Recessions are inevitable, and given the current economic crisis being caused by COVID-19, another one seems imminent. The World Bank predicts that the global economy will shrink by 5.2% this year, resulting in the worst recession since after World War II.

Recession-proofing your finances means that you prepare for the worst so you can maintain stability through economic downturns. This can be challenging amidst stay-at-home-orders and business closures, but if you’re still on stable financial ground now, these tips can help you get started.

Know This: 

  • The signs and causes of a recession seem numerous and complex but, can be easily identified.
  • Your best defense is to minimize your debt and boost your savings.
  • Learn from the 2008 Great Recession to better prepare your finances.

Table of Contents

What is a recession

A reduction in the gross domestic product (GDP) for two consecutive quarters is considered a recession. But it is not as simple as that. Knowing what it is isn’t as important as how it happens. What can lead to a recession is important to understand so you can look out for signals that it’s time to get your financial ducks in a row.

Signs of a Recession include:

  • A reduction in the gross domestic product (GDP)
  • Rising unemployment
  • A decline in real income and in consumer spending
  • Slowing of industrial production and retail sales
  • An inverted yield curve has predicted the last 10 recessions. This is when yields on longer-dated bonds (10 yrs) go down while yields on shorter term bonds (2 yrs) go up.

Causes of a Recession include:

  • A loss of consumer confidence – If people are worried about the future they will not spend money. If the future outlook is cloudy investing goes down too. This is why the inverted bond yield curve is a good signal about economic stability.
  • Deregulation – When legal safeguards are removed people tend to worry about what will happen. Especially when these regulations control financial institutions such as causing the savings and loans crisis of 1990 and the mortgage crisis of 2008.
  • High interest rates – The risk of a loan is measured by the interest rate. High rates mean a risky future and people tend to shy away from investing when the future is unclear.
  • Deflation –  When the perceived value of goods and services drops people wait for the prices to drop as well. This usually happens when there is high interest rate and loans are too costly. The lack of purchasing can lead to business cutting jobs to save money. The high employment rate will spiral trending toward more people with less income to spend, and therefore more job losses.
  • Economic shocks are unpredictable and caused by events beyond “normal” economic transactions. Shocks can be classified as supply shocks, demand shocks, financial shocks, or policy shocks. Here are some examples of economic shocks:
    • Credit crunches happen when there is little money to lend. In 2008 banks lost billions of dollars due to holding bad mortgage debt, lenders become warier, interest rates rise, and there is less money available.
    • A stock market crash can be triggered by speculation and economic bubbles. A highly psychological factor that drives people to sell stocks, lowering the value of shares which creates a fear loop of panic selling. It could be the old saying “all good things come to an end, so you better sell before you lose everything” that drives these unpredictable events.
    • When asset bubbles burst due to demand-pull inflation. When assets are valued beyond a sustainable level an economic collapse can happen. Caused by low-interest rates that lead high demand and a flooded, over-valued market that eventually topples. Examples include the 2000 Dot-Com Bubble, the 2005 Housing Bubble, and the 2017 Bitcoin Asset Bubble.
    • Postwar recessions or post-pandemic recessions start with a surge of consumer demand that had been suppressed. But, there is also a shortage of supply due to a lack of production capacity because many businesses closed, as well as supply chain issues. This leads to inflation which is met by policymakers attempting to adjust the market by increasing interest rates.

How to prepare for a recession

Being on the lookout for the above signals and causes is enough to give anyone constant anxiety. At any time one or more of the factors is happening. So while keeping a watchful eye is important, there are better ways to prepare for a perfect recession storm.

If the stress of inevitable financial doom is causing panic attacks, take a deep breath and repeat, “Save more, Borrow less”. This is your new financial mantra.

Less debt means less risk of default and more borrowing power in case you need it. More savings provide a bigger safety net if you have issues with your income and cash flow.

Recessions bring higher unemployment, increased risk of layoffs, and lower tips and commissions. In the last recession, full-time employees even had their hours cut, often to 4-day work weeks. So, you need extra savings to pad your financial safety net.

