Preparing for a recession
I don't know if a recession is coming. Nobody does. We may dodge the bullet for a while. On the other hand, the economy may already be in recession. You don't need to know the future, though, to make some wise moves.
Recessions hit everybody differently, so we'll take a look at how things tend to play out for people in different situations. First, though, it helps to understand what a recession is.
What happens in a recession
A recession is a reduction in the total amount of business done in the economy.
When conditions are right for a recession almost anything can set one off--anything that prompts businesses to decide to produce less, or prompts consumers to decide to buy less. High oil prices, for example, may lead consumers to cut back on food and clothing purchases so they can afford enough gasoline to get to their job. A credit squeeze may force businesses to scale back, because they can't borrow enough to buy all the raw materials they need to keep their factories running at full capacity.
Once a recession gets started, it tends to spread. Every business that sells less also buys less--meaning their suppliers are doing less business. Pretty soon, all those businesses are laying off employees--meaning a bunch of would-be consumers no longer have any income, so they're buying less as well.
How it affects you
A slowdown in business hits you directly if you own a business. It hits you one step removed if you work for a business (or want to): Jobs will be harder to find, raises will be smaller, layoffs will be more common.
A lot of people don't work for a business. Some work for governments (federal, state, local). Others work for institutions, large and small: colleges, universities, hospitals, orchestras, art centers, food pantries, land trusts (any of which may be purely independent or government-sponsored to some extent). People who work for governments or institutions are a second step removed from the impact of a recession, but that doesn't make them immune. The decline in business activity always reduces tax receipts to governments, leading to cutbacks especially at the state and local level. A general decline in prosperity often reduces charitable donations, leading to cutbacks at private institutions. Again: fewer jobs, less secure jobs, smaller raises.
There are also, of course, people who don't work in the money economy. Putting aside children and non-working spouses (who face the same circumstance as their family breadwinner), I divide these people into two groups: The ones who are actually out of the money economy (subsistence farmers, freegans, prisoners) and the ones who are are in the money economy but their income doesn't depend on the work they do (the wealthy, retirees, people on welfare).
It's an important distinction, because people in the second category are depending on promises--the income from investments, pensions, social security, welfare, and the like, is at best only as sound as the finances of whoever is paying the money. In a recession, that soundness is threatened.
If you live on promises, remember that promises get broken--especially in a recession.
What to do
The first key, whether your income is tied to a business or not, is to reduce fixed expenses. High variable expenses can be tolerated, as long as there's an income stream to pay them. But high fixed expenses will wreck your finances very quickly if the income stream dries up. This means reduce debt and avoid new obligations (fitness center memberships, burglar alarm contracts, etc.). For businesses, it means postpone hiring (hire temps instead) and postpone raises (instead, offer bonuses conditioned on profits).
The second key is to boost your emergency fund. A temporary income shortfall doesn't need to become a financial catastrophe, as long as you have enough cash on hand to tide yourself over. Resist the temptation to rely on credit as your emergency fund. It can be tempting to figure that paying down revolving debt frees up part of your credit line for use in a future emergency, but that's not the same as an emergency fund. At any time, but especially during a recession, lenders can cut credit limits, refuse to extend further credit, or simply get out of the business entirely. Have an emergency fund that doesn't depend on someone making you a loan. (After all, the classic reason to tap an emergency fund is when you've just lost your job--which is exactly the time that a creditor would be especially likely to cut off your credit.)
The third key is to diversify your income sources. If your goal were maximum total income, diversity would probably be the wrong choice. There's almost certainly one income stream that would give you the highest total income if you put all your effort there. The problem is, that's not a stable strategy. A better choice, especially if a recession is in the offing, is to try to arrange several income streams, some of which don't depend too much on a thriving economy.
The fourth key is to reduce your dependence on money economy. This is the one sure way to protect your family from recession: provide for their needs without having to spend money. It seems unnatural in today's world for people to grow their own food and make their own clothes--but, to the extent that you can do so, you're in a position to just ignore the ups and downs in the economy. All the other options are just stop-gaps--they help you keep things together until the economy picks up again. This one actually solves the problem.
Same strategies, different balance
Wise Bread readers will recognize these four strategies as the same core principles that we talk about all the time, so I'm not telling you to do something new. Rather, I'm suggesting that you alter the balance. The downside of all these strategies is that in good economic times they result in a lower standard of living than you could achieve if you followed more mainstream personal finance strategies. In bad economic times, though, these are the winning strategies.
In good economic times, a business that refuses to use debt to grow will inevitably fall behind its more aggressive competitors. In bad economic times, the business that avoids debt will survive while the others will fail. For individuals, the calculation leans even more away from debt.
On top of that, a recession provides many opportunities for someone with ready cash. When no one else is buying, someone with cash in hand can get some terrific bargains--enough to catch up with years worth of "lost opportunities" for growth.
We don't know for sure that bad economic times are coming, but the threats to the economy (housing collapse, credit crunch, spiking prices for oil and food) are as great as they've been in a long time, and the potential missed opportunities from an excess of caution are smaller than during a boom.
Now is the time to go with these strategies--accepting the slower growth and lower standards of living that go along with them as a small price to pay for security and a reasonable shot at some big opportunities ahead.
Remember: A recession is a time when promises get broken. Business fail, leaving both their debts and their employees unpaid. Tenants don't pay their rent. People who have always paid their bills on time suddenly can't. Sales fall through. Wherever your income comes from, it is at some risk. Arrange things so that you can face that risk.
Update: The National Bureau of Economic Research, the group that makes the "official" call on the beginnings and ends of recessions, announced on December 1st, 2008 that a recession began in the US in December 2007, the month this post was written.