How to Prepare for a Recession

Recessions are an economic reality. They’re also difficult to predict with any precision; they typically start before anyone even knows they’re happening and end before economists have enough data to know they’re done. Moreover, they’re also usually pretty short. Since the end of the Great Depression, there have been 13 recessions in the U.S., and 9 of those were less than one year in duration.

But the individual impacts of a recession can be much bigger and longer lasting, causing permanent financial damage to those who aren’t prepared to ride out the short-term implications and quickly get back on their feet. Millions of Americans still haven’t recovered from the Great Recession (2008-2009). Many never will.

Put it all together, and taking steps to protect yourself and your family from the potential consequences of a recession is not only important but necessary. Let’s take a closer look at what a recession is, how it’s measured, and what you can do — starting today — to make sure you’re as prepared as possible for the next recession…

What is a recession?

A recession is generally considered a slowdown of economic activity as measured by GDP (gross domestic product) lasting two consecutive quarters or longer. The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) has a more expansive definition of recession:

A recession is a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales. A recession begins just after the economy reaches a peak of activity and ends as the economy reaches its trough.

The NBER measures economic activity as more than just GDP and doesn’t require two straight quarters of decline to mark the beginning of a recession. The Great Recession offers an interesting example of why this matters. According to the NBER, GDP declined in December of 2007 and the first quarter of 2008 but grew in the second quarter before declining again in the third and fourth quarters of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009.

This may seem like a distinction without a difference, particularly since it’s often used after the fact to identify periods of recession and recovery. To some extent, that’s true; these measures don’t do much good to address a recession that’s already happened. On the other hand, the research into recessions and the various measures that can identify when the economy is slowing or is at risk of recession can help economists and policy makers more quickly and effectively address future recessions.

Historically, recessions have lasted about a year and a half on average, but more recently, they have tended to be shorter. Since 1945, the average recession in the U.S. has lasted less than one year.

What are the real-world implications of a recession?

Looking beyond the dry textbook definition, recessions mean real economic harm. Moreover, the end of a recession is marked by a return to economic growth, not the full recovery of the economy to prerecession levels. In other words, people affected by a recession often continue to struggle long after economists have said the recession is over.

For example, the U.S. suffered a relatively mild recession in 1990 and 1991 that only lasted eight months and saw GDP decline a mere 1.4%. But while the economy returned to growth, unemployment continued to rise for a full 16 months after the recession technically ended, peaking at 7.8%. We saw a similar trend in the recession of the early 2000s, when the jobless rate peaked more than a year and a half after the end of the recession.

The job losses from the Great Recession are a powerful example of how long individual struggles following a recession can last. On a technical basis, the economy returned to growth in the second half of 2009, and the unemployment rate peaked four months later. That’s a relatively “quick” period for unemployment to peak and return to job creation. Sure, it was good that jobs were being created again, but the unemployment rate peaked at 10%, fully double the rate when the recession started.

Moreover, unemployment would remain at or above 9% for two more years and didn’t return to the prerecession rate of 5% or below September of 2015. That’s six years of high unemployment. In other words, even though the recession was technically over, a slow jobs recovery meant millions of Americans continued to struggle mightily.

The implications of protracted high unemployment are many. Median household income rates show just how much impact the weak and slow recovery had:

DATA SOURCE: FEDERAL RESERVE BANK OF ST. LOUIS.

Median U.S. household income fell nearly 10% in the aftermath of the Great Recession, a direct result of the unemployment rate being nearly double the historical average for a protracted period of time. Moreover, a large portion of the population identified as being “underemployed,” having taken a job with far lower pay earned or fewer hours than they worked prior to the recession.

How could this look on an individual basis? Let’s say you’re an average American, between 45 and 54 years old, who’s married with kids. Today, you have about $50,000 saved toward retirement (according to Vanguard’s How America Saves 2019) and just under $16,000 in savings, according to Bankrate.com. If you’re younger or single, chances are you’ll have far less.

Simply put, $16,000 in savings — far more than millions of us have saved — won’t cover the food, shelter, and transportation expenses for most families for more than a few months.

How far would you be able to stretch your existing savings, along with any unemployment benefits, if you lost your job? Moreover, would you be able to avoid tapping retirement savings before you ran out of cash or found new work? Remember, you’ll pay a 20% penalty for early withdrawals from most retirement accounts — plus pay income tax, too — so today’s balance would go a considerably shorter distance in the real world. That’s assuming it doesn’t decline; remember, the stock market usually falls sharply during a recession.

Now that you’ve considered your own situation, how financially prepared are you for the next recession?

The first two things to do to prepare for a recession

When it comes to preparing for unexpected financial events, there are two things you can do that will have the biggest impact on your ability to ride it out and emerge unscathed on the other side. The two things you need to do first are:

  1. Build up emergency savings.
  2. Pay off high-interest debt and keep other debt to a minimum.

Let’s take a closer look at why these are by far the two most important things everyone should do first.

Build up emergency savings

This is the most obvious step to take, and it’s one that you’ve surely seen in every other financial-preparedness article you’ve read so far. What may not be so clear to you is how much you should have saved. There isn’t a single answer to that question that fits everyone, but there are some pretty good basic guidelines to follow.

In general, it’s recommended that you have at least six months’ expenses in savings. This means enough money to cover your housing and utilities, basic necessities like food and personal care, and other financial obligations like auto loan and insurance payments.

And while you’ll find some wiggle room (you can adjust the thermostat to cut energy use and eliminate eating out, and you’ll save money on transportation if you’re not commuting) to cut expenses if you find yourself without a job or if your income falls, a lot of recurring expenses are relatively fixed in cost. Moreover, some expenses — such as health insurance — often go up if you lose your job, since you no longer have an employer covering some of the cost.

In other words, take the time to develop an accurate measure of what your expenses would really be if you were to lose your job.

The next step is to gradually build up your safety net. It may take a year or even longer to save up enough cash to reach the six-months-in-savings mark. That’s OK; just set the goal and put a plan in place to reach it. Once you get to six months, keep saving with a goal of one year in savings. That’s particularly true if you own a home or have dependents living with you. The reality is, in those situations, your financial liabilities are higher, and you want to have the resources at hand to deal with the unexpected.

Frustrated that your emergency savings hardly gets any yield? Time to let that go and think about it this way…

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