Staying Afloat

bags-of-money.jpg

Analysts say the recession is coming to a close and while this is good news for your bank accounts there may be some left over lessons you remember.

During this period of economic uncertainty you made some cuts to your lifestyle and started saving a little more for a rainy day. Well with the sun about to shine again US News and World Report says you should keep up these habits and provide yourself with a better economic future no matter what's on the horizon.

In the first quarter of 2009 the personal savings rate rose to 2% while consumer credit card debt fell by 6.5%. Consumer experts say that new more conservative approach to personal finances means more consumers now shop with more discipline and look for products with value. So to help you thrive in a stable economy consumer experts put together a list of ten ways you can help yourself stay afloat should another recession hit. To see how to fatten your piggy bank keep reading. There will always be economic downturns but by planning ahead you have a much better chance at staying afloat.

1. Rethink your lifestyle. Veronica Neilan, a 25-year-old Brooklynite who recently completed a master's degree in forensic mental-health counseling, is considering moving back to her mother's house in New Hampshire while she looks for a job. She will soon need to start paying back the $113,000 in student loans she has accumulated over the past seven years. She's learned to ask for things such as pasta or gift certificates from relatives who are giving her presents, a move that keeps her food costs down. She rarely buys new clothes unless they are on sale or she can use a gift certificate, and when she needed a new television, she found one online being given away.

2. Eliminate small expenses that add up. After Deborah Pont, 41, of Stonington, Conn., was laid off from her communications job at a large financial services firm in January, she dramatically reduced her budget: She stopped going out to dinner, shopping, visiting expensive hair salons and getting her nails done. She also rediscovered grocery store coupons and started buying what's on sale. It was easy, in part because so many of her friends were making similar cutbacks. "Everybody else said, 'Let's not go out, let's not spend too much money,' so somebody would make dinner and we'd go to their house," Pont says.

What she discovered is that it's a relief not to feel pressure to spend so much. She has more time for things she enjoys, such as gardening and home improvement projects, and says she probably won't return to regular spa visits even after finding a new job.

3. Downsize -- permanently. Doreen Orion, 49, a psychiatrist and author of the memoir "Queen of the Road," also decided to turn a temporary exercise in minimalism into a longer-term lifestyle. She initially cringed at the thought of leaving her dream house in Boulder, Colo., and her 200 pairs of shoes to go on a road trip with her husband. But at his insistence, they spent a year living in a 340-square-foot bus, camping throughout the country.
When the couple returned home to their luxe but hardworking lifestyle, they realized they were much happier with less. They calculated that, even though their 401k's had fallen in value, if they sold their home and lived in their bus while working occasionally, they could support themselves. Such a dramatic change, she says, "put a spark back into our lives. . . . We discovered there can be an upside to downsizing."

4. Get competitive about it. The recession inspired yoga studio owner Annie Mahon, 46, of Washington, D.C., to start a competition with her husband to see who could go longer without buying anything new. (They make exceptions for groceries, medicine and certain items for their four children.) Instead of curling up with catalogs that arrive in the mail, Mahon puts them directly into the recycling bin. "It feels great, because afterward, there's no residual feeling of, 'Oh, I wish I had gotten this.' So far, it doesn't feel like I'm missing anything. It feels like I'm gaining," she says. Wanting or craving things soaked up energy, Mahon adds. She estimated that, six weeks into the competition, she had saved at least $1,000.

5. Take advantage of the way retailers have changed. An advertising campaign touts that "summer costs less at Wal-Mart." One television spot features the simple pleasures of the season, including hot dogs, Popsicles and running through sprinklers. Target's "New Day" ad campaign, which ran from September through May, highlighted ways to save money: cutting hair at home, staying in for a movie night, biking to work.
Lena Michaud, a Target spokeswoman, says the company has seen sales increase for products that let people cut costs by staying home, including nail polish and hair color, single-serve coffee brewers and popcorn poppers. People also are making the most of what they already have. Michaud says Target's sales of scarves and fashion hats have gone up as customers freshen up old outfits with new accessories.

6. Make use of new government policies. New programs from government and financial institutions encourage consumers to hold on to their thrifty habits. Recently passed credit card legislation makes it harder for people under 21 to get credit. Congress also allocated funds for financial counseling for those facing foreclosure and already requires counseling for those considering bankruptcy.

7. Educate yourself. Susan Keating, president of the NFCC, says her organization is pushing lawmakers to require pre-purchase counseling for first-time homebuyers and for people considering nontraditional mortgages. In the NFCC's survey, 28% of respondents said the terms of their mortgage turned out to be different from what they expected. "That suggests they didn't understand it going in," says Keating. The NFCC would also like financial education courses to be mandated in high schools. Some states, including Missouri and New Mexico, already have such requirements, but most do not.

8. Save more. President Barack Obama has suggested providing savings incentives to low- and middle-income Americans by matching half of the first $1,000 such families set aside. It's those groups that have the most trouble saving, says Tamara Draut, vice president of policy and programs at the research organization Demos and author of "Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead." Government data on savings rates aren't broken down by income level, and Draut suspects that those in the higher income brackets are driving the recent increase in savings rates. "They have the ability to move the aggregate in a way that might be masking the continued declines in savings among low- and middle-income people," she says.

9. Look for a better bank. Kevin Martin, executive vice president of personal financial services at HSBC, says financial institutions have an opportunity to turn Americans' newfound habits into lifelong behaviors. Banks that offer automatic deposits, online banking, no fees and no minimum requirements for opening accounts make it easier for people to save money, he says. (See "Ditch your bank for a credit union" for another option.)

10. Don't overdo your newfound frugality. That's not to say most consumers are going to cut up their credit cards and lead lives devoid of material pleasures. Americans love to shop, after all. But they'll likely be more thoughtful about where and when they dole out that hard-earned dough. As tax refunds arrive, Bogue says, people may opt for some selective indulgences. "One consumer told us, 'If I get $1,000 back (in tax refunds), I may buy a $300 purse. If I don't do it, I'll go crazy,'" she recalls.
But the new splurges will probably be tightly controlled, Bogue says. "People come out of the frugality fatigue, and then they're grounded. They have discipline. . . . It's never going to go back to the way it was. We've been so rocked to our core."