PhotoHow much cash do you have on hand? Enough to get you through Friday? If so, you're in about the same shape as the U.S. government. It has about $30 billion cash on hand and could panhandle a few billion more if it had to.

But the standby borrowing power runs out by the end of the week or so, leaving only that $30 billion and whatever comes into the till thereafter. It's a pretty big till, but it still brings in only about 70 cents of each dollar the feds spend each day.

So, if there's no deal on raising the debt ceiling, President Obama will have to make some tough decisions by the end of the week. The problem is that such a huge portion of the federal budget consists of what are generally called entitlement and safety net payments -- Social Security, Medicare. Medicaid and programs that help the unemployed, elderly and disabled.

All those shouting heads on TV who say we have a debt crisis? Just wait and see what it's like to have a no-debt crisis. Like it or not, government spending is a major driver of the economy. 

The problem is huge. Even if Obama chose to shut down the FBI, FAA, NASA, CIA and assorted other agencies, it wouldn't make much of a dent in the daily deficit. While there are obviously all kinds of scenarios, some analysts say that as soon as Friday, Social Security checks, tax refunds, unemployment benefits and payments to Medicare and Medicaid providers might have to be delayed a few days, the Washington Post reports.

By November, things get worse. A lot worse. With nearly $60 billion due in the first few days of the month for soldiers' pay, Social Security and veterans benefits, it would take a few weeks for the till to accumulate that much cash -- which in turn would require shutting down or severely curtailing other federal programs that aren't already shut down.

Default or no default

Would all of this produce the "default" we keep hearing about it. Yes and no. A default on debt payments is one possible consequence of not raising the debt ceiling. The government would face some very stark choices: avoid default at all costs or continue to support the old, poor and sick.

It would not be able to do both.

All of this is bad, but what really scares economists is the effect that failing to make entitlement payments would have. The U.S. economy is, after all, a consumer-driven economy -- meaning that most of the money that is spent on goods and services comes from American consumers. Leaving tens of millions of them without income would devastate the economy, not to mention enraging a few hundred million voters.

The economy would dive into a steep recession that would quickly become a depression if no relief was forthcoming, many experts think. "Free fall" is the phrase most often heard.

What to do

What can consumers do to prepare for an economic cataclysm? The answer depends on your circumstances. Talking to your neighborhood survivalist might be the best bet. Failing that, hording cash and laying in a supply of inexpensive, nutritious food -- think rice and beans -- is the most obvious step along with avoiding any unnecessary expenses.

Not only those who rely on government checks will be affected. It's estimated that each $1 paid in entitlement benefits generates $1.70 in economic activity. The number is much higher for money paid to federal employees and contractors. This may mean the business that you rely on for your income may quickly be affected. 

If you have very little in the way of savings, this might be a good time to cancel things like expensive cable TV, smartphone and newspaper subscriptions. You might also want to see if you can cancel or suspend gym memberships, home security systems, housecleaning and other expenses that seem like necessities but will soon become luxuries if your income dries up. 

You might also want to start stretching out your bill payments to preserve as a much cash as possible. Sometimes our credit rating isn't as important as having a few bucks on hand.

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