Inflation is at a 40-year high. Interest rates are rising. And gas prices have hit a frightening $5 a gallon.
The stock market is taking investors on a roller-coaster ride with terrifying drops. Even if you haven’t looked lately, you know that the value of your retirement account is down. Cryptocurrencies are crashing, not surprisingly.
And now you’re hearing that we may be in a recession, or one is inevitable.
You remember the Great Recession and how harsh it was for so many. So telling you to “calm down” or that “this too shall pass” doesn’t address the anxiety you’re feeling about your financial well-being.
It’s okay that you don’t feel things are okay.
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But what you shouldn’t do is make moves based on recessionary fears that can put you in a worse position financially.
Recessions don’t last forever.
An interest rate hike will affect anyone with a home mortgage, car loan, savings account or money in the stock market. (Video: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)
On average, recessions last 11 months, according to Lindsey Bell, chief markets and money strategist for Ally. The shortest recession on record is the 2020 pandemic-induced recession, which lasted just three months.
Here are seven tips to protect yourself whether a recession is coming or not.
1. Don’t be afraid of a bear market. You may not even know what a bear market is but you’re primed to be petrified of one.
This week, the S&P 500 index slid into a bear market, which is defined as a 20 percent drop from a recent high.
The average duration of a bear market since 1950 is roughly 418 days, according to Anthony Saglimbene, global markets strategist for Ameriprise Financial.
“Just shift your view a little bit and look at this as an opportunity if you’re a longer-term investor,” Saglimbene said.
Focus on companies that have strong balance sheets, strong cash flow, and products that consumers are using and need, he suggested.
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“Health-care and consumer-staples companies have often done well in recessionary environments because people need their products regardless of the economic environment,” said Christine Benz, director of personal finance for Morningstar.
It’s a good time to take advantage of “dollar-cost averaging,” which means you invest the same amount of money regularly regardless of the ups and downs in the market.
Although stocks are taking a beating right now, historically they recover well after a recession. If you don’t have exposure to stocks, you miss the eventual recovery.
“If you have the cash to put to work today, this is a good time to talk to an adviser and figure out what a good dollar cost averaging strategy could be over time,” Saglimbene said.
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2. Don’t try to time the market. A lot of folks may want to get out of the stock market or reduce what they’re investing until things get better. That is the definition of trying to time the market. It’s impossible to know the best time to get out and when to jump back in.
“Most people, most mere mortals, are not able to time the market,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate.com. “Even Warren Buffett would admit that.”
Once we reach the low point in the bear market, stock returns for the S&P 500 tend to be above average, Saglimbene said.
“One of the things we always coach investors and advisers to do is when you’re in the throes of either a recession or in a bear market, you don’t want to make outsized allocation adjustments until the dust settles,” Saglimbene said. “If you’re properly diversified, you’re weathering the storm. The worst thing an investor could do right now is to try to time the market bottom.”
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3. Get rid of your credit card debt. Now. “Job number one for anyone with a credit card is to pay off their balances as soon as possible,” said Matt Schulz, chief credit analyst at LendingTree. “When a recession may be on the way and interest rates are rising rapidly, it’s even more important.”
One way to tackle the debt is to get a low-interest personal loan or sign up for a balance-transfer credit card. You can dig out of the debt a lot faster if you transfer high-interest debt to a credit card with a 0 percent rate.
If you can’t qualify for a 0 percent credit card, call your current credit issuer and ask for an interest rate reduction, Schulz suggested. “About 70 percent of people who asked for one in the last year got one,” Schulz said. “But far too few people ask.”
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4. Stockpile savings. Save while you have the extra money because a recession can quickly change your circumstances.
If you don’t have a good emergency fund, consider canceling a vacation or putting off an expensive renovation project that isn’t necessary.
“For many people right now, this inflation problem is akin to an emergency,” Hamrick said.
You don’t want to have to resort to debt if you lose your job or because your wages aren’t keeping up with historically high inflation, he said.
Also, consider that the standard advice of having three to six months’ worth of living expenses may not be enough.
“It makes sense for workers to right-size their emergency reserves based on their own situations,” Benz said.
Younger workers may have more flexibility in their lifestyle to get a roommate — or two — or switch career paths to take advantage of new job opportunities. So their emergency reserves can run closer to that three to six months’ worth of living expenses recommendation, she said.
But if you’re an older worker and can’t change your housing situation and/or you’re in a highly paid specialized position and replacing your income could take longer if you lose your job, err on the side of having a year’s worth of savings or assets you can easily liquidate.
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5. Establish a backup to your emergency fund. In addition to having a recession rainy-day fund, Benz recommends figuring out where you might go for additional funds if you needed them in a pinch.
“A home equity line of credit can make sense in this context, and it’s best to obtain it when you’re employed and most likely to qualify,” she said.
6. Don’t underestimate the power of having bonds in your retirement portfolio. Typically when stocks are down, bonds balance out your stock holdings. But bond prices have been hit as well.
Still, in previous recessions, bonds have held up better than nearly any other market segment, Benz pointed out.
“In other words, don’t throw them overboard because they’re not performing well right now,” she said. “They’re an essential portfolio ingredient, especially for people who are in or getting close to retirement.”
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7. Get a side gig. Many employers are begging for workers.
There are a record number of job openings, with the unemployment rate at 3.6 percent. The economy saw job gains in transportation, warehousing, leisure and hospitality, education, health services, and government, according to the Labor Department.
“But there is obviously a risk that unemployment could rise,” Hamrick said.
Even if you don’t need the money right now, it may be a good time to get a second job or find work in the gig economy to boost your income and savings. Now’s the time to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.