The uncertainty is growing nowadays.
Will the stock market continue to hit new highs — or is it on the brink of another dizzying drop?
Has the European Union figured out how to save its collective backside — or will summer only bring more financial instability from yet another country?
And will we continue to see piddly returns from CDs and savings accounts — or will rising interest rates only signal another run on inflation?
Then there’s the personal angle. Unemployment, family crises and other unexpected issues happen to all of us every now and then. You can’t control what the market, the nation or the world will do. But you can better respond to some parts of your life — if you do it proactively. These actions can help protect you, as well as your family, through all sorts of uncertainty. And they can be done now.
5 Ways To Hedge Your Bets
If possible, pay off your mortgage. Pay ahead on other bills whenever possible. Experts have been arguing for decades whether it’s better to pay off your home mortgage, or put your money elsewhere. If you can, pay it off. (Or at the least, put extra toward it every month.) Several interesting things happen from that decision: first, a paid mortgage gives a boost to a tight budget. (If your budget’s fine, those funds are now available for other investments!) Secondly, you’ve given your money an automatic rate of return: whatever you were paying in mortgage interest.
And finally, you’ve safeguarded one of your family’s most basic needs. I speak from experience on this one. Some years ago, an unexpected inheritance gave us enough money to pay off the mortgage. Our mortgage interest was low, and every expert we consulted urged us to put that money into the stock market, so we could get “great returns.”
Husband and I both grew up in modest circumstances. My parents saved for decades to pay off the farm, and often mentioned what a relief and help that paid-off loan was. We talked it over — and paid off the house.
Within months, the stock market went into free fall. If we’d invested that money where the experts told us to, we would have lost a substantial chunk of it. Soon after, Husband unexpectedly lost his job. For three months, we had no income, other than savings. Not having to pay the mortgage, as well, was a great blessing.
This principle can be extended to other areas. Property taxes, vehicle registrations, professional license renewals — paying those fees off early means you won’t have to scrape for funds when they actually come due. At the very least, set aside money every month, so it’s available when you do need to pay.
Keep at least two months of food on hand. If your job disappears, you’ll still be able to eat. A good share of that food should be shelf-stable: canned soups and stews, rice, oatmeal, beans and such. Dried milk and egg powder seems unnecessary — or so it did, until our area was hit by repeated snowstorms one December, just before the holidays. Within three days, the local grocery stores’ shelves were stripped clean of milk, eggs and other fresh perishables. (And we live just a few minutes off a major highway in Colorado.)
Buy the extra food items when they go on sale, and keep non-perishables in a cool, dry place. Fresh items, like meat and frozen vegetables, can be accumulated in the freezer, especially in the summer for fresh fruit. A half-bushel of peaches, for example, is much cheaper than by the pound. Wash and put them straight in the freezer — no further prep is needed, and used while still half-frozen, they make excellent smoothies, as well as fruit pies, crisps and sauces.
This food comes in handy for the short term, as well. A few frozen ready-to-eat entrees, collected on sale and/or with coupons, get rid of the need for a last-minute restaurant or fast-food stop. Better food at a better price — because you thought ahead.
Invest in the stock market — but on your terms. Don’t spend more than you can afford to lose. Spread a stock purchase over two months, with shares purchased gradually. (You may pay more for some shares, but you’ll also be giving yourself the chance to spend less, as well.) Consider Warren Buffett’s best tip for financial advice — hold stocks for the long term, and invest in index funds. (Plan for long-term, rather than rushing in for short-term gains that may not be there.) Consider finding a financial adviser who is certified by the Investment Management Consultants Association to help you make the right decisions for your finances. Pay attention to what’s going in the world…but bear in mind that the market can change on a hair trigger. Case in point: the recent 140-point stock market drop — triggered by a fake AP tweet that bombs had gone off in the White House, and President Obama was injured! (They didn’t, and he wasn’t.)
Keep your passport and other ‘official’ licensing current. One of our young college friends lost out on a needed engineering exam — because his driver’s license wasn’t current. (He’d put off renewing it, in the fuss of classes and family schedules.) Not only that, he would have paid a hefty fee if he’d been stopped for a traffic offense.
Same goes for your car registration, as well as any licensing your job requires. It’s much easier (and cheaper) to take care of these leisurely, a few months ahead, than scramble at the last minute — or worry that someone official will notice. (And you’ll pay for that lapse of judgment. Oh, how you’ll pay.)
You may not need a passport for everyday life…but it’s romantic to have one on hand, and think of the travel possibilities. Although passports can take months to process (the passport offices have historically been backlogged), they’re good for ten years. You’ll need to apply in person. You’ll also need a hefty fee, and a lot of patience while you wait for it to arrive in the mail. Passports can be obtained or renewed in 24 hours or a few days, but it’s incredibly expensive.
So why should you get a passport now, all romance aside? Because it automatically increases your travel options. Even traveling to Canada and Mexico now generally requires a passport. (You can get by with a SENTRI, NEXUS or FAST card, or other appropriate travel documents if you enter, but both Canadian and Mexican authorities generally require a passport to get you back into the United States. Go here for more.)Canadians must also show an active passport to get into the U.S.; Mexican citizens can show a passport or non-immigrant visa.
Not only that, but an active passport allows you to take fast advantage of rock-bottom priced cruises, resorts and other out-of-the-country travel options. Wouldn’t you rather go on a Caribbean cruise, than spend the same amount on a weekend a few states away? You can — if your passport is active. (Travelzoo.com is an especially good source for last-minute specials.)
One final reason to keep your passport current? It can substitute for proof of i.d. If you’ve lost or misplaced your driver’s license, this can be a lifesaver while you’re waiting for the replacement.
And finally —
Stay in good health. Eat right, exercise and you’re automatically decreasing the odds that you’ll have to spend big bucks on a future hospital stay. (Good insurance, including short-term disability, is another way to protect against that unpleasant possibility bankrupting you, as well.) Staying mentally fit helps reduce your odds of Alzheimer’s and similar illnesses, as well. (More on both of these issues in future columns.)
None of these actions are a big deal in themselves. It doesn’t take much to fill out an application, or eat a bowl of fruit, instead of a candy bar. What they do is give you options you wouldn’t otherwise have. More options, more flexibility…and more freedom to do what’s best for you and your family. That’s worth betting on!