Chelsea Brennan, SmartMoneyMamas.com: So we’ve been talking about Recession 2019, 2018, 2016 – we’re always talking about it. Whether or not it actually comes I think the biggest thing for people who have investments is to do a gut check of if you woke up tomorrow and the market was down 20%, are you panicking?

And if you are, you probably need to reallocate, and now is the time to do something about it. If you’re feeling stuck in a debt and you’re wondering what do I do in a recession? What if I lose my job? I think now is the time to start bolstering that emergency fund. Start thinking about paying off the high-interest debt.

Lance Davis, Bankrate.com: Have a fully-funded emergency fund in a savings account that is paying a competitive APR. Make sure you have that so when times get tough, if you lose a job or your home you can’t meet the mortgage payments or anything like that you have the emergency fund to at least you know act as a buffer while you’re trying to connect the dots elsewhere.

Um, so I think that’s the foundation to a sound financial plan is having that emergency fund to fall back on.

Lauren Jackson, Self.inc: Trying to make sure your credit is in shape so that if you do need to borrow money next year to get you through the recession you can get those good interest rates. You can get those better quality credit products you might need to kinda get yourself over the hump.

Leslie H. Tayne, Esq., Tayne Law Group: Every single day you need to be doing something for your personal finances to allow yourself every opportunity to get through what can be thrown at your way.

From illnesses to loss of income, to changes in the law, to interest rates changing – whatever comes your way by doing something today positive for yourself whether that’s putting money away, looking at your credit score, managing your debt properly, talking to your family members about budgeting and your significant other – every single day will help you in the future.

Doug Nordman, The-Military-Guide.com: Set an allocation you can live. And it’s got to be one that your comfortable with. Not just financially logical and cold-hearted mathematics. But also one that you can sleep well at night with. Once you set that asset allocation – it’s even better if it’s written down why you have that asset allocation and you’re going to do it – once the recession hits, you can say to yourself, “it’s okay, I’ve got a plan, I’ve got an asset allocation. I’ll just keep investing and stay the course.

Systematically minimize debt levels

Pay off credit card debt first

Start by eliminating high interest rate credit card debt first. Ideally, you want to maintain zero balances from month to month. So, everything you charge in a month gets paid off within that billing cycle. This not only minimizes interest charges but also helps protect your finances from risk during a recession.

If a recession hits, you don’t want excess credit card debt hanging around. It gives you less breathing room in your budget because you have more obligations to cover. If the worst happens and you face job loss, credit cards are often the first debts to slip into default.

That means if you believe a recession may hit later this year, you should take steps now to eliminate credit card debt. If you can’t pay off balances using a debt reduction plan in your budget, consider relief options:

  1. Credit card balance transfer
  2. Unsecured personal debt consolidation loan
  3. Debt management program

Then focus on student loans

Once you have credit card debt out of the way, focus on any student loan debt in your household. If you have multiple federal loans to repay, consider a federal repayment plan. There are two plans (standard and graduated) that are designed to help you pay off student loan debt “quickly.” However, the term on these programs is ten years, so it’s not exactly fast. It’s just faster than other relief programs that have terms of up to 25 years.

If you really want fast student loan repayment and you have a good, steady income, the best option is student loan refinancing. You can use refinancing for federal and private student loans. This will give you the shortest term so you can really get out of student loan debt fast.

However, just be aware that this converts federal loans to a private loan. You will no longer be eligible for federal student loan relief. If the recession hits and you lose your job, that could be a problem. So, consider this carefully before you take this step.

Talk to a student loan resolution specialist for a free evaluation to find the best solution for your needs.

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Finally, be careful with risky auto loans

While some experts believe student loans will be the debt at the root of the next recession, others worry it will be auto loans. Many of the risky lending practices that caused the housing crisis in 2008 have migrated to the auto industry.

  • If the economy takes a turn and you have a long-term auto loan (6 years or more), you may end up stuck with a loan you can’t afford and a car you can’t sell.
  • If you have a variable rate loan, you also need to be concerned. Rates could increase suddenly just like they did on adjustable-rate mortgages at the start of the 2008 crisis.

If you’re in either of these situations with an auto loan, refinance now. Your best bet is to get the debt paid off in case the auto loan bubble really does burst.

