Recently, a few economic naysayers have leaped ahead of those warning about a recession, and are now warning about a depression. They’re not talking about a situation akin to the Great Depression of the 1930s – current US banking and market regulations prevent that severe a disaster – but rather a depression similar to the one Japan suffered following the collapse of its real estate and credit speculation bubble of the 1980s. Their economy suffered deflation and falling wages throughout the 1990s and still hasn’t recovered.
I’m not sure things will get that bad – Congress and the Fed know what happened to Japan and they don’t want it to happen to us. However, they’re slow to act, so we can’t rely on them completely.
If you’re concerned about the possibility of a depression rather than a recession, here’s how to prepare for it:
Pay Off Debt
At the very least, pay off your high-interest debt. Personally, I wouldn’t focus on paying off a mortgage unless you’re meeting all of your other savings and retirement goals, but get those credit cards paid off now. As we’ve seen with the current credit crisis, when banks lose money one place, they try to make it up somewhere else, usually with variable interest credit products. Don’t let them milk you dry!
I wouldn’t worry too much about federally subsidized student loans, either. Those have very generous deferral terms if you lose your job or suffer an extreme financial hardship.
Shore Up Your Emergency Fund
If you don’t have an emergency fund, start one now. Aim to save at least three months’ living expenses if you work in an in-demand field like nursing, and up to six months’ living expenses if you work in a discretionary spending area, like retail or entertainment.
Build Your Network
Don’t just build a network of colleagues in your own field – in an extended depression, you may need to transfer your skills to a new area, so make friends with people in fields where you can use your skills. Especially concentrate on people-oriented businesses that can’t be outsourced.
You should also build your network of friends. During a depression, you’ll come to rely on each other for moral support and sharing goods and food. Make friends with your neighbors now so you’ll have access to their canned goods later (and vice versa.)
Learn to Prepare Food at Home
If you don’t like cooking or your idea of “dinner” is opening up a box of Hamburger Helper and adding some meat, it’s time to learn to cook. Once you start, you’ll discover that it’s really not that hard and usually it’s cheaper, too.
Learn to Shop Wisely
If you don’t already use coupons or look for bargains at the grocery store, learn to shop wisely. See my series on eating well for less for tips for doing just that. But in a depression, you may need to go further. Become friends with generics and store brands of comparable quality and safety. Visit your nearby 99-cent store. Although they’re also raising prices, you can still stock up on staples for much less.
Plant Some Food
If you have a garden, it’s time to make room for food. In addition to herbs that can add freshness to that 99-cent canned stew, plant hardy vegetables native to your region and native fruit trees. Although there are initial start-up costs, once your food is growing, you should see some savings.
Learn to Live Below Your Means
All of the above can be summed up as: learning to live on less. Even if you can spend more, that doesn’t mean you have to. Instead, send your raises directly to savings and learn to budget your money to have something left over every month. That will make it easier to cut back further if a depression occurs.
Keep Your Car in Good Condition
By this I mean a car you own, not a car you lease. A car you lease could quickly become a car you no longer have. But if you keep your paid-off car in good condition, it will serve you well during a serious downturn.
Buy Classic Clothing Styles and Keep Them in Good Condition
Don’t worry about buying the latest trendy thing and instead focus on high-quality classics, and then keep them in good condition. I have shirts and jeans that are more than five-years-old that are still in good condition and still in style. A classically-cut white shirt never goes out of style. A good men’s suit is always in fashion. When it comes to trends, stick to the affordable accessories to dress up your classics. Even high-quality clothing is affordable if you own it forever.
Avoid Super-Aggressive Portfolios
Unless you’re young and single, don’t put the bulk of your investments into a really aggressive portfolio or stock in the hope that you’ll hit it big. Instead, take a balanced approach with index funds, bond funds, and international funds. If you’re youngish and want to take more risk, you can also build a position in a growth fund.
Finally, vote for politicians who are more concerned with the needs of real people, not lobbyist groups and big corporations. If a depression comes, it’s the people who ultimately bear the brunt while hedge fund fat cats glide around the Mediterranean on yachts.
Now as you look at this list, you might be thinking: shouldn’t I be doing all of this anyway? Yes, yes you should. Being frugal is always a good idea, even when the economy is flush, because you never know when your personal economy might go down the tubes.
Do you have any other ideas for preparing for a depression? Tell me in the comments, or post it on your own blog and link back to it here.