How To Survive A Furlough

Wow. I wrote this for the last shutdown in 2013. At the time I was only a part-time federal employee. Now I am a full-time federal employee. One thing that has changed from over four years ago is that I'm way more prepared for a shutdown this time. I still have some freelance projects but I also have an emergency fund just for this inevitability. I'm more than a bit nervous that this furlough is going to last as long or longer than the last one. I'm even more worried that I will get no back pay for this--basically being put out of work by people who will still get paid during a shutdown. I'm lucky in comparison with fellow federal employees I know who have massive student loans, mortgages, expensive medial bills for themselves or their children, are in the middle of a major roof or furnace repair or just living paycheck to paycheck. 

So, if you are new to a furlough, here's what a wrote last time and I hope you find it useful as you spin your wheels trying to fill your day without spending money. Here's hoping that by me posting this today it will mean the shutdown is over before the day is done. 

Immature rose-breasted grosbeak.

Immature rose-breasted grosbeak.

Sometimes, I just need a cleansing look at a bird.  That is what gets me through the day. I love this immature male rose-breasted grosbeak.  Barely a few months old and he eats at the feeder on his way to a marathon flight into Central America.  Good luck, dude.

With the federal government shutdown, many employees are out of work with an uncertain financial future.  For those who do not know, I work part-time as a National Park Ranger. The rest of my work is made up of various freelance projects--articles, speaking engagements, the occasional book, consulting, bird surveys, etc. My part-time position in the park and my freelance means that I will not qualify for unemployment during this time and a chunk of money that I count on is not there.  If the government decides to give out back pay to employees for the shutdown, anyone who used unemployment will have to pay it back. However, there is no guarantee and it looks unlikely that any furloughed employees will get back pay when this is all said and done.

Being without work with no clear sign of when money comes in is scary. As a freelancer, I know. What I find funny for me is that as much as I love and enjoy the park service, I saw it as a cushion for when my freelance times were lean and now it's as uncertain as the rest of my career. Ah, life!

Freelance definitely is a feast or famine sort of lifestyle. I always describe it as, "Freelance is great because you can set your own schedule, unfortunately so can the people who send you your checks."

I've developed some strategies in my seven years as a freelancer and perhaps some of these might be helpful to you if you are furloughed at this time. These are also guidelines for anyone who ever emails me to ask, "How can I do what you do?"

Down Time = Idea Time

What is something you have always wanted to try? What is some crazy career scheme, idea that you always wanted to do but "real work" always got in the way? Maybe it's watercolors? Maybe it's self publishing dinosaur erotica? Maybe it's learning how to cook Thai food? Maybe it's writing a Barry Manilow biography? Maybe it's creating your own YouTube Channel and producing easy 2 minute how to accounting videos? Start working on it. Now. You have the time, you may never have this chunk of time to flesh out the idea and it could lead to something. Or not. But the point is, you are working on something. You are improving your skills.

Screen Shot 2013-10-05 at 7.14.00 AM
Screen Shot 2013-10-05 at 7.14.00 AM

Beekeeping was started with a friend during some down-time in my career.

Speaking of improving skills, is there some program you don't know how to use well and you've been faking it or relying on spouses, friends, interns to do them for you? Is an Excel spreadsheet baffling to you? Find free online tutorials, they are out there. Give yourself a new marketable skill.

All of the above activities can be done without any additional expense. You can find classes for watercolors and cooking online. You can set up a self publishing account on or a YouTube channel for free. You can film a whole movie with your average smartphone. Where there's the Internet, there's a way. And if you don't have access to the Internet, there's always the Library and books.

Stay Active

This was a hard one for me to learn but made a huge difference. Especially in lean times, you think you need to always be working, always find the next project, do something useful for your household. It's easy to fall into a pattern of zero activity and that does not help your mood. Get out of your house. Walk, bike, run, skip, just get out and get physical. You don't have to join a gym, but you may need good shoes for the type of activity though. Also for some of the work that I do like bird surveys, it's important that I maintain a certain level of fitness. Even if you are a writer, programmer, designer you need a level of fitness too.

I don't like joining a gym, I feel guilty about the expense. And I like the sort of exercise that is outdoors.  I have a bike and I use that for going to meetings as well as exercise. I love my bike riding time because it clears my head and I use to flesh out articles or come up with strategies.  I'm essentially doing the things to get work that I would do on the futon at home with my laptop, but doing it while burning some calories.