Expand your financial safety net

In normal circumstances, experts say you should have 3-6 months of bills and budgeted expenses covered in savings. For example, let’s say your bills and necessary expenses cost $1,500 per month. A good emergency fund would be $4,500 to $9,000. This would allow you to maintain your budget without credit even if you lose your job for up to six months.

However, during a recession, 6 months may not be enough. During the Great Recession, people were unemployed for up to a year or more, on average. So, experts now say that if you anticipate a recession, you should save up to 1 year of expenses. Ideally, you want $18,000 in easily accessible savings accounts.

If that sounds excessive, just remember what this money is supposed to cover. The idea is that you can live on savings until you get a new job if you face a layoff. No massive run-up of credit card debt; no payday loans with ridiculous interest rates. You enjoy financial peace of mind even without full-time employment.

Tips:

  1. Your savings account should be greater than what you earn per paycheck
  2. Deposit the entire tax return or bonus check into your savings account
  3. Direct deposit part of your paycheck into savings
  4. Try to anticipate home & auto repairs and set aside money accordingly
  5. Save spare change either physically or digitally
  6. Find things to sell to boost your savings

What are the best savings accounts for a recession?

The best savings account to have during a recession is a fixed-rate savings account that you open now. Over the past two years, the Federal Reserve has increased the federal funds rate about seven times.

That’s the benchmark rate that financial institutions use to set base rates for loans and savings accounts. So, interest rates on loans are on the rise, but so are rates on savings accounts. You can find savings accounts right now that offer a 2% Annual Percent Yield (APY); that’s the interest rate on a savings tool.

If the economy takes a turn, the Federal Reserve will lower the federal funds rate. The idea is to encourage people to borrow to spur the economy. But that will also drop the APY you can find on savings tools. That’s why you want to get a fixed-rate savings account now. Get the account while rates are at their highest.

Also, be aware that if you have a variable-rate savings account, such as a Money Market Account, your growth will likely slow during the recession. The high rates you may be enjoying now won’t last if the economy takes are turn. That’s why fixed-rate accounts are your best option heading into a potentially weak economy.

3 key takeaways from the Great Recession

Borrowing against your equity is a risky proposition right before a recession

Arguably the most devastating part of the Great Recession was the real estate market collapse. It was certainly heart-breaking to watch people lose their 401(k) savings in the stock market crash, but most eventually recovered. But when the mortgage market collapsed, families lost their homes and in many cases, there was no going back.

A large part of the mortgage crisis resulted from excessive borrowing against equity. People took advantage of the boom years to take out second and even third mortgages. They used home equity loans and HELOCs without reserve or concern.

But when the market collapsed and property values plummeted, those homeowners were severely upside-down. They owed far more than their homes were worth.

The hard lesson learned during the crisis was that borrowing against your home can be risky. Just because you have equity to use, it doesn’t mean that you should. If you worry about a recession, stick to a single traditional mortgage and don’t borrow against your home. In particular, avoid actions like taking out a home equity loan to pay off credit card debt. It’s just not worth the risk!

No job is 100% recession-proof, but some are recession-susceptible

There’s no guarantee that you can make it through a recession without hiccups in your employment. However, the Great Recession certainly showed the vulnerability of several professions:

  1. Anything in construction or real estate can be risky. Recessions don’t always come with a mortgage crisis, but a weak economy often leads to a housing market slowdown. If your career is dependent on an active health real estate market, you may want to consider supplementing your income.
  2. Hospitality is hard when everyone stays home. People in the service industry also suffered particularly hard during the Great Recession. As families felt the financial pinch, they stopped going out to eat and limited vacations. As a result, tips dried up and people’s customer base just wasn’t there.
  3. Startup businesses have a higher risk of closure. You don’t have any guarantee that a large company will weather the storm and avoid mass layoffs. On the other hand, working for a startup means you may be more at risk of the business closing entirely.

Approvals can be hard to come by during a recession

Lenders can choose to increase or relax their lending standards, as long as they follow federal and state regulations. During a recession, lenders face high rates of default from other borrowers. Basically, they can’t afford another bad loan that doesn’t get repaid.

