Thanks to the record-setting government shutdown, 800,000 federal employees are being asked to work without pay or to stay home, and they're feeling the effects: So far, each has missed more than $5,000 in wages on average, the New York Times reports.
For many cash-strapped workers, it's "an emergency situation," says personal finance expert Suze Orman. That's why she gives them the green light to consider breaking one of her key money rules and borrowing from a retirement account.
On a special episode of her podcast "Women and Money" for federal employees, Orman suggests they consider taking out a loan from their Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) — a retirement account for government workers, similar to a 401(k) or 403(b) — if they can't cover their expenses, even though she ordinarily says retirement savings should be sacrosanct.
"This will be the first time in the history of my entire career that I am telling anyone to even consider this," she says, "but if you don't have the money to pay your bills — if you don't have any way to feed your children — then you might want to consider taking a loan from your retirement account. … And when and hopefully you do get your back pay, you then can pay it back."
Orman usually says that taking a loan from your 401(k) to pay off debt is the "biggest mistake you will ever make" — that's because you could owe taxes and penalties if you don't repay the loan on time, and you could lose out on future earnings that would have accrued on the borrowed money, had it been left in your account.
But desperate times call for desperate measures.
Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, tells CNBC that the group has heard from hundreds of frantic federal employees. "They're scared," he says. "They don't know how they're going to put food on the table." And the partial government shutdown, which began Dec. 22, could continue to drag on for "months or even years," President Donald Trump said last week, or until he gets the funding for his proposed border wall.
"When you're being held hostage by the U.S. government, you need to know your options," Orman said in an interview with MONEY.