26 percent of federal workers used retirement funds during shutdown

Over a quarter of federal workers tapped into their retirement savings during the 35-day partial government shutdown, according to a survey of federal employees, contracts and their spouses released Tuesday by Prudential Financial.

About 26 percent of respondents said they used funds for their retirements to pay bills or manage other expenses during the shutdown, during which about 800,000 federal workers were furloughed or required to work without pay. 

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Stories of struggling federal employees flooded the media during the shutdown, highlighting just how many people working for the government were living paycheck-to-paycheck.

Members of Congress rushed to propose cutting off congressional salaries during shutdowns and either asked for their pay to be forfeited or vowed to donate their income during the closure.

About 49 percent of federal workers said they fell behind paying bills, with 27 percent missing a mortgage or rent payment, 13 percent missing a student loan payment and 10 percent falling behind on tuition payments. 

“Some federal workers may find that missing these payments has compromised their credit score, for example, which could make it harder to secure financing for a big purchase like a house or car, or simply make the cost of borrowing to do so higher. In turn, that could make it harder to save for long-term goals like retirement or manage other day-to-day expenses,” the surveys authors wrote. 

To help cover the costs of the shutdown, 42 percent of federal workers took on new debts. About 40 percent borrowed money from friends or family, 20 percent borrowed from a bank or credit union and 10 percent borrowed from an alternative lender. About 25 percent went to a food bank during the shutdown.

The hardships were reported even though federal employees, on average, are better prepared for financial hardships than the general population.

Sixty-one percent of the federal workers surveyed reported they entered the shutdown with $1,000 or more in emergency savings, while only 46 percent of the population at large can say the same. Only 11 percent of federal workers said they had no emergency savings ahead of the shutdown, versus 40 percent of the general population. 

In spite of their higher financial security, 62 percent of federal workers said they depleted all or most of their emergency savings, with only 8 percent saying they didn’t tap into their savings at all.

“The impact of the government shutdown on federal workers and their families serves as a stark reminder that many Americans are ill-prepared to navigate even a brief disruption in their income,” the survey's authors concluded.

The authors added that while many respondents said they intend to rethink their savings plan after the shutdown, employers also have “ample self-interest” in providing aid in times of hardship.

The Prudential Financial survey polled 352 furloughed or unpaid federal workers or contractors and spouses from Jan. 29-31 and has a margin of error of +/- 5 percent.