This means it can be tough to get approved for financing. This is true both for personal loans and for any small business loans that you may need. If you want to get approved, you’ll need a great credit score and a low debt-to-income ratio. Only the most creditworthy can get approved.

That being said, recessions can often be a great time to refinance. The Federal Reserve typically lowers interest rates during a recession to stimulate the economy. If you have great credit and you followed the advice above, you can get really attractive rates on loans. Just make sure you have the means you cover the payments on whatever you borrow.

Warning signs a recession is coming – and what you can do about it

Predicting recessions is like predicting the weather. You can’t say exactly where and when the storm will hit, but you can get pretty close – and give people in its path time to prepare.

A credit card recession

Since the eve of the last recession, we’ve passed a scary milestone: Credit card debt has surpassed the $1 trillion mark. To put it another way: If you added up all the balances on all the credit card statements in this country, it would total just over $1 trillion. The last recession was sparked by a housing bubble. Homeowners couldn’t afford to pay their mortgages. What happens if Americans can no longer afford their credit cards? That’s a simplified question about a complex set of circumstances, but it’s also keenly relevant to our current debt problems. What goes up must one day come crashing down. How high can credit card debt go before it weakens all of our finances? If it doesn’t directly cause a recession, it can surely be the last straw that pushes us into one.

What you can do: If you have so much credit card debt that you can’t pay it back, seek a free debt analysis from a nonprofit credit counseling agency immediately. You might be eligible for a debt management program, which can freeze fees and reduce monthly payments by up to 30 or even 50 percent.

A student loan recession

Remember what we said about credit card debt surpassing $1 trillion? It’s even worse for student loans.
Total student loan debt is even higher: nearly $1.5 trillion. that’s 10 percent of all the debt Americans owe. Already, student loans are such a problem, it’s affecting home sales. According to the National Association of Realtors, more than a fourth of student loan borrowers “were delayed by at least two years in moving out of a family member’s home after college due to their student loans.” [1]
So even if student loans don’t directly cause another recession and another housing crisis does, student loans could easily be a contributing factor.
What you can do: If you have student loans you can’t pay back, the federal government offers several programs that can reduce your monthly payments. Why? Because the government has a vested interest in you not defaulting on your loans – and causing national economic instability.

An “auto-matic” recession

The last recession was caused by a housing bubble. Will the next one be sparked by an auto bubble? Sound ridiculous? February of 2018, Forbes reported, “outstanding auto loans and leases remain at or near record levels for volume.” [2]
Then two months later CNBC reported, “A combination of higher auto prices, longer loans and climbing interest rates means a buyer who finances their purchase could pay about $6,500 more than they would have five years ago.” [3]
While certainly not as catastrophic as the housing bubble, see No. 1 above – because Americans are now deeper in debt than they were a decade ago, so it’ll take less to push the country into a recession.
What you can do: Don’t follow the herd and the trends. Take a pass on long-term and high-rate auto loans. Buy a used car you can afford. Your friends may laugh at you now, but the last laugh will be yours.

A retirement recession

The common rule is: You’ll need around 70 percent of your pre-retirement income if you want to live well post-retirement. That includes your own savings plus Social Security. Guess how much Americans have saved up right now? A third has less than $5,000, says a 2018 study from Northwestern Mutual. [4] “One in five Americans (21 percent have NO retirement savings at all,” the study says.
Remember the Obama-era bailouts to prevent homeowners and businesses from going under? Will we need a retiree bailout one day? How will families support their elders who can’t afford to support themselves? Especially when those families are saddled with their own credit card bills, student loan balances, and auto loan terms?
What you can do: If you have a 401(k) or similar program through work, sign up now. Many of these programs will match a percentage of your contributions. For instance: 25 cents for every dollar up to a certain amount. That’s like opening a savings account and earning 25 percent interest! You can’t get that in the stock market or with bitcoin.

