Almost eighty years ago, Americans saw a dramatic drop in their financial well-being. That October day, as Wall Streeters jumped from windows and banks closed their doors, the United States went from the buoyant ebulliency of the Roaring Twenties to the dire straits of the Depression.
People lost their homes to foreclosure, and their jobs to industry destabilization. There wasn’t enough food, even at the soup kitchens. Farms dried up and blew away.
Those were hard times.
And today, we have gas prices pushing nearly four dollars a gallon where I live. For regular. Food costs are up 35% since the first of the year. Foreclosures are up 650% in a neighboring county. A friend got a new job — working to ease the “out-placement” of over 3,000 white collar workers at a multi-national financial services firm once known as a “safe” place to work.
Airline travel, I’m told, will be more expensive this summer and schedules will be compromised as more and more airlines face financial difficulties. At the same time, AAA suggests we drop the idea of long car trips due to the rising price of fuel. So where are you going for vacation this summer? Your basement bunker, perhaps?
The media bleats and blurts: “Doom!”, “Gloom!”, “More at 6!”
I don’t know how you’re doing, but, frankly, I don’t want any more at 6pm. Focusing on the awful can prevent me from seeing the real — and the wonderful.
So let me suggest a Personal Finance Reality Check. Do these three things, and see if your mood shifts from doom and gloom to something else.
First, sit down with at least the last three statements from your checking account. If, like me, you do online banking and use a software program like Quicken, this work will be a cinch. Look at your grocery spending — has it changed? By how much? Your gasoline expenses? Credit card purchases? Other expenses? Get a handle on how much these have gone up, and keep that percentage in mind when you do the second step.
Second, project your expenses for May. Plug in numbers for gas, groceries and other expenses that reflect the rate of increase you’ve seen in the last three months. So, if you had been spending $200/mo. on gasoline, and you have seen a 35% increase, project a gas expense of $270 for May. Make your expense projection mirror the types of expenses you’ve had for the last three months — dining out, travel, clothing, whatever. Be consistent.
Third, total up your projected May expenses. How’s that number look against your projected income for the month? Running a deficit? Rather than turning to your credit cards for quick relief, go back to your projected expenses list and see where you can make gentle cuts which result in significant savings. For instance, eating out twice a week, rather than four times a week, will save you plenty. Limiting discretionary driving will use less gasoline. Less gas = less cost. If you, like me, often meet with clients in person, perhaps you could shift to more conference call meetings for the time being.
None of these suggestions are exactly brain science. You’ve heard them plenty of times from plenty of people far more famous and wealthy than lil’ old me.
But, here’s the difference. Make these changes in your life not as a punishment, and not from a place of worry or lack — make these changes because you can, and because they are healthy. Embrace the changes. Be joyful about them. Love that you have the innovative thinking and personal power to take this weird economy and use it for your benefit.
You are not powerless to a jittery economy. No, my friends, you can take this time of uncertainty and shift it from the constant water torture of fear of lack that can be paralyzing, into a great awareness and gratitude for what you do have.
Because what you have is the ability to take care of yourself. Don’t let the doom-and-gloomers promising more at six make you forget that.