5 Ways To Prepare For A Personal Financial Crisis

Cash accounts like checking, savings and money market accounts, as well as certificates of deposit (CD) and short-term government investments, will help you the most in a crisis. You'll want to turn to these resources first, because their value doesn't fluctuate with market conditions (unlike stocks, index funds, exchange traded funds (ETFs) and other financial instruments you might have invested in). 

This means you can take your money out at any time without incurring a financial loss. Also, unlike retirement accounts, you won't face early withdrawal penalties or incur tax penalties when you withdraw your money - one exception is CDs, which usually require you to forfeit some of the interest you've earned if you close them early. (Learn more in our Certificate of Deposit Tutorial.)

Don't invest in stocks or other higher-risk investments until you have several months' worth of cash in liquid accounts. How many months' worth of cash do you need? It depends on your financial obligations and your risk tolerance. If you have a major obligation, like a mortgage or a child's ongoing tuition payments, you might want to have more months' worth of expenses saved up than if you're single and renting an apartment. A three-month expense cushion is considered a bare minimum, but some folks like to keep six months or even up to two years' worth of expenses in liquid savings to guard against a long bout of unemployment.

2. Make a Budget


If you don't know exactly how much money you have coming in and going out each month, you won't know how much money you need for your emergency fund. And if you aren't keeping a budget, you also have no idea whether you're currently living below your means or overextending yourself. A budget is not a parent - it can't and won't force you to change your behavior - but it is a useful tool that can help you decide if you're happy with where your money is going and with where you stand financially. (Do you have enough savings to cover the costs of unforeseen crises? Learn how to plan ahead in Build Yourself An Emergency Fund.)

3. Prepare to Minimize Your Monthly Bills


You might not have to do it now, but be ready to start cutting out anything that is not a necessity. If you can quickly get your recurring monthly expenses as low as they can be, you'll have less difficulty paying your bills when money is tight. Start by looking at your budget and see where you might currently be wasting money. For example, are you paying a monthly fee for your checking account? Explore how to switch to a bank that offers free checking. Are you paying $40 a month for a landline you never use? Learn how you might cancel it, or switch to a lower rate emergency-only plan if you needed to. You might find ways you can start cutting your costs now just to save money.

For example, are you in the habit of letting the heater or air conditioner run when you're not home, or leaving lights on in rooms you aren't using? You may be able to trim your utility bills. Now might also be a good time to shop around for lower insurance rates and find out if you can cancel certain types of insurance (like car insurance) in the event of an emergency. Some insurance companies might give you extension, so look for the steps involved and be prepared.

4. Closely Manage Your Bils


There's no reason to waste any money on late fees or finance charges, yet families do it all the time. During a crisis of a job loss, you should be extra studious in this area. Simply being organized can save you a lot of money when it comes to your monthly bills - one late credit card payment per month could set you back $300 over the course of a year. Or worse, get your card canceled in a time when you might need it as a last resort.

Set a date twice a month to review all your accounts so you don't miss any due dates. Schedule electronic payments or mail checks so your payment arrives several days before it is due. This way, if a delay occurs, your payment will probably still arrive on time. If you're having trouble keeping track of all your accounts, start compiling a list. When your list is complete, you can use it to make sure you're on top of all your accounts and to see if there are any accounts you can combine or close. (Involuntary unemployment credit card insurance may help if you're laid off, but it may just help your credit card company, check out Insuring A Credit Card Against Job Loss.)

5. Take Stock of Your Non-Cash Assets and Maximize Their Value


Being prepared might include identifying all of your options. Do you have frequent flyer miles you can use if you need to travel? Do you have extra food in your house that you can plan meals around to lower your grocery bills? Do you have any gift cards you can put toward fun and entertainment, or that you can sell for cash? Do you have rewards from a credit card that you can convert to gift cards? All of these assets can help you lower your monthly expenses, but only if you know what you have and use it wisely. Knowing what you have can also prevent you from buying things you don't need.

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