A rampant recession

If I was forced to predict the cause of the next recession, I’m going with: all of the above. This country is facing such structural debt problems across so many categories, I can easily see any one of them pushing us into a recession – and all the others keeping us there for a long time. In fact, the prediction of which I’m most confident: A decade ago, we called it the Great Recession, but next time, it could be another Great Depression.
What you can do: Change how you think abut money and what you do with it. That sounds impossible, but the fact is, unlike any other time in history, there’s free advice that’s proven and specific. You can find it right here on this website. Change now, if not for yourself, for your children – because either you or them is heading for a crisis not seen in almost a century.

Recession savings questions from a Debt.com readers…

Question: My husband and I have read many articles by you and other experts that predict a recession is coming soon. We’re very scared about this, as we barely survived the last recession. We still haven’t paid off all the debts we incurred during that time period.

My husband read this article on the Fox Business website and wants to invest in silver stocks. He wants to divert the $50 a month we put into an IRA we have for retirement. This doesn’t feel right, but I can’t explain why it feels wrong. What do you think?

— Regina in Texas

Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…

When I originally wrote we’ll suffer another recession during President Trump’s first four years, I was worried. I wanted Americans like you, Regina, to know what might be coming – and get ready for it. However, I didn’t want to cause panic or even angst.

I have a formula: Preparation plus time equals inner peace.

So you can indeed prep for the next recession, but you don’t need to take hasty risks like investing in precious metals. Only a few months ago, I told another husband not to buy gold on his credit card. Now I’m telling your husband not to stop saving for retirement to buy silver.

What I wrote about gold also applies to silver or any metal: Prices fluctuate wildly, they’re impossible to predict, and you can lose your entire investment if you’re not careful.

Even worse, you seem to imply, Regina, that you still have credit card debt that you’ve been carrying since the last recession. Your first priority should be paying that off. If your husband is unconvinced, tell him to think about it this way…

  • Silver has a 16 percent annual rate of return, although that can fly in either direction at any given time. You might make 200 percent, or you might lose 100 percent.
  • The average interest rate on a credit card for someone with good credit is around 15 percent. It balloons to 21 percent for those with fair credit. It sounds like you might be somewhere in the middle, Regina.

…so paying off your credit cards will put just as much money in your pocket as investing in silver, and without the risk.

Investing in the stock market is something you should only do when you have money you don’t desperately need. Even then, it’s folly to buy individual stocks or even stock funds that are invested so narrowly in industries you and your husband know nothing about.

Question: I’ll turn 25 in December and am in line for a major promotion at work. I grew up during the Great Recession, so I’ve been very careful about not blowing my money on a house or an expensive car. I live in a modest apartment and still drive the Honda I had in high school. 

Thing is, I still have $14,000 in student loans to pay off and a couple of grand on my credit cards from last holidays. I have an emergency fund of $1,200, and no other debts. But what if there’s another recession in my lifetime? What can I do to prepare better than my parents, who lost their jobs a year apart and were already seriously in debt when that happened?

This has me seriously freaked out.   

— Rebecca in Rhode Island

Howard Dvorkin answers…

I don’t want to scare you, Rebecca, but I feel safe making this prediction: There will be another recession in your lifetime. In fact, it might be a lot sooner than you think.

While I’ve mused about the next recession myself – wondering if the spark will be an auto bubble, student loans, or even a retirement crisis – other experts have become more emphatic.

Zillow Research polled 99 financial experts, and while their opinions on the date of the next recession varied from the fourth quarter of 2018 (only 4 percent) to the first quarter of 2022 (6 percent), one stat was startling…

Almost half (48 percent) predicted it will happen in 2020.

My team from Debt.com caught up with a few financial experts at FinCon, a huge annual gathering of the nation’s foremost financial advisors, influencers, and members of the media. Here’s what they have to say about preparing your finances for the downturn now…

From illnesses to loss of income, to changes in the law, to interest rates changing – whatever comes your way by doing something today positive for yourself whether that’s putting money away, looking at your credit score, managing your debt properly, talking to your family members about budgeting and your significant other – every single day will help you in the future.

Doug Nordman, The-Military-Guide.com: Set an allocation you can live. And it’s got to be one that your comfortable with. Not just financially logical and wholehearted mathematics. But also one that you can sleep well at night with. Once you set that asset allocation – it’s even better if it’s written down why you have that asset allocation and you’re going to do it – once the recession hits, you can say to yourself, “it’s okay, I’ve got a plan, I’ve got an asset allocation. I’ll just keep investing and stay the course.

