Here’s what a possible recession could mean for American consumers

Americans want to know: Is this a recession or not?

Officially, the National Bureau of Economic Research defines recession as “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months.”

In fact, the latest quarterly gross domestic product report, which tracks the overall health of the economy, showed a second consecutive contraction this year.

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However, both President Joe Biden and Federal Reserve ChairJerome Powell said we’re not in a recession just yet, pointing to the strong labor market and rising wages.

“One question is answered, but a larger one is not,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate.com. “We now know that the economy has contracted for two consecutive quarters.

“It is not entirely clear whether a recession has begun given the continued strength of the job market,” he said.

Even if the NBER doesn’t declare a recession, the economy is far from out of the woods.

Higher interest rates and unrelenting inflation pose major dangers ahead.

And regardless of the country’s economic standing, consumers are struggling in the face of sky-high prices, and nearly half of Americans say they are falling deeper in debt.

While this may look different from previous downturns, there are certain things that rarely change.

3 ways a recession could hit your wallet

Jose Luis Pelaez | Blend Images | Getty Images

1. It could get harder to find a job: Recent signs show the labor market, which was on fire in 2021, may be beginning to cool.

Hiring has slowed somewhat already, while uncertainty is running high about where the economy is headed.

Although the unemployment rate has remained just above the pre-pandemic low, “Powell seems to be warning us that the job market will likely weaken in this higher interest rate environment amid the fight against historically high inflation,” Hamrick said.

The Fed on Wednesday announced another major rate hike of 0.75 percentage points to cool things down — particularly inflation, which remains at a 40-year high.

There are more headwinds that the markets face than tailwinds.

Douglas Boneparth

president of Bone Fide Wealth

2. Your investments may falter: Meanwhile, fears that the Fed’s aggressive moves could tip the economy into a recession has caused markets to slide for weeks in a row.

“You’ve had all asset classes enjoy that last shot of liquidity over the last couple of years,” said certified financial planner Douglas Boneparth, president of Bone Fide Wealth in New York. Now, “there are more headwinds that the markets face than tailwinds.”

In times of turmoil, some advisors recommend a shift to stocks paying a high dividend while sticking with short- to immediate-term fixed-income assets.

However, Boneparth also advises clients to look for opportunities.

“Good investors need to be proficient at not just buying on the way up but buying on the way down,” he said.

During the last recession, “anyone with hindsight would have enjoyed some of the steepest discounts in the capital markets,” he said.

3. Home price inflation will fall: House prices haven’t exactly fallen, but they aren’t rising as fast as they once were and a recession would very likely cause the housing market, as a whole, to slow down, according to Jacob Channel, senior economist at LendingTree.

Lending standards could also tighten, which means that many would-be homebuyers could find that getting a loan is difficult, or they’ll have to pay a higher interest rate to close the deal. “All in all, this means that a recession would make it harder for people to get mortgages and to buy homes,” Channel said.

However, this won’t be a “2007-2008-style crash,” he added.

The housing market is in a much better place than it was in the early 2000s, Channel said. And, even if prices fluctuate, “as long as you stay the course and keep making your payments, you’ll probably end up being OK.”

How to prepare for a recession

While the impact of a recession would be felt broadly, every household would experience a pullback to a different degree, depending on income, savings and financial standing.  

Still, there are a few ways to prepare that are universal, according to Larry Harris, the Fred V. Keenan Chair in Finance at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business and former chief economist of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Martinprescott | E+ | Getty Images

Here’s his advice for consumers:

  • Streamline your spending. “If they expect they will be forced to cut back, the sooner they do it, the better off they’ll be,” Harris said. That may mean cutting a few expenses now that you just want and really don’t need, such as the subscription services that you signed up for during the pandemic. If you don’t use it, lose it.
  • Avoid variable rates. Most credit cards have a variable annual percentage rate, which means there’s a direct connection to the Fed’s benchmark, so anyone who carries a balance will see their interest charges jump with each move by the Fed. Homeowners with adjustable rate mortgages or home equity lines of credit, which are pegged to the prime rate, will also be affected.

    That makes this a particularly good time identify the loans you have outstanding and see if refinancing makes sense. “If there’s an opportunity to refinance into a fixed rate, do it now before rates rise further,” Harris said.

  • Stash extra cash in Series I bonds. These inflation-protected assets, backed by the federal government, are nearly risk-free and pay a 9.62% annual rate through October, the highest yield on record.

    Although there are purchase limits and you can’t tap the money for at least one year, you’ll score a much better return than a savings account or a one-year certificate of deposit, which pays less than 1.5%.

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