Use a financial fire drill to prepare for the worst BEFORE it happens

Hey, federal employees: How many of you were you watching the Countdown to Shutdown clock and wondering how you'd cope if salaries were delayed by even a few days?

The time to figure out how you would have managed was before the crisis loomed. The same goes for any non-government workers living paycheck to paycheck. What if something happened to delay or (heaven forbid) curtail those checks?

You can't predict illness, layoff or your employer going out of business. But you can prepare for these contingencies with a financial fire drill, i.e., getting a clear idea of baseline expenses and creating a plan to cover them with available funds.

Initially, the idea is about as pleasant as a colonoscopy: You know you should, but you're a little afraid of what you'll find out. What if we can't make it on one salary? What if we're doomed? Actually, knowing what your survival budget looks like is incredibly reassuring. It's a playbook for tough times: If worst comes to worst, we could manage on as little as $X.

A friend once told me if layoffs came she'd probably be in shock. Having a plan in writing means she could shift into survival mode rather than spin her wheels. You should be prepared, too. Do this now, before one of those contingencies lands on you like a ton of unemployment paperwork.

What Do You Need to Get By?

A financial fire drill is not the same as tracking your spending. This time you'll be tracking how much you can avoid spending on food, shelter, utilities and debt service (e.g., student loan or mortgage). The idea is to meet these basic needs in a basic way.

“Basic” means exactly that. Prepare to be temporarily ruthless. Consider these cost-cutting strategies/resources as a starting point:

  • Food. Call an ironclad moratorium on meals out; instead, go online for inexpensive and imaginative recipes based on what's in your personal food bank plus a shopping list that lets you eat healthy on the cheap. Institute a Meatless Monday. Look up ways to glean or forage — even in the city. Familiarize yourself with local food banks and how to apply for food stamps and/or WIC; links to these resources (and other helpful strategies) can be found in “Unemployed? Underemployed? Here how to get help.”
  • Shelter. Decide whether you could take on a boarder or roommate and search online now for rental contracts you can download for free. (Trust me: You'll want it in writing.) Research cheaper neighborhoods just in case the hard times linger. Doomsday scenarios: Make yourself available as a house-sitter; sound out friends and/or relatives about short-term lodging, e.g., a week in each place. (Don't just assume that people will take you in. If they can't or won't, better to know it now.)
  • Utilities. In the winter, dress in layers and lower the thermostat; in summer, open the windows and turn on a fan. Reduce cable/cell plans or drop them outright if you're not under contract (and maybe even if you are — see if it's cheaper to pay the penalty than play out the contract). Nix Netflix or online gaming. (Bonus: Reducing TV/computer use will lower your electric bill.) If you must have Internet, locate the cheapest kind. (Yes, it'll take longer to load. Do you want to eat or don't you?)
  • Debt service. If you make extra mortgage or credit-card payments, stop. Get details on student-loan deferment or forbearance so you'd have all the info needed to apply. Quit using credit cards so debt doesn't grow any worse.

Add up the bare-minimum costs. Now you know what you need each month. (Hint: Not want. Need.)

Should this budget ever be implemented, it'll be a shock. You and your spouse/partner (if any) may hanker after the good old days of lunches out and mani-pedis, while offspring (if any) moan about the lack of Pokemon cards or ballet lessons.

You'll all live.

What Available Funds?

Now that you know the size of your bare-bones budget, it's time to figure out how to cover it. If you got laid off and were eligible for unemployment — remember, not everyone is — you might be startled by the amount you'll be given:

  • The average unemployment check is $295.
  • The average weekly salary it replaces? $865.

That's a huge blow to your budget even if you have a spouse/partner who's employed. How long would you be able to pay the rent and keep the lights on?

This is why building an emergency fund is so important. It may not be easy. Maybe your salary isn't keeping up with inflation (whose is?) and your family's needs are growing. Maybe you think there's nowhere left to cut. Maybe there really isn't.

But be honest: Is there really nowhere left to cut, or are you simply unwilling to do the hard work of temporary self-sacrifice?

As a Bulgarian PF blogger named Rya wrote in a recent article here, “tough or not, you have to do it.” Sometimes life requires a little discipline and, yeah, doing without. In other words, short-term sacrifice for long-term security. Welcome to adulthood. It isn't always fun.

My GRS post on the subject — “Think you can't afford an emergency fund? Think again!” — offers tips for squeezing a few dollars here and there. Keep at it. The fund will grow. You may not even need to use it if you've got a partner with a salary and also one or more…

Alternative Income Streams

Personal finance blogs are abuzz with advice on making more money. Keep in mind that an alternative income stream does not necessarily mean Internet-based income. You probably can't start a website and instantly derive a small fortune in passive paychecks.

What's more likely is a part-time job in the real world, such a couple of nights a week clerking at a convenience store or delivering pizza. These jobs may not be as easy to find as they used to be, given the economic downturn. If that's the case in your area you could brainstorm other ways to bring in extra cash, such as:

  • Sell stuff. Make a list of possessions you could sell via Craigslist, eBay or the bulletin board at your local supermarket.
  • Do odd jobs. Put the word out that you're available for babysitting, dog-walking, cleaning out garages, defragging computers or whatever you're good at. (Note: I get paid $10 and up per hour to babysit — including the hours when the kids are asleep and I'm lying on the couch reading.)
  • Donate plasma. It's time-consuming but can pay surprisingly well.
  • Make your own job. Find a need and fill it. I once interviewed a college student who did chores for super-busy people: shopping, picking up dry cleaning, helping set up parties, etc. Another woman told working parents that she'd walk their children to school along with her own, and got paid $5 per kid per day to do it.

Look around. You might be surprised at the opportunities you'll find. Heck, I once got paid $35 to watch a short porn film — all in the name of university medical research!

Incidentally: These could be ways to build up that EF right now.

Making Prudent Choices

Now is also the time to clean up your act if you have consumer debt. Stop using your card(s) and work toward paying off your obligations. It is never a good idea to carry a balance — and if things got tough, that balance will become just another worry.

Note: The above tips are not one-size-fits-all. I know from personal experience that consumer debt could be unavoidable due to, say, medical or legal issues. I know that if you already live close to the bone then a bottle of beer or a once-a-week movie are small luxuries that make huge differences.

But I also know this: If you suddenly faced a drastic salary reduction, you'll be awfully glad you did a little advance planning.

Dealing with illness or job loss is hard enough. Having a game plan will let you make prudent decisions at a time when shock leaves you vulnerable or terrified.

More about...Planning

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