I’ve been around long enough not to make predictions about the economy, sports games, or the Oscars. I simply mention this as proof that recessions are a part of life.

Hopefully, the next one – whenever it is – won’t be as devastating as the Great Recession of a decade ago. I’m a CPA and not a psychologist, but it seems like you’re experiencing some post-traumatic stress from your adolescence. I can try to alleviate your stress with some factual advice.

Don’t go for the gold (or silver)

First, let me tell you what not to do. Last year, a reader’s husband wanted to invest in silver, as a hedge against the next recession. While it’s true that precious metals skyrocket in value during economic downturns, it’s also true that they don’t help you when you have bills to pay.

The wife told me the couple still had debts to pay. It makes no sense to prepare for a recession by ignoring bills that come with steep interest rates to buy metals or stocks in them that earn no interest themselves.

Don’t panic

You’re in pretty good shape, Rebecca. Your biggest debt is your student loan, and you have options there. While you can’t simply get rid of that debt, you can make a serious dent in it by exploring several proven options – including federal programs that can greatly reduce your monthly payments. Check out How to Get Out of Student Loan Debt.

Do prepare

You’re not alone, Rebecca. Many survivors of the Great Recession are worried about the next one.  I think you’ll find you’re already halfway to where you need to be prepared for the next recession.

List of Major Recessions

  • The Great Depression (August 1929 to March 1939) was caused by banking panic and international commitment to the gold standard.
  • The Oil Crisis Recession (November 1973 to March 1975) was due to OPEC quadrupling oil prices and the stock market crash.
  • The Iranian Revolution Recession (July 1981 to November 1982) caused the 1979 energy crisis due to high oil prices.
  • Gulf War Recession (July 1990 to March 1991) due to inflation, an oil price shock, debt from the 80’s recession, and consumer pessimism.
  • Dot-Com Recession (March 2001 to November 2001) happened when the Dot-com bubble burst and the 9/11 attacks.
  • The Great Recession (December 2007 to June 2009) was due to the subprime mortgage crisis which caused the housing bubble crash. An auto industry crisis as well as a wide-scale collapse of many financial institutions.
  • COVID-19 Recession ( February 2020 to April 2020) A global pandemic led to 24 million people losing jobs in just three weeks.

Current Risks of Recession

“If a much-feared recession does emerge as the year unfolds, this would seem to be the most widely predicted contraction of the economy that I can remember. It would also be essentially self-inflicted by the Federal Reserve, which has been aggressively raising interest rates in the cause of slaying the inflation monster.” — Mark Hamrick Bankrate senior economic analyst [1]

Let’s look at the signals:

These factors are constantly changing and data may be out of date.  New reports are released regularly and all info can be found online. Please remember if factors are negative it’s not a sign to”live it up” because of a “booming” economy. All financial decisions should be thoughtfully considered especially if you are struggling with debt.

Q: Is there a reduction in the gross domestic product (GDP)?

500
A:   No, the Gross Domestic Product (Third Estimate) for Q3 2022 is +3.2%. The GDP for Q2 2022 was -0.6%. So there have not been two consecutive quarters of reduction.

Bureau of Economic Analysis December 22, 2022

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Q: Is there rising unemployment?

500
A: No, the unemployment rate edged down to 3.5 percent.

Bureau of Labor Statistics January 6, 2023 

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Q: Is there a decline in real income?

500
A: No, real average hourly earnings for all employees increased 0.5 percent from October to November.

Bureau of Labor Statistics December 13, 2022  

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Q: Is there a decline in consumer spending?

500
A: No, consumer spending edges up 0.1% in November

Reuters December 23, 2022

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Q: Is there a slowing in industrial production and retail sales?

500
A: Yes, industrial production declined 0.2 percent in November.

Federal Reserve System December 15, 2022 

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Read to learn more:  Americans Fear a Major Recession is “Right Around the Corner”

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Article last modified on January 16, 2023. Published by Debt.com, LLC