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How to prepare your personal finances for a coronavirus recession

March 12, 2020, 11:30 PM UTC

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It’s increasingly becoming apparent that the outbreak of the coronavirus is going to cause an economic slowdown. Global supply chains are being disrupted. The travel industry is taking a nosedive. Conferences and other large events are being canceled left and right. Even pro and college sporting events are being postponed or called off.

The stock market is getting pummeled, now down 25% from all-time highs and while past economic data looks great, those numbers are quickly going to fall off a cliff. It’s time to start preparing for a recession.

Here are some ways to get your affairs in order as we approach what is likely to be a painful economic slowdown:

Get your lifestyle inflation in check

When the economy and markets are humming along it becomes tempting to let lifestyle inflation get away from you. Now is the time to review your spending to understand which non-essential areas of your budget can be cut in case of a slowdown. One of the best ways to survive an economic downturn is by right-sizing your spending habits.

Credit card debt is never a good idea because the rates are so astronomically high but it can spiral out of control during an economic contraction. If you hold a balance and have trouble paying it off, now is a good time to call your credit card company to negotiate lower rates or figure out a more reasonable pay-off plan. Many of these companies will work with you if you ask.

It’s also worth putting in a phone call to your cable, phone and insurance providers to ensure you’re getting the best rates. Many of the companies will negotiate with you for better rates. And the worst they can do is say no if you ask.

Make sure you have enough liquidity

Stock markets around the globe are down across the board. Many investors have been waiting years for lower prices. Well, they’re finally here. There are only two ways of taking advantage of this situation:

1. Asset allocation

Have an asset allocation in place with enough liquid assets to allow you to rebalance into the pain. The simplest options here are high-quality bonds or cash.

2. A high enough savings rate

A high savings rate is beneficial in a number of different ways. It not only gives you the option to buy financial assets at lower prices as they are in freefall but also offers a cushion when it comes to your finances.

And for some, liquidity is not just about ensuring their investment portfolio can withstand a storm, but their personal finances. Personal finance experts often preach the benefits of holding 6-12 months of expenses in a safe emergency savings vehicle. Those who don’t have an emergency fund in place need to shore up alternatives just in case. This could be a home equity line of credit, zero interest rate credit cards, brokerage accounts or even Roth IRA contributions.

Hopefully your own personal emergency plan never gets triggered but it makes sense to have one in place to avoid panicking if it does.

Refinance your mortgage

If you took out a $350,000 mortgage a year ago from today you likely locked in a 30 year fixed rate mortgage at around 4.5%. That equates to a monthly payment of roughly $1,775 (ignoring taxes and insurance).

Today 30 year fixed-rate mortgages are closer to 3.3%. On that same $350,000 mortgage, that works out to a monthly payment of around $1,530, a savings of $240 a month. That extra money can provide a cushion during a potential economic slowdown. The one bright spot from the crashing stock market is interest rates have made borrowing more affordable.

Recessions are personal

The following table shows the increase in the U.S. unemployment rate during each recession since WWII:

The average rise from the pre-recession low to the post-recession high is 3.2%. That would take us from the current rate of 3.6% up to 6.8%. In a labor force of roughly 160 million people, that would be more than 5 million people out of a job.

Obviously every recession is different and this one will surely pose its own unique sets of risks and challenges. But it’s important to remember that recessions go beyond economic data. Some people are hurt much worse than others.

There’s an old saying that “It’s a recession when your neighbor loses their job but a depression when you lose your own.”

Whether you lose your job or not, now is the time to prepare financially for the next downturn.

Ben Carlson, CFA is the Director of Institutional Asset Management at Ritholtz Wealth Management. He may own securities or assets discussed in this piece.

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