shutdown story is unique; everyone experienced the shutdown differently. I had a positive shutdown experience because we have a sound financial situation. We’ve achieved our financial well being through a combination of diligent saving and random factors (privilege) that we cannot control but have benefited us nevertheless. For more of my thoughts about how privilege has acted like compound interest on my good habits, check out my post “I did not pull myself up by my bootstraps“.
During the 2018-2019 government shutdown I was especially fortunate in that
- I was furloughed and was not an excepted or exempted employee required to show up at work every day throughout the shut down.
- My wife continued to work during the shutdown and was bringing in income.
Surviving a government shutdown: what I did first
The furlough was “official” on Friday, December 21st. I’ve been in government long enough to know that often shutdowns are over before the next work day, in this case, December 26th. I had assumed that we’d be back to work at the very latest by the beginning of January.
However, getting furloughed does have some psychological shock to it. So I sat down and calculated how long we could live without my paycheck. I added up all of our taxable investment accounts, savings accounts, and random sinking funds we had. At the same time, I took a look at our monthly expenses, which we had been tracking since August. The result was that I calculated that we could live comfortably without changing any of our spending habits or touching retirement accounts until 2021.
A parable about our financial cushion
Once I knew we could live for years on our savings, I was immediately relieved. I knew that we were in great financial shape. Furthermore, I couldn’t think of many (if any) of my coworkers who could last that long without a paycheck. I was oddly comforted by the joke about 2 friends in the woods who met a bear. One friend puts on his running shoes and the other friend said “we can’t run faster than a bear”. The first friend said, “I don’t need to run faster than a bear, I just need to run faster than you”.
Okay- that last paragraph seems a little heartless. But honestly, that thought had gone through my head. Not only did we have a healthy “emergency fund” to weather the storm, but also that we’d last longer than most. Eventually the shutdown ended because the strain on certain federal workers was so large that it created a national crisis. Our financial well being allowed us to watch the crisis rather than be a part of it. So in many ways, it ended up being like the story of the 2 friends and the bear.
How I spent my time during a government shutdown
Since I was free from financial worries, I decided to treat the shutdown like a mini-career intermission. I had just finished reading The Joy of Not Working and had made a “Get a Life Tree” of all of my favorite leisure activities. Given that I had put all of this effort into self-reflection about what I like to do, I was determined to put it to good use.
Each day, I’d leisurely get everyone ready for school and take my middle child to the bus stop. Typically, I start work before the children leave for school, so it was a nice change to be able to help out more in the mornings. Everyone seemed so much calmer than normal.
Here is a sampling of some of the wonderful ways in which I filled my days:
- Exercising daily- mostly running when it wasn’t below zero and swimming laps (for the first time since graduate school).
- Playing piano- both working on new challenging pieces, but playing fun, easy things as well. I spent a serious chunk of the furlough working on Chopin’s Nocturne in G minor (Op. 37 No. 1).
- Reading books in front of the fireplace.
- Insulating and air-sealing our band joist with polystyrene and spray foam. (A home energy win!)
- Attending a 6 week book club.
- Have snack with the kids when they came home from school and hear all about their days.
- Starting this blog!
I was also able to:
- Vacuum all of the surfaces. Every day! Between 3 kids & 3 cats, everything ends up gross.
- Prep dinner every night. (We cook from scratch nearly all the time so it was nice to have uninterrupted time to get shit done in the kitchen).
- Wash a load of laundry every day and hang it up in the basement (we don’t use a clothes dryer).
- Lots of other small little things to make family life easier for the five of us.
Wow! Writing down that lists makes me wonder how I have time to work…
Survivor guilt from surviving a government shutdown
While I was happily puttering on the house focusing on meaningful leisure activities, a lot of people I know were struggling. On week 3 of the shutdown, one of my friends hosted a pot-luck gathering for coworkers to socialize. Everyone (else) was in a rotten mood. I know that some people were having money problems. But even the people that didn’t seem worried about money were generally unhappy about their situation. It was hard for me to interact with people at the pot-luck because I wasn’t sure what to say to people. Mostly I just felt guilty that I was happy and they were all sad.
I remember that during the 2013 Shutdown I had spent some time being upset and angry about not working. I felt that by being furloughed, the decision-makers didn’t value my work. I also spent some time being sad about “not working”. Because of my 2013 experience, I could definitely empathize with my friends who were upset about the shutdown. However, I’ve changed since 2013. I’m now on a path to FI and have spent hours imagining a post-work lifestyle. I was able to embrace the freedom rather than fight against it.
My advice for surviving the next government shutdown
I was able to survive the government shutdown (and even thrive during it) for 2 reasons:
- I had financial security
- I was mentally prepared for a life without paid employment
If I were able to have a candid conversation with my coworkers, I’d try to tell them to take care of those two things before the next government shutdown. Because probabilistically, there will be another shutdown someday.
You don’t need to achieve full financial independence to survive a government shutdown. As I mentioned earlier, you just need to be in better financial shape then 90% of other federal employees. It seemed like the 2nd missed paycheck was the breaking point in this shutdown. (This is not a very big emergency fund). If you had 3 months of expenses saved, you could sleep extremely soundly at night during the next shutdown. Even having easy access to one month of living expenses would put you in great shape.
Probably just as big as the financial shock is the mental shock of immediately not working. You need to have a mental plan of how you’re going to spend your days. Otherwise, you’ll just sit around and stew or compulsively check news all of the time. Spend some time figuring out what makes you happy. If you haven’t read the Joy of Not Working, sit down and read that during the shutdown. I guarantee it will make you happy about being temporarily laid off. If you have read it, pull out your Get a Life tree and pick some activities you want to focus on.
Having finances in place and a plan for your days will put you ahead of nearly all of your coworkers for the next shutdown. Hopefully you’ll be able to survive and thrive during the next shutdown like I did during this past one!
What did I miss? What do you think are the keys to surviving a government shutdown?
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