Is a recession coming? How to make the most of your paycheck

The economy is weird right now.

Inflation is high, but has leveled off. Gas prices are high, but have come back down from super high. Unemployment is still low. Housing costs are astronomical, but lots of companies are offering remote jobs. Some industries are starting to see layoffs.

Depending on which definition you use, we’re in a recession, we’re about to be in a recession or we’re nowhere near a recession. A good chunk of student loans are about to be forgiven, but anyone with a remaining balance has to start paying again in January. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said he expects “some pain” in the U.S. economy as the central bank continues to make attempts to fight inflation, a warning that sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average down 1,000 points. A new survey out from Bankrate says nearly 7 in 10 Americans are worried about the economy entering a recession by the end of next year.

It’s been nicknamed the “vibecession.” Economically speaking, the vibes are definitely off.

So what should you be doing with your money right now? There’s a lot of advice out there for high earners. But roughly 1 in 3 Americans don’t have $400 on hand for an emergency, and 2 in 5 say they wouldn’t be financially prepared for an economic downturn. “Consider investing in real estate” and “look into diversifying your portfolio” is not the most realistic financial advice if you’re worried about making your newly increased rent next month.

Big picture, it’s a good time to focus on the foundations of personal finance. I created a newsletter to help teach you to make a budget and stick to it. I spoke to financial experts about what money moves you should be making right now if you’re feeling the “vibes are off”-cession pinch.

The experts:

  • Cinneah El-Amin, founder of the wealth building and career advice platform Flynanced
  • Tori Dunlap, founder of the personal finance platform Her First 100K, podcast host and author of the forthcoming book “Financial Feminist”
  • Vivian Tu, a former Wall Street trader and the chief executive and founder of financial literacy and lifestyle platform Your Rich BFF
  • Barbara Ginty, a Certified Financial Planner and the host of the podcast Future Rich (where she and I chatted about budgeting back in January)

Here’s what to do to prepare for the recession that maybe isn’t happening, will never happen but is also currently sort of happening.

Get your emergency fund together

Bad things happen. These bad things are a matter of “when,” not “if.” If you own a car, it will need repairs. If you have a pet, it will get sick. If you have a corporeal form, you will need to take it to a doctor’s office or urgent care at some point.

Start small. If you get $400 together, you’re already ahead of one-third of Americans. Make that your first goal, and then work up to an amount that would cover a big unexpected expense, like a car repair or a last-minute plane ticket.

From there, many financial experts recommend setting aside three to six months of necessary expenses for a major financial emergency like losing your job. For a lot of people, three to six months of expenses might sound like an astronomical amount. Don’t panic. Note that that’s not the same thing as three to six months of what you typically spend in a month. If you abruptly lost your job, you would probably cut back on extras and cancel some subscriptions. So when you’re figuring out how much your job loss emergency fund should be, only add up the things you have to pay each month no matter what.

Park your emergency fund in a high-yield savings account. It might be tempting to invest that money or put it in a CD or other savings vehicle, but the whole point of this money is that it is liquid to you in case of an emergency. As interest rates rise, your savings account interest should be rising too. Tu said: “Don’t settle” for a few tenths of a percent when you could be getting 2% or higher. Shop around at a site like NerdWallet or Bankrate and make sure your rate is competitive.

Re-evaluate (and renegotiate) your budget

This is a great time for a budget audit. What money is coming in, and — the eternal question — where is it all going? If you already have a budget set up, go through it and reevaluate your expenses. (If you don’t have a budget set up, start here.)

Sometimes, our budget can wind up on autopilot. Go through your recurring expenses and double-check that your money is really working for you. Are you really, really watching every streaming platform every month? Or can you cancel something until the next season of your favorite show drops? With your flexible categories, like dining out, can you challenge yourself to spend a little less and put that money into your emergency fund? I have some more ideas about ways to trim your budget here.

You can look into renegotiating your recurring expenses. Things like your phone bill, your car insurance, your streaming services and your cable bill are not as set in stone as you might think.

“I am 100% of the mindset that you need to be calling every single year and asking either for a retention bonus or threatening to leave,” Tu said.

Call the customer service line, tell them you’re thinking of cancelling or switching to a competitor, and ask to be connected to the cancellation team or department. Those are the people who actually have the power to offer you a lower monthly payment, Dunlap says.

Increase your income

Budgeting is a good tool, but it is limited by the money you have coming in. It’s tough to cut your way to feeling wealthy. Tu said a mentor once gave her this advice: “You can only save as much as you earn. But you can always earn more money.”

In the face of economic uncertainty, “the stakes are really high, especially for working professionals, to really grow our income,” El-Amin said.

