When life gets unpredictable, there's one thing Americans always want to hang onto: their money.
During times of national uncertainty, it's only natural to want to hunker down and hang on to your cash -- or at a minimum, squeeze as much as possible out of every paycheck (that is, if you're still getting one).
Many Americans are feeling less secure about their lives than ever. In fact, 63 percent feel they will have to make changes in their day-to-day lifestyle, according to a survey by Wirthlin Worldwide, a McLean, Va.-based research firm. Fears of the unknown, job loss or having less income are also on people's minds.
"If you hated financial planning to begin with, the thought of managing your money in trying times can be even more intimidating," says Randy Schuldt, vice president with IHateFinancialPlanning.com, a Web site for the three out of four Americans who hate financial planning. "Although it may seem impossible to predict what the future will bring, there are some simple steps you can take to give you more control of your money in a changing world."
To give you and your family something to hang onto during uncertain or changing times, IHateFinancialPlanning.com offers the following tips:
Put it in perspective. If history is any indication, the economy may not suffer long-term ill effects from recent events. The Dow Jones industrial average -- the oldest U.S. market benchmark -- typically falls for a short time, but it has traditionally rebounded within six months. It happened after Pearl Harbor, the Gulf War, the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Past performance doesn't guarantee future results, but there's a possibility that history may repeat itself. Fearful reactions will only make the short-term last longer.
Reduce your deficit. The nation's economic outlook is nothing you can control, but you do have control over your own situation. If you've got credit card debt, take steps to pay it down. Start with the cards with the highest interest rate and pay more than the minimum on all your cards with balances. Instead of using a credit card for future purchases, get a debit card, which subtracts purchases directly from a bank account.
Protect future income. You owe it to yourself and family to protect your earning power with disability income insurance and/or life insurance. The lack of disability income insurance is the single biggest threat to the financial well-being of the American workforce, according to the Consumer Federation of America. It reports that 80 percent of U.S. workers either have no long-term disability income coverage or their coverage is inadequate.
Resist the urge to borrow from your 401(k). Many people are tempted to borrow from their 401(k) as a first resort, but it should be the last resort. Many people think because it's 'borrowing from themselves' that no harm is done, but actually, they lose the chance to benefit from the tax deferral and compound interest on potential growth of their 401(k). That means your account will be much smaller when you retire. Also, if you quit your job or are fired, you may be required to pay back the entire loan immediately. If you are unable to do so, be prepared to pay income taxes and a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty on the loan.
Balance your budget. Now is a good time to get in the habit of budgeting your money. Track your expenses and spending for a month or so. It could reveal some money habits that need changing. And it can help you shape future habits, such as saving, charitable giving or just paying your bills on time.
Save for emergencies. Many people put off saving for a rainy day. It may not be raining on the economy yet, but the storms are brewing. A good rule of thumb is to have at least three months' salary in the bank where you can access it for emergencies ranging from a leaky roof to layoffs at work.
Have a plan in case of layoff. During these tough times, more and more companies are cutting jobs, and yours could be next. If you haven't done so already, update your resume. Be sure you understand what you'll need to do to maintain health insurance coverage after a layoff. You might want to apply for a home equity line of credit. You don't have to use it, but it's hard to get approved after you've become unemployed.
Write a will. It was a good idea before the world changed, and it's a good idea now. As long as you're thinking about your family's financial future, this is also a good time to formally declare your wishes about who gets what, and how much, after you've passed away. It's also the only way you'll be sure your wishes are carried out. You can modify your will as often as you like, for as long as you live. You may also need a durable power of attorney (POA), which formalizes who will make decisions on your behalf, if you are unable to do so.
Invest in the future. Resist the urge to put future plans on hold. If you want to buy a small business, adopt a child or retire early, put those goals on paper and follow through with a savings plan. It's easier to stay on track if you have something to shoot for. Regardless of the condition of the world, keep improving the condition of your personal finances. An investment in your future is also an investment in America's future.
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