Keeping Your Focus in Economic Recovery

This post originally ran on the blog in 2009, when it seemed recovery was around the corner. Nearly 4 years later, recovery is still slow in coming, particularly in my sector of the economy, but we’re seeing positive signs everywhere, including the housing market.

I wanted to revisit some of the principles that I published because they will become more and more important the faster we begin to recover out of the recession. 

A lot of people are talking about recovery–you can feel the buzz in the air, and the excitement of many of us who have felt the pressure of the economy take a direct hit on our ability to earn an income and maintain a basic lifestyle.

However, and it’s a big however, research and consensus around the web and major money magazines seems to indicate that we have a very short memory. So short, in fact, that our national savings rates and other major spending/savings indicators correlate exactly to the economic conditions of our time.

In other words, when the economy is tight, we spend less and save a lot. When it gets better, we tend to spend more and save less.

I was speaking to a fellow blogger a few days ago, who remarked that he “doesn’t buy into the economy.” In other words, he believes that doing the right things on a personal level should be our primary concern.

I agree to a certain extent–reacting to the news of the day, especially for long-term decisions like investments, is financial suicide.

But I do believe we need to be reactive to a certain extent. As our circumstances change for the worse, we may need to contract our budget more than expected. When they get better, we may need more help being diligent with savings when everyone around us is going on shopping sprees.

To that extent, and being very mindful of our natural, “wired-in” tendencies to go with the economic flow, I have several suggestions for how to keep your “recession” state of financial mind as we come out of this mess (whenever that may be).

Why Would I Want to Be Stuck Here?

By now you might be thinking why in the world you would want to be “stuck” in a recession mindset? Haven’t we endured this long enough?

I agree–going through a recession is anything but pleasant. But let’s take a look at some of the financial habits we’ve developed as a result:

  • As a country, we’ve saving more than we have in a long, long time.
  • Frugality has become the buzz word of the year, as more and more people discover that value is more important that price.
  • We’ve simplified, contracted, and streamlined our financial processes, businesses, and spending habits.
  • Lending practices, although they have over-contracted for now, will be more reasonable for the foreseeable future. (And they have, as of 2013, to a point where reasonable people with reasonable credit and finances can get a loan for a car or house or something else they want to buy.)

So while a recession may not be the best things in terms of pure economic sense, it’s a great cleansing and reset mechanism for our money.

Maintenance Strategies

Understanding our run-away tendencies to over-correct in an upturn, here are some of the things we will be doing in the coming months to prepare:

  • Automate as much as possible. When we remove emotional decision-making from our financial life, we can reduce or eliminate decisions that hurt our long-term success with money. Consider your current situation and determine what you can automate–retirement contributions and savings are two that come to mind immediately, but you can also play tricks with extra payments to your mortgage or something similar. The more beneficial activity that happens behind the scenes, the better.
  • Cultivate a peaks-and-valleys philosophy. If you haven’t read Peaks and Valleys yet, I recommend it–it took me less than an hour to get through the book. The basic concept is that you appreciate and manage the good times, while finding and using the good in bad times. If you come to understand the book, you’ll see why saving for a “rainy day” is such an important philosophy–it helps you get through the valley and onto the next peak.
  • Catch yourself constantly. One of the most valuable characteristics of human beings is self-reflection. We are uniquely capable of analyzing our own thoughts and behaviors, and changing them at will. One of the ways we can control our ascent out of recession is constant self-reflection. Ask yourself–would I have done this a year ago? Is this a responsible use of my money, or am I spending just because I now can?
  • Lock in your current behavior. One way to do this is to make note of all the relevant “ratios” that you can think of–debt to income, savings to income, etc. Another practical method is to monitor your net worth over a period of months and years. Finally, taking a “snapshot” of your budget–reminding you of how much you were spending during the recession, is another fantastic mental cue to take it easy.
  • Curb your enthusiasm. It’s a great strategy for not getting ahead of yourself during recovery. When financial circumstances get bad, we tend to resist lowering our spending habits. When times get better, we are quick to follow with our wallets. Slow down. Maintain a lower level of lifestyle, longer. Save the difference and experience the security of knowing that there is space between your income and expenses.

If Nothing Else…

If there’s one concept I would like you to take away from today’s post, it’s to have patience and react slowly to upcoming changes. While your financial situation may be far below “normal” right now, we don’t have to over-compensate when times are good and send it above that normal level.

Instead, we need to use the excess to prepare for the next downturn, so that we can maintain our “normal” level longer, perhaps through the entirety of the next recession.