Turn Paranoia Into Plan B (Because Things Might Get Worse)

I have a confession: I am an “awfulizer.” I'm always afraid that something awful is around the corner, especially when it comes to my personal finances and the overall economy. Folks like psychologist Martin Seligman (author of Learned Optimism) would point out that my physical and mental health suffers from all my dooming and glooming, and he's probably right. Nevertheless, as Seligman points out in his book, pessimists are more accurate when it comes to assessing reality. In other words, all you optimists are just deluded!

Plan B for peace of mind
Andrew Grove, who fled communist-run Hungary at the age of 20 and co-founded semiconductor company Intel, had a guiding motto: Only the paranoid survive. (He also published a book of the same name.) No, that doesn't mean you have to turn into Howard Hughes, who would demand that people remove dust and stains he saw on their clothes, but there's value in having a defensive nature. People used to tell me that I was just being overly pessimistic. But after the last 11 years, and the accompanying recessions, layoffs, and market crashes, I no longer seem so irrational.

From both a financial and psychological point of view, I've learned to live with my “awfulizing” by having a plan for what would happen if my family's situation changed significantly — what expenses we'd cut, which relatives we'd move in with if we lost the house, even where we'd rendezvous in case a major catastrophe prevents us from getting to our home. (After all, I do live in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, and have a picture I took from the balcony of Fool HQ of smoke rising from the Pentagon on Sept. 11.) Fortunately, I haven't had to put my Plan B into effect, but knowing it's there has provided plenty of peace of mind.

The past several weeks have inspired me to revamp my Plan B. Some of the reasons are personal (i.e., the possibility of taking in three kids whose parents are unable to care for them) and some are global, namely, the economy stinks and could get worse. Research firm ECRI, known for its well-regarded index of leading indicators, issued a report on Sept. 30 that claims the U.S. economy has already tipped into a recession. Furthermore, the ECRI claims that shorter recovery periods and more frequent recessions will be the norm. They conclude the report with this: “If you think this is a bad economy, you haven't seen anything yet. And that has profound implications for both Main Street and Wall Street.”

You don't have to be prone to paranoia to find that a bit scary. If it makes you at all worried, then perhaps it's time to turn the angst into action by creating your own backup plan.

Income, interrupted
You already have a Plan A — you're living it. Whether it's an actual written document is another matter. But your Plan A starts with your current income, which determines how much you can spend, how much you can save, and how long it will take to achieve your financial goals. Plan B is what you do in case there's a disruption to your current sources of income, be it your job (if you're still working) or your portfolio (if you're retired). The actions in your Plan B have three components:

  1. Actions you can take now to prevent an emergency or increase the chances that other resources will be available should you need them.
  2. Actions you will take in case the income interruption occurs — essentially, a thought-out strategy that you can implement immediately.
  3. Considerations of how all these actions could affect your long-term financial goals.

Here are some candidates for the components of your Plan B:

