By The Associated Press
With some experts predicting the economy is already slipping back into recession, now's the time to make sure you and your family are prepared to handle another downturn.
"It's important to understand that recession doesn't mean a bad economy — we've had that for years now," said a recent report from the Economic Cycle Research Institute, which has called the last four recessions accurately. "It means an economy that keeps worsening, because it's locked into a vicious cycle."
Families are already feeling the pain. Recent data show they're earning less and cutting back on spending.
So how can a family that is already hunkered down prepare for even worse times?
Start by assessing the health of your household finances and job security. Then lay out a plan to handle critical and long-term risks to each.
Each family's response will be unique, reflecting its situation, said Patricia Seaman, senior director at the National Endowment for Financial Education. Those who fear their job is on the chopping block, for instance, may decide it's time to move into crisis mode on the financial front before the pink slip arrives. Those who are less concerned may decide now is the time to make themselves more indispensable at work.
Here are some ideas for putting together your own plan:
Most of financial planner Chris Bixby's clients at Key Private Bank are more aware of their financial situations now than they were three years ago, and are more conscious to avoid overspending. But he said few have cut back as much as they could have — or perhaps should have. Now, he said, it's time for a financial reality check.
In general, there are two ways to find savings when it comes to regular spending: trim the big expenses and eliminate the little ones.
For instance, take a careful look at big bills such as your insurance policies, especially if they haven't been updated recently. Does your homeowner's policy reflect the current value of your house, or the bubble price? Are you paying several insurance companies and missing out on multiple policy discounts?
Reworking your policies can save hundreds of dollars a year.
If you don't have an emergency fund to fall back on, those savings can provide a kick-start to building one. Such a fund should be a priority, NEFE's Seaman said. Households should aim to have at least six months of expenses stashed away, more if you're fearful of a job loss, because it's so common these days to be out of work for long periods.
Some other areas where you might be able to find savings:
- Housing. Mortgage rates are at an all-time low and refinancing could shave hundreds off your monthly payment. Even if your credit standing is less-than-stellar and you can't get the lowest possible rate, you still may be able to save with a new loan. Compare rates offered by several banks.
- Bank accounts. More banks are adding monthly fees and service charges. Switching banks is one way to save on fees, but you might avoid some of that hassle by simply linking accounts, adding direct deposit or using bill payment services. Automatic bill payments can also help you avoid late fees.
- Credit cards. Annual fees are no longer rare and interest rates have climbed. Although it's best to pay off the balance each month to avoid interest charges, if you carry a balance make sure you're getting the best rate possible. Sometimes, a simple phone call to the bank that issued the card will result in a rate reduction because they want to keep your business, said NEFE's Seaman. Also ask if the annual fee can be waived.
- Monthly payment plans. There are pros and cons to monthly plans. On the positive side, utilities and other service providers like heating oil companies will often allow customers to enroll in level billing plans that can reduce monthly expenses by spreading payments over the whole year. That can be especially helpful during winter months when heating and electric costs spike. The flip side is monthly plans for gym memberships, online music services and other lower priorities. These seemingly small charges quickly add up and are wasteful if you don't use them. Identify which can be eliminated.
- Everyday spending. If you're not the type to track every penny you spend, check out personal finance management software to get a picture of where your daily dollars are going. Many banks offer links on their websites, or try a free third-party site like Mint.com or Yodlee.com's MoneyCenter. These programs will sort your spending into categories and produce charts and graphs that may surprise you — spotlighting budget busters like excessive ATM fees or an over-reliance on take-out food. Once you've done the work to trim where it doesn't hurt, it might be time to take a look at some items closer to the heart. For instance, the average household spends about $115 per month on subscription entertainment, including cable and satellite services, video games and publications like magazines, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm. It may be hard to pull the plug during football season — but if you're in crisis mode cutting out cable may be necessary.
- There are steps you can take if you think your company may start cutting back staff, said Eleta Jones, associate director of the Center for Professional Development at the University of Hartford, Conn.
- Solve problems. "Think about the business issues your organization is dealing with," she said. Are there ways you can help by pointing out problems that could be weighing down the company, but not registering on management's radar? By raising the issues and offering solutions, she said, you may raise your profile and remove yourself from the list of people to be let go.
- Get the boss's attention. "People assume their boss knows what they're doing, the projects they've done, the things they've accomplished," Jones said. That may not be the case, so when something goes well, especially if a customer is involved, make sure management is alerted. This is particularly relevant before a performance appraisal. She advises anyone who is expecting a review to provide a summary of accomplishments before it is prepared as a way to make sure all your work is reflected in the evaluation.
- Sell yourself. Outside the office, it's important to have a resume prepared and up to date. But having more than one, each tailored to different types of jobs or even to different companies you want to target in a job search, is an even better tactic.
- Expand your connections. Networking can start at a professional organization, alumni club, social group, church or even the dentist's chair, Jones said, recalling an acquaintance who landed a job after mentioning to his dentist that he was looking for work. Online resources like LinkedIn.com and to a lesser extent Facebook can also be places to make connections, but Jones said face-to-face networking is usually more successful. "It's a matter of trying to cast your net in a lot of different directions."
- Don't be too aggressive. Job seekers, or potential job seekers, should approach new contacts for information, not for a position. For instance, pick a company that you're interested in applying to, seek out people who work there, and ask questions about their division, the business climate and so forth. "You don't want to impose yourself too hard on somebody," Jones said, but she added that most people are willing to offer information and advice.
- Search smart. Information about who is hiring can also be found on targeted websites that specialize in certain types of jobs, like idealist.org for nonprofit jobs or computerjobs.com for tech work. But going directly to an organization is often more successful.
- Stay involved. If you are out of work, keeping busy is important. Volunteering a few days a week, for instance, can provide structure to what seems like an aimless day, offer networking opportunities and be included on a resume. It can also remove some of the stress from the job hunt. "Be careful about filling up time doing things other than looking for a job," Jones said. "You can't look for a job all day long."