Plunging home values. Declining stock market. Vanishing credit. Fluctuating gas prices. Ongoing war against terrorism. Failing banks. Soaring food costs. Falling value of the dollar. Swelling budget deficits.
If you’re worried, you’re not alone. You’re not the only one feeling the uncertainty. Consumer confidence measurements have reached their lowest level in decades.
It’s easy enough to present our case that economic times are challenging. The daily headlines back us up on that. Our challenge is to prepare you so that you have less fear and more financial peace.
We want to help you develop a common sense financial strategy to weather the economic storms of today as well as those in the far-off financial future. In times of economic uncertainty, the strength of your strategy will determine whether you thrive or survive.
Let’s get started with a reminder of how you get ready for tough times: Prepare in advance.
Don’t let your dreams be washed away
The aerial photo is startling: An attractively designed yellow two-story home stands alone on highly sought-after real estate along the Texas Gulf Coast. Just a few days before, that house was part of a thriving community. Now, it is surrounded on every side by the wreckage of about 200 other homes and buildings. A private helicopter pilot, flying over the area after it had been slammed by Hurricane Ike in September 2008, took the photo.
Not long after the pilot posted the image on CNN’s iReport site, the buzz started. Viewers began debating whether the photo was a fake. After all, how could one home withstand 110 mph winds and a storm surge while every other building around it had been pulverized? The speculation ended when the sister of one of the home’s owners identified it and provided another photo of the house taken just a few months earlier.
Reporters quickly located the home’s owners, Warren and Pam Adams. Just three years before, the Adamses’ home had been destroyed by Hurricane Rita. Because they loved the beach, the couple wanted to rebuild rather than leave the coast. So they did—but with the knowledge that their new home might also be in the path of a hurricane someday.
The couple hired an engineering firm to oversee the contractor as their new residence was built. The builder put the house’s bottom floor on wooden columns that raised it above the surrounding houses. The foundation was made with reinforced concrete, and builders followed the latest hurricane building codes to the letter.
Despite its solid construction, the home did sustain some damage in Hurricane Ike. The first-floor garage and a wooden staircase on the home’s exterior were destroyed. The interior suffered water and mud damage, and furniture, appliances, and other possessions were ruined. Yet unlike their neighbors, who returned to their former home sites hoping to find a few personal belongings among the rubble, the Adamses can repair their home.
The precautions the couple took when rebuilding their home after Hurricane Rita may have seemed extreme to some. Yet their foresight appears brilliant now, after the town sustained a direct hit by Hurricane Ike.
In fact, the couple simply displayed common sense. They knew that their home had been destroyed once by a hurricane and that it could happen again. Of course, others along the Gulf Coast knew they faced that threat as well. The difference was in how they responded to that risk.
Like some Gulf Coast residents, many people today build their financial houses without much of a strategy. When you build something you want to keep, common sense dictates that you build it according to a plan and with materials that will last. This strategy works for all types of construction, from putting together a financial portfolio to building a house.
Warren and Pam Adams can’t prevent a hurricane from smashing into their home on the coastline. They can’t control which way the wind blows. They can, however, build their house to withstand the wind and water.
Mr. Blue goes to Washington
Palms sweating and heart racing, I (Ron) climbed the granite steps of the Capitol building to testify as an expert witness before a Senate subcommittee. I entered the chamber room where the hearings took place. I had often seen it on television. It was impressive yet intimidating. The senators were seated higher than the witness table and the visitors’ gallery.
I recognized many of the senators’ names on the plaques at their table and took a deep breath. I reminded myself that I wasn’t in trouble—even though the room had the feel of a courtroom. The Senate subcommittee was holding hearings on “Solutions for the New Era: Jobs and Families.” I was one of several “experts” from various economic and social fields. Other participants on the panel pressed for more social programs.
