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Whether This Is a Recession or Not, Protect Your Finances Now. Here's How

Stack of coins with a person on top
Naomi Antonino/CNET

This story is part of Recession Help Desk, CNET's coverage of how to make smart money moves in an uncertain economy.

What's happening

With the latest GDP report showing another consecutive quarterly decline in economic activity, the country is likely in a technical recession.

Why it matters

Previous recessions have all seen pervasive layoffs, higher costs of borrowing and a tumultuous stock market.

What it means for you

Worry less about the macroeconomic news of the day and focus on what you can control. Take inventory of your financial life, gather facts and make moves to protect your savings.

Many economists still refuse to use the R-word, despite the warning signs that the US economy is now likely in a technical recession. In addition to another quarterly drop in GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, consumer confidence has gone down, the stock market is in bear territory and inflation is still soaring, despite four interest rates hikes from the Federal Reserve.

An increase in layoffs -- another key indicator of a recession -- is also being felt across the country as many companies, particularly in the tech sector, have announced layoffs in recent months. And if you ask most people, they'll say it's become undoubtedly harder to make ends meet. At least one poll conducted in June finds a majority of Americans, or 58%, believe we are in a recession.

But then others point to some key factors that point in the opposite direction -- for example, low unemployment levels, rising spending and a healthy banking sector.

Whether we call this a recession or not seems like a pretty subjective matter of interpretation. 

At CNET Money, we're dedicated to supporting your financial health with accurate, timely and honest advice that takes into consideration the pressing financial questions of our time. That's why we're launching the Recession Help Desk, a destination where you will get the latest, best advice and action steps for navigating this uncertain period. 

First, a quick look back at the US economy

Since the Great Depression, the US has had about a dozen economic setback periods lasting anywhere from a few months to over a year. In some ways, there's always a recession on the horizon: Economies are cyclical, with upswings and downturns. We can't predict what will happen in advance, and sometimes we can't even tell what's happening while we're in the middle of it. Morgan Housel, author of The Psychology of Money, may have said it best when he tweeted back in April: "We're definitely heading toward a recession. The only thing that's uncertain is the timing, location, duration, magnitude and policy response." 

Attempting to figure out recession specifics is a guessing game. Anyone who tells you different is likely trying to sell you something. The best we can do right now is draw on history to build context, get more proactive about the money moves we can control and resist the urge to panic. This includes reviewing what happened in previous recessions and taking a closer look at our financial goals to see what levers to pull to stay on track. 

Here are eight specific steps you can take to create more financial stability and resilience in a turbulent economy. 

Read more: Bear Markets: Expert Stock Market Advice for Investors

1. Plan more, panic less   

The silver lining to current recession predictions is that they're still only forecasts. There is time to assemble a plan without the real pressures and challenges that come with being in the thick of an economic slowdown. Over the next couple of months, review your financial plan and map out some worst-case scenarios when your adrenaline isn't running high. 

Some questions to consider: If you did lose your job later this year or in early 2023, what would be your plan? How can you fortify your finances now to weather a layoff? (Keep reading for related advice.)

2. Bulk up your cash reserves 

A key to navigating a recession relatively unscathed is having cash in the bank. The steep 10% unemployment rate during the Great Recession in 2009 taught us this. On average, it took eight to nine months for those affected to land on their feet. Those fortunate to have robust emergency accounts were able to continue paying their housing costs and buy time to figure out next steps with less stress. 

Consider retooling your budget to allocate more into savings now to hit closer to the recommended six- to nine-month rainy day reserve. It may make sense to unplug from recurring subscriptions, but a better strategy that won't feel as depriving may be to call billers (from utility companies to cable to car insurance) and ask for discounts and promotions. Speak specifically with customer retention departments to see what offers they can extend to keep you from canceling your plans.

3. Seek a second income stream

Web searches for "side hustles" are always popular, but especially now, as many look to diversify income streams in the run up to a potential recession. Just like it helps to diversify investments, diversifying income streams can reduce the income volatility that arrives with job loss. For inspiration on easy, low-lift side hustles that you might be able to do from home, check out my story.

4. Resist impulsive investing moves

It's hard not to be worried about your portfolio after all the red arrows in the stock market this year. If you have more than 10 or 15 years until retirement, history proves it's better to stick with the market ups and downs. According to Fidelity, those who stayed invested in target-date funds, which include mutual funds and ETFs commonly tied to a retirement date, during the 2008 to 2009 financial crisis had higher account balances by 2011 than those who reduced or halted their contributions. "Those who panic and sell 'at the bottom' often regret it because trying to time the market can result in losses that are very difficult to regain because stock prices can change quickly," said Linda Davis Taylor, seasoned investment professional and author of The Business of Family

If you have yet to sign up for automatic rebalancing, definitely look into this with your portfolio manager or online broker. This feature can ensure that your instruments remain properly weighted and aligned with your risk tolerance and investment goals, even as the market swings. 

5. Lock interest rates now

As the policy makers raise interest rates to bring down inflation levels, interest rates will increase. This potentially spells bad news for anyone with an adjustable-rate loan. It's also a challenge for those carrying a balance on a credit card.

While federal student loan borrowers don't have to worry about their rates going up, those with private variable rate loans may want to look into consolidating or refinancing options through an existing lender or other banks, such as SoFi, that could consolidate the debt into one fixed-rate loan. This will prevent your monthly payments from increasing unpredictably when the Federal Reserve raises interest rates again this year, as expected.

6. Protect your credit score  

Borrowers may have a tougher time accessing credit in recessions, as interest rates jump and banks enforce stricter lending rules. To qualify for the best loan terms and rates, aim for a strong credit score in the 700s or higher. You can typically check your credit score for free through your existing bank or lender, and you can also receive free weekly credit reports from each of the three main credit bureaus through the end of the year from AnnualCreditReport.com

To improve your credit score, work towards paying down high balances, review and dispute any errors that may be on your credit report or consider consolidating high-interest credit card debt into a lower interest debt consolidation loan or 0% introductory APR balance transfer card.

7. Rethink buying a home

While home prices have cooled in some areas, it remains a competitive housing market with few homes to go around. If rising mortgage rates are adding more pressure to your ability to buy a home within budget, consider renting for a little longer. If you're also worried about your job security in a potential recession, then that's even more reason to take pause. Leasing isn't cheap at the moment, but it can afford you more flexibility and mobility. Without the need to park cash for a down payment and closing costs, renting can also keep you more liquid during a potentially challenging economy.

8. Take care of your valuables

The advice that was born out of the sky-high inflation period in the late 1970s still applies now: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." 

With ongoing supply chain issues, many of us face high prices and delays in acquiring new cars, tech products, furniture, home materials and even contact lenses. This includes replacement parts, too. If a product comes with a free warranty, be sure to sign up. And if it's a nominal fee to extend the insurance, it may be worth it during a time when prices are on the rise.

For example, my car has been in the repair shop for over three months, waiting for parts to arrive from overseas. So, in addition to paying my monthly car payment, I have a rental car fee that's adding up. If nothing else, I'll be heading into a possible recession a more cautious driver.

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