While economists debate whether the country is in a recession, consumers are being buffeted by skyrocketing prices, growing debt, layoffs, the subprime lending squeeze and a stock market roller coaster.
While you may not be able to control the price of oil or the, there are some simple things you can do to shore up your finances, safeguard your future and ride out whatever the economy throws at you.
Here's a list of ideas that hopefully will help you get through any hard times, plus tips if the hard times have already hit your household.
Dealing with hard times
1. Eliminate the nonessentials
2. Start a go-to fund for emergencies
3. Consider cutting back (rather than cutting out) for some expenses
4. Safeguard your current job
5. Be on the lookout for your next job
6. Keep your debt load light
7. Barring a complete personal financial meltdown, continue funding your retirement
8. Swap extraneous spending for smart long-term moves
9. Investigate refinancing
10. Re-examine your insurance
11. Adjust your withholding allowance
12. Reward yourself
13. Ask for an extension on your car loan
14. Get an extension on the mortgage
15. Talk to a mortgage counselor
1. Eliminate the nonessentials. One way to avoid putting spending on automatic pilot: Write down everything you buy and the price. Then go through the list and "be brutal," says Nancy Register, associate director for the .
Ric Edelman,and author of "The Truth About Money," agrees.
"You need to make sure you're not spending any money that doesn't absolutely, positively need to be spent," he says. "A lot of people are spending money frivolously on wants they consider needs."
If you have kids, "It's a great time to explain wants versus needs," says Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for Consumer Action.
2. Start a go-to fund for emergencies. The average family will face up to $2,000 a year in unexpected bills, says Register. For families already stretching to pay the bills, those surprises can trigger long-term financial problems. While you can't plan what or when, you can have money set aside just in case.
"You need to really boost your cash reserves," says Edelman.
His recommendation? Aim for one year's living expenses in an assortment of liquid vehicles, like a bank account, money market account and short-term CDs.
One way to kick-start that fund: Shave off 10 percent of your take-home pay every time you get a check, says Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
Keep it liquid and make saving automatic. Look for a money market account that pays the highest rate you can find, says Register. Want to make sure you're consistent? Arrange to have the money deposited electronically.
Deposit any "extra" money you receive, like that birthday check, bonus, tax refund or raise.
"It's much more effective if people cut back rather than cut out," says Cunningham, "because it's the change in behavior that's so tough."
Examine services you're paying for and not fully using, like the cell phone plan with unlimited texting or the premium cable package. Are there less expensive options that would make you just as happy? Would bundling (buying several services from the same provider) save money?
Make it a family discussion, says Cunningham. "That way, everyone is pulling in the same direction."
Make yourself visible "as someone who wants to be part of the team," says Martin Yate, executive employment coach and author of "Knock 'Em Dead 2008: The Ultimate Job Search Guide."
Three keys to making yourself invaluable: First, analyze how much you save or produce for the company. And don't be afraid to let higher-ups know what a key role you're playing in company success.
Second, stay current with the latest developments, continuing education and technology in your field.
Third, participate in at least one local professional organization. Not only will the connections help you in your current job, they can also make securing the next one much easier.
"It immediately gives you a relative, professional network for your search," says Yate.
5. Be on the lookout for your next job. Just like a corporation, you have to ensure your own financial survival, says Yate. If you believe that your company or job is in jeopardy, update that resume, reach out to your network, hit the job boards (anonymously) and ignite your job search.
6. Keep your debt load light. Use credit only if you are paying off balances in full every month. Otherwise, switch to cash, checks or , says Cunningham. "That way when the money's gone, the spending stops."
8. Swap extraneous spending for smart long-term moves. You can live another month without a new , but servicing your car or home heating system could net you a nice savings through fuel efficiency and keep you from having to shell out for expensive repairs later.
Prime rate loans are the lowest they've been in two years, so investigate if a refinance could save you money every month, says Edelman.
Do the math and analyze what it could save you.
10. Re-examine your insurance. You don't want to be underinsured or overinsured. The key is to have enough to cover you at the best rate you can find. Shop your policies, set your at the highest amount that you can comfortably pay out of pocket and make sure you're getting credit for everything appropriate, like having car alarms, air bags and a good driving record, says Cunningham.
The goal: Pay exactly what you owe. You can use the withholdings calculator at IRS.gov to determine what your withholding amounts should be. Then make the correction with your employer.
"You can do that at any time of year," says Cunningham.
If you have an unexpected windfall, like a raise, bonus or tax refund, "Treat yourself with some small part and save the rest," says Cunningham.
Another trick for monthly family treats: At the end of the day everyone in the household puts their pocket change in a big jar. Says Cunningham, "At the end of the month, you'll have $20 or $30, and you'll never miss the money."
And if things get really bad ...
How it works: Instead of making your regular payment this month, the lender would tack an extra month onto the end of your loan period. But you won't get off with a zero payment this month, warns Cunningham. You still have to cover the interest.
14. Get an extension on the mortgage. Some home lenders will let you do something similar for your mortgage, says Cunningham. The downside is, while it will help you if you're trying to make up for a short-term problem, (like a large, unexpected bill), it's not effective if you've got a long-running situation, like regular medical bills, a resetting interest rate you can't handle or a long stretch of unemployment.
To work out such a deal, contact the loss mitigation unit in the mortgage department of the company servicing your loan, says Allen Fishbein, director of housing and credit policy for the. Other typical department tags: home preservation or foreclosure avoidance.
They can examine your situation and offer some options like renegotiating your mortgage or getting a rate freeze on your loan that will help you keep your home. They can also negotiate with your lender on your behalf. You can search for counselors on the HUD Web site or call the at (800) 569-4287.
However, not all counselors can be trusted. "Beware of foreclosure rescue companies or organizations that bill themselves as counseling organizations" but are for-profit, says Fishbein.
There is actually some good news for homeowners as a result of the lending crisis, says Fishbein. If you're willing to be pretty candid about your situation, "there may be more options" available than you realize, he says. "Lenders are doing things they traditionally haven't done to keep people in their homes."