How to Prepare for a Recession: Ways to Protect Your Money

By Walecia Konrad · July 02, 2024 · 8 minute read

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How to Prepare for a Recession: Ways to Protect Your Money

Many people are feeling the pain of the current economy, which has made it more difficult to buy a home or a car, and even afford everyday necessities like groceries and gas. While fears of recession have eased, inflation has proven sticky, interest rates remain high, and economic growth slowed in the first quarter of 2024.

Whether we head into an official recession or not, it’s important to understand that downturns are a normal part of economic cycles. There are also steps you can take when the economy is slowing to safeguard your financial health and avoid being significantly affected by a recession. Here are some key strategies to consider taking now, as well as actions you may want to avoid should the economy take a turn for the worse.

What Happens During a Recession?

A recession is a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months. One rule of thumb is that two consecutive quarters of negative gross domestic product (GDP) growth indicates a recession, but a number of formulas are typically used to determine recessions.

During a recession, several economic indicators show a downturn: Employment rates drop, consumer spending decreases, business revenues fall, and overall economic confidence wanes. This environment can lead to higher unemployment rates, decreased consumer confidence, and a general slowdown in economic activity.

Recessions are part of the economic cycle, which is characterized by peaks of growth followed by downturns. These phases of contraction can be triggered by various factors, including high inflation, rising interest rates, decreased consumer spending, or unexpected global events like a pandemic. Understanding the mechanics of a recession can help you take proactive steps to protect your finances and minimize the negative effects.

How to Prepare Your Finances for a Recession

Recessions are an inevitable part of any economy. But you can avoid some of the negative impacts by anticipating challenges early and preparing for the future.

Take Stock of Your Finances

High prices across the board have already forced many consumers to cut back on their budget for basic living expenses, such as groceries and travel. Even if you’ve made some spending adjustments, however, it’s a good idea to check in on your finances. You can do this by scanning the last few months of financial statements and assessing your average monthly spending and average monthly take-home income.

If you find that your spending is close to your earnings (meaning you’re not saving) or it’s higher (meaning you’re going backwards), you’ll want to comb through your discretionary spending and find places to cut. This can free up funds to boost saving and pay more than the minimum on any debt.

Build a Safety Net

Hard as it may be to find extra cash right now, it’s important to make sure you are putting funds aside each month toward building your emergency fund. This fund will serve as a financial cushion if you experience a job loss or get hit with any unexpected expenses. If you already have an emergency fund, consider increasing it to provide extra security during uncertain economic times.

The general rule of thumb is to keep at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses in a separate, easily accessible account. But if that feels like an overwhelming goal, it’s fine to start slow — even transferring $50 a month to your safety net can add up significantly over time. To benefit from the upside of the Fed’s multiple rate hikes, choose an account that pays a competitive annual percentage yield (APY), such as a high-yield savings account.

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Pay Down High-Interest Debt

Here’s the bad news about higher interest rates: The national average credit card rate is now 27.70%, which makes credit card balances a significant financial burden. As a result, you’ll want to check rates on all of your credit cards and other debts. Any variable rates may have gone up. Next step? Pay as much as you can on your highest interest rate balances first to whittle down that debt; it’s the kind that can unfortunately snowball during tough economic times.

You might also look into balance transfer credit card offers. They can provide a period of no or low interest, during which you can pay down that debt. Another option is to consolidate high interest debt with a lower interest personal loan. You might also look into a nonprofit debt counseling program.

Once you’ve eliminated high-cost obligations, you’ll be better prepared to manage any potential financial bumps in the road.

Stay Your Investment Course

When it comes to your long-term investments, such as 401(k)s and other retirement accounts, you’ll want to continue making your contributions (or, if you’re not, consider starting), and not worry too much about market volatility. If you have a diversified portfolio, you generally don’t want to change your strategy out of fears of a looming recession.

For perspective, consider the most recent downturn: The Dow Jones fell nearly 3,000 points on March 16, 2020, which was the largest decline in one day in U.S. stock market history. Yet, the market rebounded quickly and set new records in late 2020 and early 2021. Investors who sold in a panic didn’t see any of those record-breaking returns.

If rising expenses are making it impossible for you to keep up with 401(k) contributions, try to contribute at least the minimum necessary to get any matching funds your employer offers. That’s free money, and you don’t want to miss out.

Recommended: How Much Should I Contribute to My 401(k)?

Recession-Proof Your Career

Recessions often involve layoffs and a significant rise in unemployment. This is something you’ll want to keep in mind, especially if you work in an industry that typically suffers downturns in a recession. Reducing debt and building emergency savings, as mentioned above, are two important steps you can take to prepare for the financial shock of a layoff.

In addition, you may want to take some steps to recession-proof your career. Start by updating your resume and LinkedIn page. If you notice any gaps in your skill set, you may want to explore getting the extra education, skills, or training you may need to protect your livelihood. It’s also smart to refresh connections within your professional network, looking both within and outside your organization. Having a strong professional network and staying adaptable can provide opportunities even during economic downturns.

What to Avoid Doing During a Recession

Here’s a look at what not to do if the nation slips into a recession.


While the term “recession” can be panic-inducing, you’ll want to avoid making any rash decisions. Economists use the word recession simply to indicate that the economy is contracting, not growing. Not all recessions lead to double-digit unemployment or severe stock market losses.

That said, the stock market often experiences significant volatility during a recession, which can lead to fear and panic-selling. As mentioned above, selling investments hastily could result in substantial losses. It’s often wiser to focus on your long-term investment strategy and avoid making impulsive decisions based on short-term market movements. Market downturns can also present buying opportunities for long-term investors.

Tap Your Retirement

Withdrawing from your retirement accounts should generally be considered a last resort during a recession. Early withdrawals can incur penalties and taxes, and reduce the funds available for your future. You’ll want to explore other options, such as cutting discretionary spending, picking up a side gig for an extra income stream, or using your emergency fund, before tapping into retirement savings. Protecting your retirement funds is crucial for long-term financial security.

Accumulate New Debt

Taking on new debt during a recession can increase financial stress and vulnerability. Ideally, you want to avoid making large purchases or using credit cards for nonessential expenses. It can also be a good idea to delay significant financial commitments, such as buying a home or car, until the economic situation improves. You’ll likely be better off focusing on maintaining a healthy debt-to-income (DTI) ratio and preserving your financial flexibility.

Become a Cosigner

Cosigning a loan for someone else during a recession can expose you to significant financial risk. If the primary borrower defaults, you will be responsible for the debt, which can strain your finances and damage your credit score. During uncertain economic times, it’s best to avoid taking on additional financial liabilities that are beyond your control.

Take Your Job for Granted

Job security can be fragile during a recession, so it’s important not to take your employment for granted. Stay proactive in your role by demonstrating your value to your employer. Consider taking on additional responsibilities, seeking feedback, and continuously improving your skills. Being an indispensable employee can increase your chances of retaining your job during economic downturns.

Recommended: The History of US Recessions: 1797-2020

The Takeaway

Preparing for a recession involves taking proactive steps to protect your financial health and avoid common pitfalls. Smart moves to take when a downturn may be looming include: building an emergency fund, reducing debt, continuing to save for retirement, and recession-proofing your career. Equally important is knowing what to avoid, such as panic selling, accumulating new debt, and tapping into your 401(k) or IRA.

Economic downturns are never pleasant and often painful. But with some thoughtful planning and the steps outlined above, you can protect your finances and better position yourself when the economy bounces back.

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