I was laid off from a high-paying job. Is it ethical to apply for government aid?

I was laid off from a high-paying job. Is it ethical to apply for government aid?

Paige Vickers/Vox

Plus, a suggestion for what to do if you come into a windfall.

On the Money is a monthly advice column. If you want advice on spending, saving, or investing — or any of the complicated emotions that may come up as you prepare to make big financial decisions — you can submit your question on this form. Here, we answer two questions asked by Vox readers, which have been edited and condensed.

I was recently laid off from a well-paying job. I have plenty of savings and live frugally, so I don’t need to find a replacement job right away — although I am looking!

Here’s my question: Since I have very little income coming in (just capital gains and dividends from my investment portfolio), I may be eligible for governmental aid programs such as health care subsidies and utility bill assistance. I haven’t applied to anything because I feel like I’m not what people have in mind when they think of social programs. That said, these programs would give me a safety net and help me stretch my assets as I look for new employment.

Is it ethical for a high-wealth, low-income household to apply for this kind of assistance?

I am very familiar with this question, believe me. I’ve asked it myself, every time I’ve been in a position to take advantage of a social program — and every time, the answer has been provided for me.

Affordable Care Act health care subsidies, for example, are automatic. I used to skip the part of the application where they asked whether I wanted to check my eligibility for a subsidy, because I was making more than the median household income and I didn’t feel like I deserved one.

However, the federal government isn’t interested in how you feel about your subsidy status. They’ve already calculated how much money you’re entitled to receive, and any portion of your subsidy that isn’t deducted from your premium turns into a tax credit when you file your tax return — and whether you’re working with a CPA or using one of those online tax prep services, the person and/or robot in charge of preparing your taxes will make sure you claim that premium tax credit!

Now I just check the box and get my subsidy in advance. No ethical considerations required.

I’ve also been on SNAP, back when it was still called food stamps. This was when I was a grad student with very little income, and you had better believe that I agonized over the application. I was in graduate school, studying theater, which was pretty much the top of the privilege pile. Wasn’t I obligated to spend down my savings before applying?

Well, that question is actually fundamental to the SNAP application process. They’ll turn down anybody with more than a certain amount of income or assets — and even though I was proud of my hard-earned savings and my ability to stretch a dollar, I discovered that having $1,000 in the bank and $200 in monthly income still qualified me for federal assistance.

So I took it.

I also checked in regularly with the program, to ensure that my income and assets were still within the eligibility guidelines. (This can be a problem for some households, especially when a slightly better-paying job kicks them out of much-needed benefits, and it’s also a problem when SNAP eligibility requirements change.) Once I was no longer eligible, I took a few years to shore up my own savings and establish my career — and then I began looking for ways to give back. While much of my charitable work has involved in-person volunteering, I’ve also made a few significant financial gifts. I donated my $1,200 Covid stimulus check, for example, because I knew I was in the part of the privilege pile that would allow me to maintain my income throughout the pandemic.

This is a long way of explaining that I’ve asked myself many similar questions — and that many of your concerns will solve themselves once you look into application requirements.

If you still feel ethically conflicted about accepting assistance, you can always put more time and energy into getting a new job. You could also put some of that time and energy toward volunteering, or — if you really wanted to give back — toward supporting politicians and candidates who want to maintain and/or expand these essential social programs.

I’ve been poor all my life, and I’ve recently come into a windfall. I’ve paid off all my bills except the mortgage. What’s the best thing to do with the remaining $100K so I don’t just waste it?

Put the equivalent of three months’ living expenses into your checking account. That’s your day-to-day spending money. At the beginning of each month, make sure that you still have roughly the same amount of money in there. (If the amount keeps getting smaller, you’re spending more than you’re earning.)

Put another three months’ living expenses into a savings account. That’s the money you can pull from for gifts, vacations, splurges, etc. Try to make it last all year. If you receive any bonuses or raises, use the extra money to replenish the savings account.

Put the equivalent of six months’ living expenses in a high-yield savings account. That’s your emergency fund. It’ll be there if you have a major medical expense or unexpected job loss.

Put the rest of the money into CDs. They’re the highest guaranteed-interest-rate vehicles you can find right now, and they’ll keep your money locked away so you can’t spend it. Ladder your CDs so that one of them comes due next year, one of them comes due two years from now, and so on.

Every time a CD matures, replenish your splurge account and then put the rest of the cash right back into another CD.

If a large, non-emergency expense presents itself — a new car, for example, or a wedding — you can use CD money for that as well.

You won’t be wealthy, but you can rest assured that you aren’t wasting your windfall.

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