Preparing your finances for a recession

If high inflation and rising interest rates have you nervous, use these tips to get your financial house in order.

  • By Maryalene LaPonsie,
  • U.S. News & World Report
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Before the coronavirus pandemic led to a brief recession in 2020, many individuals may have never experienced a recession as an adult. Many still may not have lived through an extended recession in adulthood, like that of the 2008 to 2009 recession, when most of today’s 30-year-olds were still in high school.

For more than a decade following the 2008-09 recession, U.S. investors benefited from the longest bull market in history. But in recent months, the stock market has seen some wild swings and, at times, entered bear market territory. With interest rates rising and inflation hitting the highest level in four decades, some believe a sustained period of decline and even a recession may be on the horizon.

“If the market is any indication, it seems likely,” says Isabel Barrow, director of financial planning for Edelman Financial Engines in Alexandria, Virginia.

Not everyone thinks a recession is imminent, but financial observers say it will happen sooner or later due to the normal economic cycles at play. Late 2023 or early 2024, for instance, is the best guess of Andy Moore, vice president of advanced planning and portfolio solutions for The Quantum Group in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Planning for a possible economic downturn should always be part of your financial plan, but especially amid today's conditions. Here's what you should do now to prepare your personal finances for a recession:

  • Remain calm.
  • Rebalance your portfolio.
  • Revisit your budget.
  • Max out retirement contributions, if possible.
  • Convert funds to a Roth IRA.
  • Boost your emergency savings.
  • Pay down debt.
  • Reevaluate your job situation.
  • Adjust retirement distributions.

Remain calm

Every day seems to bring fresh news of losses on Wall Street. For workers and retirees who have their retirement money invested in 401(k) accounts and IRAs, the falling numbers can be unsettling. However, the most consistent advice from financial advisors is this: Don't panic and don't make any emotional decisions.

“Forget the stock market,” says Tim Speiss, partner in the personal wealth advisors group for Eisner Advisory Group LLC in New York. “The stock market is not the economy.”

Speiss is optimistic about the future and notes that the vast majority of the past 45 years has been spent in periods of economic expansion. While declining birth rates and limited immigration mean there are factors at play now that may not have been an issue in the past, the economy has always bounced back from slowdowns and periods of high inflation.

That means it’s essential to avoid making financial decisions based on emotions. By selling stocks now, investors will lock in losses and miss the chance to recoup their money when the market bounces back, as it inevitably will.

Rebalance your portfolio

This can be a distressing time for those who have seen their retirement fund balances drop by 20% or more this year. “Take a deep breath about the market going down,” says Clark Kendall, president and CEO of Kendall Capital in Rockville, Maryland. “People forget that it’s a fairly regular occurrence.”

While you don’t want to withdraw money and lock in losses, you may need to rebalance your investments. Most portfolios include a mix of mutual funds that depends on a person's age, risk tolerance and investment goals. As stock prices tumble, investors may shift a larger percentage of a portfolio to bonds. Rebalancing the portfolio means moving some of that money from bond funds and back into stocks, which are essentially on sale given their current lower prices.

Younger workers and even those in their 40s may want to put more investments in growth funds, which have the potential to see greater gains when the market bounces back. However, these funds come with more risk, so money needed in the short term shouldn't be placed there.

Revisit your budget

After years of being relatively flat, inflation came back with a vengeance at the end of 2021. That means – recession or no recession – people should take a second look at their spending.

“Everyone should be pressing the pause button right now,” Speiss says.

Now is the time to review bank accounts and credit card statements to identify costs that can be cut. For instance, many families signed up for multiple streaming and home entertainment services during the pandemic, and those could be pared down or eliminated now.

Apps such as Truebill can automate the process and scan accounts on your behalf. They flag recurring expenses and may even be able to cancel services for you. Best of all, many of these apps are free.

Max out retirement contributions, if possible

For those who are able, now is a good time to contribute the maximum allowed in tax-incentivized retirement funds such as IRAs and 401(k) accounts.

“Stay the course,” Moore says. “Keep investing.”

Low market prices mean investors have the opportunity to buy more shares of a fund and, in turn, see greater growth when prices rise. However, rather than buying indiscriminately, consider consulting with a financial planner to map out which funds to buy right now.

And if you do need to cut back on your contributions because of rising expenses, Moore advises people to continue to contribute at least as much is necessary to max out their employer’s matching contributions.

Convert funds to a Roth IRA

If you have funds in a traditional retirement account, such as a 401(k) or traditional IRA, now could be a good time to convert those funds to a Roth IRA.

A traditional account provides a tax deduction for contributions but then taxes withdrawals in retirement. Roth accounts are funded with after-tax dollars and don’t come with a deduction. However, the money grows tax-free and can be withdrawn tax-free in retirement. Although both types of accounts have tax benefits, many financial advisors note the current tax rate is almost historically low and it may be better to pay taxes on retirement money now.

Funds from a traditional account can be converted to a Roth account, although you have to pay income tax on the converted amount. With portfolios worth less right now, that could translate into a lower tax bill. “It’s 20% less expensive to convert that money to a Roth,” Kendall says, alluding to a recent drop in the stock market.

Boost your emergency savings

With storm clouds on the horizon, now is the time to be sure your rainy-day fund is filled. The prevailing wisdom is that individuals should have enough in savings to cover expenses for three to six months. However, retirees, pre-retirees and those in industries that may see long-term impacts from a recession may want to set aside more.

One benefit of rising interest rates is that high-yield savings accounts, certificates of deposit and some government bonds may all begin paying more to savers. Rather than keep your money in a basic savings account where it earns nothing, shop around for other options. Earning 1% interest on savings won’t make you rich, but it is better than nothing.

Just be sure that your emergency fund remains accessible. “You don’t want to lock your money up and not be able to get to it,” Barrow says.

Pay down debt

Rising interest rates may bode well for savings, but they could put a strain on families with debt. “Now is a really important time to tackle debt,” Barrow says. “Interest rates are only going up from here.”

If you are carrying a balance on high-interest credit cards, focus on paying off those accounts first. Credit cards typically charge variable interest, which means their high interest rates could get even higher in the months to come.

Paying off fixed-rate debt can be helpful going into a recession as well. If you find yourself without a job, fewer monthly bills mean your emergency fund will last longer.

Reevaluate your job situation

A recession is usually accompanied by an increase in unemployment.

“If you don’t (feel) secure about your job, you should brush up on employment skills,” Speiss says.

Look for ways to make yourself more marketable to employers. Furthering your education is a common way to open up job opportunities, but spending money on classes may not be feasible or wise depending on your budget. Instead, consider low-cost options such as networking with others in your industry. Those connections may come in handy later.

Adjust retirement distributions

While younger workers may have decades to make up losses from falling stock prices, most retirees don't have that luxury. Just as people shouldn't sell off stocks right now, seniors should avoid pulling money from retirement funds unless absolutely necessary. It's better if they can pivot to other sources of savings until the market rebounds.

If there isn't enough in liquid savings to ride out the poor market conditions, retirees may want to pull money from more stable fixed income and bond funds rather than more volatile equities. Speak to a financial advisor for personalized guidance.

Although it can be scary to watch dropping fund balances, Kendall says successful investors know downturns come with the territory.

“A lot of people will hide in these types of markets,” he says. But for those who are savvy about the situation, Kendall says this can be a time of financial opportunity.

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