When my turn to speak came, I was hoping my voice wouldn’t crack. Could I live up to my introduction as a financial expert? Leaning in toward the microphone on the table, I began to answer a senator’s question about what the average American family should do in the current economy. I said I believed the American family could benefit from following a four-part financial plan:
- Think long-term with goals and investing
- Spend less than they earn
- Maintain liquidity (or emergency savings)
- Minimize the use of debt
The Senate chamber room fell silent for a moment. I was expecting laughter to reverberate among the marble columns and high ceiling at the simplicity of what I had said. The committee chairman, Christopher Dodd, looked down at his notes. He furrowed his brow and pursed his lips. He recited the points back to me. Instead of chuckling at me, he then said, “It seems like this plan is not just for the family. It seems it would work at any income level.”
“Yes,” I replied with some relief. Now I was the one doing a bit of chuckling as I added, “including the U.S. government.” We went on to have an engaging conversation about how the senators could exercise strong leadership through wise financial practices.
I had developed my four-part answer to the senator’s question over many years. In fact, I have heard that same question over and over. After a presentation to a large audience or in response to a call-in radio program, people often ask how to get out of a financial mess—or avoid one. Often the questioners hope that I’ll provide an instant solution for their financial difficulties. Though they may be disappointed to hear my common sense strategy, I know this time-tested, biblically supported answer works.
Let’s briefly expand our explanation of these principles here:
Think long term. The longer term your perspective, the better financial decisions you’ll make. Set goals in writing for the future. Invest for the long term and worry less about short-term ups and downs in your 401(k) or investment portfolio.
Spend less than you earn. To accomplish this, you need to know what you’re earning and what you’re spending. Make a spending plan (or, if we dare use that loathed term, a budget). Monitor how you’re doing. Develop the self-control to avoid overspending. If you consistently spend less that you earn over a long period of time, you will do well financially.
Maintain emergency savings. A reserve set aside will help you ride out the surprises life throws at you. You must spend less than you earn to build savings. Savings will then help you avoid debt. These principles work together.
Minimize the use of debt. Debt increases risk. It may allow you to do more or have more now, but debt will reduce your ability to have more in the future. I know of few cases of financial disaster occurring without debt. Financial problems are magnified with debt.
Some technical professionals, such as doctors and engineers, initially think these principles are too simplistic. They want to make succeeding financially as technically challenging and sophisticated as their fields. But you can’t go wrong if you follow these steps. What kind of financial trouble would you ever get in if you spent less than you earned, minimized debt, kept savings available, and thought about the long term?
When do I apply these principles?
The best time to apply these four steps is before the financial storms come. You may be thinking, Well, it’s too late for that. I’m in the midst of a financial crisis. The hurricane has already hit. Now what do I do? Here’s hope. You start with these four principles of financial success. If you haven’t done them before, then start now. You can’t lay a solid financial foundation without these four steps. They will lead you out of a crisis—and prevent many future ones.
Perhaps your financial crisis has already happened. You may have lost your job. You may be getting calls from creditors. Perhaps you fear a possible foreclosure. You’re picking up the pieces and trying to rebuild. What do you do?
Same answer. You start with these principles.
Perhaps you don’t currently face a financial crisis but are anxious because of all the economic bad news. The Adamses’ house is a great illustration that may motivate you to prepare for storms in advance. You can take great comfort in these transcendent principles that apply before, during, and after the crisis.
In fact, some positive results can come from our country’s current economic downturn. We’ve learned that a crisis can sharpen our focus. It helps us think more rationally. When gas prices rose significantly, consumers started moving from large sport-utility vehicles and oversized trucks to more fuel-efficient vehicles. This is rational. But even when gas was less expensive, was a Hummer ever a sensible purchase for an urban dweller?
People often ask us, “Now that _____ (you fill in the blank) is happening, what should I do?” We always give the same advice: Follow these four principles. If you set long-term goals and invest accordingly, if you spend less than your income, if you have available savings, and if you reduce debt, then you’ll be as prepared as possible.