I don't like to bike ride at night and living in Minnesota, the night last 16 hours in winter. So I took up running in winter. Let me be clear, I hated running. Hated it. But many of my friends and family have taken up running and they claim to enjoy it, so I started a couch to 5k (there are several out there, even my husband took it up after I did, but he used a zombie game to do it). On days when you have no work, running gives you a sense of accomplishment. You got up, you got out of your home, you challenged yourself.


Couch to 5ks are a great way for someone who has been mostly couch surfing to get up to running.  And you will never be as bad as your first day doing that program.  When I started it, I couldn't run for 60 seconds. The first time I ran for 3 minutes straight and the timer on my app told me I could walk but I felt like I could run a little longer had me squealing for joy and jumping in the street.

So find an affordable activity plan--yoga exercises online. Even if it's just walking at a brisk pace outside in the rain. This is still contributing to your family. Maintaining your health so you are around longer to be there for your family is the best gift you can give. The Oatmeal sums it up best.

Find Free Fun Stuff

Find out what your town offers for free. We have the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The general exhibits are free.  You can go and sit in front of a Picasso...for free. During the furlough, some places like Huge Theater are offering free shows. Google around, get out, breathe. Get inspiration.

Don't Avoid Your Friends

ALL OF US HAVE HAD LEAN TIMES. All of us have been unemployed, have been in tough financial straights. If your friends offer to go out, don't avoid them. Be honest about not having money. They will either say, "Hey, I can spring at least one beer," or "Well, come to my house for some Battlestar Galactica board game fun" (it's an awesome game even if you haven't seen the show). You have most likely been there for friends, paid tabs, bought dinners, been the designated river, etc-- let them return the favor. And someday, you will be able to pay tabs again. Let your friends help you if they offer. They feel bad for you too, they want to help, let them do what they can.

I have wonderful friends, Joan of Dark and Dill Hero even offered me work in their coffee shop Strange Brew while on furlough. That's amazing to even offer considering all I know about coffee is how to drink it.

Get Comfortable Having Some Debt

You may have to use your credit cards. This can be frightening because of the interest rates or maybe you got yourself in a terrible debt situation in college with credit cards. These are not replacement paychecks, these are there for you to have some cash flow when you really need it. It's important to keep your debt limit in mind (see below). This is not for a night out drinking with friends to celebrate hump day, this is for when you have about $6000 worth of checks that are supposed to come in any day and you need to put gas in your car or buy some macaroni and cheese for dinner.

Pay it off as soon as the checks come in. Don't just schedule massages, buy five pairs of shoes or that expensive fleece you've been eyeing. Pay it off ASAP.

And when you have debt, you are more than just your debt. It can be a stressor and a motivational tool but it does not define you as a person.

Specific to freelancers (not necessarily the furloughed):

Set A Debt Limit

If you want to freelance full time, the first thing is to set a debt limit. How much are you willing to bear if you are going through a lean time? How much are you comfortable putting on your family? If you have a family, make sure your spouse/partner is ok with that amount. Stick to that, once you reach that debt point and there's no sustainable job coming in for a month, it's time to find a new job. What is that amount? $1000? $5000? $10,000? I don't know, that is up to you, your resources and whoever else has a stake in your household income.

I hope some of this helps.  I hope all of us get back to work soon.  I hope someone out there forms a "Reasonable Party" where politicians share ideas and concerns rather than shout hyperbole and focus more on political posturing in front of the cameras than an actual solution.

Update for 2018

If  you are like me and you are absolutely terrible as setting aside money for rainy days, two apps that have really helped me prepare are Stash and Acorns. They're not advertisers for my site, but you get a sign up bonus and I get a referral bonus if you use the links I provided. If you'd rather just go to their page rather than using my links, that's cool too. If you have your savings account strategy set, you don't need these. But if you're like me and prone to buying rounds for friends, drunk Amazon ordering or seeing an extra $50 in your account as permission to buy more yarn or fancy scotch rather than setting it aside...these will work great for you, they did for me.

You can set Acorns to automatically deduct money from your accounts or set it up round up to the nearest dollar when you make any purchase and it will set that money aside. I forget about the account and then I open it every couple of months and see either a safety net or some fun money I can use for travel down the road. Stash is similar but you can create a portfolio where you can choose to invest your money for better interest rates. I'm a big fan of the Roll With Buffet option. If anyone out there has been using similar apps and like them better, I'm definitely willing to listen. 

My to do list for each day of the shutdown is:

Rage Knit
Be Physically Active
Art Project
Avoid News Commentary (they don't get your job, or you as a person)