ONE THING IS certain about the looming federal spending cuts: Whether or not there's a deal to avert the blanket cuts, things are going to get financially tight for a lot of people who least expect it.
First, can I just say I dislike the word "sequester"? It's a cold-sounding word being used for a cold end result. Yes, we need to pay our debts. Yes, the federal government has borrowed too much for too long. But the way the politicians - Republicans and Democrats - are handling the so-called budget fix is a poor excuse for a measured and humane way to find the needed cuts.
To sequester means to set apart. And in the context of the budget debate and the scrambling to avoid $1.2 trillion in automatic federal spending cuts, a lot of money will be separated from people who need it.
Perhaps you're thinking that because you don't live in or near Washington, you won't be affected. In the week leading up to the day the spending cuts take effect, only a quarter of Americans said that they are following the issue very closely, according to a national survey by the Pew Research Center and the Washington Post.
But, people, you must pay attention. Your personal finances may play a part in this political drama. The cuts ($85 billion for the current fiscal year) will affect more than just the government folks who may get furloughed or lose their jobs. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the sequester could result in a loss of about 750,000 jobs this year. And although the cuts will fall heavily on public-sector workers, they will be felt across all sectors, the National Women's Law Center points out.
If President Obama and Congress don't reach an agreement to reduce the deficit, 40 percent of Americans say, it would be better to let the automatic spending cuts go into effect, according to Pew. Just 30 percent of those surveyed thought that their own finances would be harmed in a major way.
But sequestration has side effects. "The indiscriminate cuts have the potential to stall the beginnings of economic recovery because lost jobs and reduced assistance mean people will have less to spend," concluded a report by the Coalition on Human Needs.
When people's salaries are reduced or they lose their jobs, they have no choice but to cut. They stop shopping or eating out. They ditch vacation plans. They also cancel the services of others. All those cuts can lead to other furloughs or job losses.
During a recent online discussion, I received this thoughtful yet haunting note from someone anticipating being furloughed: "In the past, the potential sequestration and furloughs would have me stressed out beyond words. But thanks to you, we're in an OK place. We have no debt other than our mortgage, we have some emergency funds and we've got things we can cut back on. My problem is that I really feel badly about having to cancel the housecleaners we have, because I know money is tight for them."
I don't have a problem with people spending for such services if they are doing many things right financially.
Yet for many, the spending cuts will hit far harder and deeper than concern about canceling housekeeping services. For those Americans, it's a matter of finding the money for basic needs such as housing or utilities.
Don't assume that you won't be affected. Plan for the worst and hope for the best. Meticulously comb your budget. Every personal expense should be considered for elimination or reduction.