At minimum, Dunlap said, “you need to establish and discover if you’re being compensated fairly.” She recommends searching on sites such as Glassdoor and Payscale and asking people in your professional network to figure out whether your salary is competitive. If it’s not, make the case for a raise, or make a plan to start looking for a new job.

“Regardless of the economic climate, you deserve to be compensated fairly,” Dunlap said. “That is something that should happen regardless of what’s going on in the world.”

Recent layoffs in tech and other sectors might make you feel wary about joining the Great Resignation. But there are ways to build future job security into your job search. El-Amin says when she’s considering a new job, she makes sure the team she would be joining is both highly strategic to the company’s future and highly visible to investors and customers. She listens to earnings calls and reads investor newsletters to make sure the projects she’d be working on are the ones the chief executive and chief financial officers are bragging about. Then, even in the face of theoretical future layoffs, “they’re going to probably keep the teams that are driving the bottom line intact.”

Even if you’re happy where you are now, “it’s always better to be proactive,” Ginty said — and it’s “always easier to find a job when you have a job.” If you work in one of the sectors that have been affected by recent layoffs, even if it hasn’t happened at your company, it’s not a bad idea to brush up your resume and LinkedIn information. She also said if you work at a company that sells a product or service that was mega-popular in the earlier parts of the pandemic (think: home workouts, loungewear, sourdough starters), but is on the precipice of a post-pandemic downswing, it’s probably a good idea to put out feelers.

And never, ever feel bad about leaving a company that doesn’t compensate you fairly.

“Loyalty doesn’t actually pay off. We’ve seen that from statistics,” Dunlap said. “Companies are not loyal to employees.”

Focus on paying off debt

Millions of Americans will get a chunk of their student debt forgiven, thanks to President Biden. But many of those people will still have a balance, and they’ll need to start making payments again in January. You might be thinking, well, there’s no point in making any payments before then, because right now that debt is accruing no interest or penalties. That’s true — but if you can throw any extra money at that balance, you’ll pay less in interest when it starts up again. So the dollars you put toward your remaining student loans will go farther now than they will starting in 2023.

Any other high-interest debt should also be your financial focus right now. If you can’t pay it off, at least try to pay less interest. If you have a car loan, look into refinancing it before rates get any higher. If you carry credit card debt, explore debt consolidation loans or balance transfers with low introductory rates.

As the Fed continues to hike interest rates, debt is only going to get more expensive. Anything you can do to minimize debt now will mean you pay less for it in the long run. But remember: Don’t put debt before savings. “Regardless of how much debt you have, your No. 1 priority should be an emergency fund,” Dunlap said.

Maximize your compensation

Every expert said they see early- and mid-career people making the same mistake: Not making the most of their compensation at work. That probably includes a lot of things beyond the dollar amount on your paycheck. Does your workplace offer reimbursements on phone bills or gym costs? Can you get things like COVID tests reimbursed through your insurance? Have you set up an FSA for medical expenses or childcare? Are you using your commuting benefits?

If you have no idea where to start, email your HR person and say you have some questions about your benefits, and ask them to go over what’s available to you.

Most important: Don’t leave money on the table. Does your job offer a 401(k) match? Yes? Are you enrolled in it and contributing enough to get the maximum amount? No? Do that now if you can afford it.

“A lot of time the employer match gets labeled as, ‘Oh, it’s free money!’ Well, it’s actually not free money, it’s part of your compensation,” El-Amin said.

A quick primer on 401(k) matches: A 401(k) is an investment account through your work. Your money goes out of your paycheck and into the 401(k) before you get taxed, so you save money on taxes by contributing to it. The “match” is basically your employer saying: Set aside a small amount of your paycheck in your retirement account and we’ll put some in there too. That’s on top of what you get paid normally. If you don’t contribute to your 401(k), you don’t get that “match” from your job. That’s money (again, not free money — your money!) that you’re letting your boss keep.

“I’m someone who did not come from a background in personal finance or investing,” El-Amin said. She first dipped her toe into the investing water by contributing to her 401(k) early in her career. She said she was able to build a six-figure net worth just from those pre-tax paycheck contributions.

The big picture

Economies go up, and economies go down. The trick to weathering those down times is having your fundamentals in place.

“The basics aren’t exciting and aren’t flashy,” Ginty said. “But honestly, if you can have solid personal finance basics, it’s the recipe for success, it’s the foundation of everything else.”

Your first step on the road to financial wellness: Be nice to yourself.

“Offer yourself a lot of grace,” Dunlap said. No one was born knowing how to budget, she said: “It’s just like learning anything else. We didn’t come out of the womb knowing how to speak Italian or play the tuba. Yet for some reason, we all feel like we should just be automatically good at money. It’s just going to take some time and effort” to learn to get it right.

If you have an emergency fund, live within your means, get paid fairly and put away a little for retirement, you’re doing great. If you don’t, now is the right time to get started.