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Carolina and her husband Chris have switched out their regular grocery store for Costco. They’re now buying in bulk and freezing food. They both work at the Department of Justice and are feeling the ramifications of the government shutdown. She’s a contractor who works on sex offender programs and her husband’s efforts support returning citizens. While Carolina was told to continue coming to work until Jan. 18, Chris is at home without pay. His last paycheck came on Dec. 21.
“We’re not eating out at all,” Carolina says. Previously the coupled dined out once a week. “But nothing extravagant—no more than $80 including alcohol. Right now I don’t feel like going out anyway. Everything we spend, we’re asking, ‘Where is the rest of the money for the mortgage going to come from?’”
Chris is a D.C. area native and Carolina has been here for more than 20 years. They’re among hundreds of thousands of federal employees and contractors anxious about going without pay during the border wall shutdown that has stretched on for two weeks. City Paper spoke with these workers to learn how they’ve tweaked their eating habits.
“My fiancé and I are prolific eaters,” says Richard, a furloughed Census Bureau employee. “We go out for date night on Wednesdays and for dinner with friends on Fridays.” That changed when Richard realized the check that should be coming on Jan. 11 might not be deposited if the shutdown lingers. Now the couple is cooking more. “We watch a lot of cooking shows, so we’re not too bad in the kitchen,” Richard says. “But it’s felt a lot like Chopped, where we’re playing with whatever we have in the fridge.”
On Saturday, Richard made a mushroom, kale, onion, tomato, and egg skillet recipe he found in Bon Appétit. “We’ve been talking a lot about meal prepping again,” he says. “It’s more like, ‘What can we stretch?’ We’re doing OK so far, but I can’t imagine this going on for months or years. It’s terrifying.” His fiancé is otherwise employed, which gives the couple some cushion.
Like Richard, a federal worker we’ll call Jon because he requested anonymity, is also worried he won’t get a paycheck on Jan. 11. He’s a furloughed worker at the Department of Justice. “We haven’t changed anything yet,” he says. “We do a lot of home cooking anyway, so I traditionally bring my lunch to work every day.” He says he and wife typically eat dinner in five nights a week. “So we’re already very conscious of how we spend our food money.” This isn’t the first time Jon has dealt with a government shutdown. He was at the Department of Justice in 2013 when the government closed from Oct. 1-17.
Jon hasn’t been tempted by too many of the government shutdown specials D.C. restaurants and bars are offering. “I’m so appreciative of all of the bars and restaurants that do specials, but what got me about that is—except for José [Andrés] and &pizza—everything still costs money. Even if it’s a special, I wasn’t going to go out anyway, so that’s still money I’d be spending. I don’t partake in them since I was already cooking or bringing stuff.” (Other bars and restaurants are also offering free food and drink.)
Andrés was among the first to announce a shutdown special. ThinkFoodGroup restaurants serve up free sandwiches to workers with federal IDs from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Others quickly followed suit, such as &pizza. The local company headed by Michael Lastoria served 6,000 free pies during the first week of the shutdown alone, according to a Washington Business Journal article that examines whether it’s a sound business decision to offer discounts and freebies.
“Happy hour specials are super appreciated, but if I wasn’t going out anyway they don’t help,” Jon says. “I tend to be more of a shut-in during shutdowns. I don’t want to go out and spend a nonexistent paycheck.”
Jon notes that his wife isn’t a federal employee or contractor and is still gainfully employed. “That makes life a little easier,” he says. “But if this continues through the whole next pay period, that’s when those conversations will happen. We’re very cognizant of money, so we contribute to our savings with every paycheck. It’s not about stretching a budget, it’s asking if we need to dip into those reserves.”
Carolina and Chris’ situation is different because soon they’ll both be without pay. “If they don’t reopen by 18th we will have zero income,” Carolina says. “We’re not rich people. We literally depend on those paychecks.” She adds that she’s worried about dipping into their savings to cover their mortgage payments, car insurance, and utility bills. “We want to go back to work. Stop playing with our money and our lives.”
Photo by Flickr user Mike Linksvayer