The tragedy of September 11, 2001 and the questionable economy have left many Americans uncertain about their own financial strength. We all know we should be preparing financially for the unexpected -- a job loss, a family emergency -- but never before has that felt like such a reality. Here's what you can do now to ensure that your finances will sustain you for better or for worse.Get Debt Under Control
Work hard to pay down expensive debt, especially credit cards, while your income's stable, for it's often these payments that are the least forgiving when your money's tight.
Where in the world will you find the extra cash to make bigger payments?
Look closely at what you're spending and, if necessary, write down your daily expenditures to find money leaks. Some common wallet-drainers include paying unnecessary ATM fees, dining out, and treating yourself to daily luxuries like cafe lattes and bottled water. Cut back wherever you can and use the savings to cut into your credit card balances.Stash Some Cash
Unemployment insurance -- though helpful -- probably won't cover all of your monthly expenses, so it's a good idea to have some extra money on hand to carry you through. As a rule of thumb, many financial advisers recommend setting aside enough cash to cover three to six months of living expenses. You might need more, however, if you're self-employed or work in an industry that's particularly hard-hit. Or you could get away with saving less if you have other reliable sources of income -- such as a wealthy, generous relative. The bottom line, says Karen Schaeffer, a certified financial planner in Rockville, Maryland, is to be prepared with cash for predictable expenses.
A money-market fund at a brokerage firm or a mutual fund company is a good place to keep your emergency savings. For starters, it's extremely safe and you'll earn interest (about 1.44 percent on average in December, 2002) while your money's sitting there. And you can easily tap your savings when you need it by phone, mail, or by using the account's check-writing feature, if offered. What's more, many brokerage firms make it easy to sock away a little at a time through so-called automatic investment plans. For example, TIAA-CREF lets you open an account with as little as $25 if you agree to have at least $25 transferred automatically from your bank account on a regular basis (semi-monthly, monthly, or quarterly). Franklin Templeton lets you invest $50 a month automatically after an initial investment of just $50. Call the fund company or check its prospectus for details. A short-term certificate of deposit, or CD, is another safe place to stash your cash if you're sure you won't need the money right away (recent yield: about 1.4 percent interest on average for a three-month CD in December, 2002).
If you're a homeowner, talk to your lender now -- while your finances are stable -- about establishing a home equity line of credit. A line of credit works sort of like a credit card. You're eligible to borrow up to a certain amount but you only tap the money (using a special credit card or checks) when you need it. A home equity line of credit is better than a credit card because the interest is much lower -- around 4 to 4.5 percent on average at the end of 2002 verses 14 percent for credit cards -- plus the interest is tax deductible. "It can be a good source of cash and keep you from selling assets, like stocks, at an inopportune time," says Linda Lubitz, a certified financial planner in Miami.Protect Your Loved Ones
Make sure you have enough life and disability insurance to protect your family if the unthinkable happens. If it's been a while since you bought your policy or if you've changed jobs recently and are relying on employer-sponsored insurance, make sure you know what coverage you have and whether it's still adequate. Talk to an insurance agent you trust if you're unsure. If you have young children, make sure you and your spouse have wills naming guardians. And be sure to tell your loved ones where they can find the important financial records and information they'll need if anything happens to you. A personal crisis is only made worse by financial disorder.