  • Shore up your human capital. No matter what kind of job you have, think in terms of being a self-employed person who must continually impress customers in order to convince them that spending money on you is a good deal. As fund manager John Hussman wrote in an August commentary, “Even people who earn income from a paycheck are entrepreneurs in the sense that they are in the business of selling labor services.” Solidify your good standing with your company and/or your customers. Have in mind a list of other employers, or types of employment, you would pursue in case something happened to your current job. Also, become active in your network. Charles Purdy, senior editor at jobs site Monster.com, told the Wall Street Journal that “The mistake a lot of people make is that the only times their network hears from them is when they have a favor to ask. They don't think about how they can help the people in their network and build that goodwill.” As the article points out, many jobs are never advertised and are filled through referrals of existing employees. Staying in contact with many people increases your chances of hearing about such positions.
  • Have an “income-outflow cushion.” This is a just a different way of saying “live below your means,” but that's usually recommended to persuade people to save for some future goal. But keeping spending below your income also has defensive benefits: The more you live below your means, the less you'll need in an emergency, and the more you can accept solutions that result in less income than what you had before (such as a lower-paying job).
  • Prioritize expenses. Look at the line items of any household budget and you'll see plenty of categories that can be eliminated immediately if absolutely necessary: entertainment, travel, dining out, gym membership, charitable contributions, and even contributions to investment accounts (if things get that dire). There are others that we've grown accustomed to thinking as necessary but really are luxuries, such as cable TV, high-priced cell phone plans, high-speed Internet, new clothes, children's activities (e.g., sports, lessons) and so on. What are the items in your budget that you would cut immediately if times got really tough?
  • Put your home to work. For many homeowners, the mortgage is their largest expense, and the house is their biggest asset. Considerations for lowering that expense or putting the equity to work are important aspects of any Plan B. Possibilities include downsizing, moving to a location with a lower cost of living, a reverse mortgage (if you're 62 or older), renting out the basement, and getting your ne'er-do-well adult son to finally pay rent.
  • Sell your stuff. You own more than a portfolio and (if you're a homeowner) a house: You also own everything in your house. Much of it can be sold in a pinch. As I've written before, my family made more than $2,000 by selling things we no longer needed before moving to a new home. We could have parted with even more if we had to.
  • Know from where your cash will come. If you had to access money, where would it come from? Ideally, your first answer would be “my emergency fund, of course.” But if that became depleted, where would you turn? Ideally, it would not be from your 401(k), which is where 61% of respondents of a survey by State Farm Insurance said they'd get extra money. That could lead to taxes and penalties (if you're not yet 59 ½), as well as compromise your retirement. While everyone's circumstances are different, here's a very general list of where you should turn first for cash (There are plenty of reasons for individuals to change the order of these sources of cash, but it provides a general framework.):
    1. Emergency fund
    2. Property or possessions you can sell
    3. Investments in taxable (i.e., non-retirement) accounts
    4. Money you contributed to a Roth IRA (which can be withdrawn with no taxes or penalties; earnings are another matter)
    5. A home-equity loan, if and only if you know your situation is temporary and you have no doubts about your ability to pay off the loan
    6. A 401(k) loan, if and only if you will continue to be employed by the same employer and you have no doubts about your ability to pay off the loan
    7. Credit cards
    8. Retirement accounts
  • Adjust your long-term goals. You future financial needs — such as retirement income years from now — rely on an assumed rate of return, having a set amount of assets by a certain time, and other variables that may not materialize. Consider what you'd do if your portfolio under-performs your expectations. Will you delay retirement? If you're already retired, are you willing and able to return to work? If these options are unappealing, then act now by spending less and saving more so your future financial goals aren't reliant on a specific investment return.

Come on, get happy…mostly
Okay, so maybe working from a foundation of fear isn't the best way to go through life. Seligman (and others) are probably right that perpetual pessimism isn't healthy. In his book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, Stanford neurology professor Robert Sapolsky explains that when we lived in the wild and were chased by lions, our bodies reacted to stress pretty well. Today, our stress is lower-level but longer lasting — a constant buzz in our brains that can cause everything from depression to heart disease.

Sapolsky advises us to “find ways to view even the most stressful of situations as holding the promise of improvement, but do not deny the possibility that things will not improve. Balance these two opposing trends carefully. Hope for the best and let that dominate most of your emotions, but at the same time let one small piece of you prepare for the worst.” I argue that developing your Plan B is that small piece; once you have that created — and ready to be implemented when necessary — you can enjoy the good times…while they last.

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Dogs or Dollars
Dogs or Dollars
9 years ago

Awfulizing. This is my new favorite term. I definitely fall into that category. Great article. Very thought provoking. Particularly on where your money would come from after the emergency fund. I’d bet most of us don’t get that far in our disaster preparedness. I, myself, have a long standing tab on my master spreadsheet called ‘Worst Case Scenario’. This is a draft of our 1 income and/or unemployment income budget. When the doom and gloom gets me down, I revisit it, to remind myself we could survive. If at least for a time. Worst Case Scenario has been deployed before,… Read more »

Meika
Meika
9 years ago

I love this idea!

KM
KM
9 years ago

I have the same thing on my own Excel financial spreadsheet! Also called “worse case scenario”. I don’t think I’m an awfulizer in general, but after my divorce I felt panicky about being able to handle my and my kids’ financial futures. In my case, putting the “worse case” down on paper, in detail, was tremendously reassuring. By cutting all optional expenses (including cable and phone), the kids and I could still pay the mortgage and eat for at least a year using only child support and unemployment. Plus I have savings. I haven’t actually lost my job fortunately, but… Read more »

Procrastamom
Procrastamom
9 years ago

I have this too on our master document. My spreadsheet is named “Doomsday”. My husband’s job has been in peril for a couple of years now. He works for a small company that has almost gone under a few times. I went on the Canadian Government website, figured out how much he would get from unemployment and plugged that into our spreadsheet. Then I knocked everything down to bare necessities. Turns out, we’d be okay for quite a while if he lost his job. We wouldn’t have to dip into our savings for at least a year. It’s actually a… Read more »

Marsha
Marsha
9 years ago

I believe I am an optimist at heart, or perhaps a realist with a positive frame of mind. However, one thing that helps maintain my positive attitude is always having contingency plans. If I have plans for the worst-case scenarios, then I can relax and enjoy life. If this makes me an awfulizer, then so be it.

Courtney
Courtney
9 years ago

I have this too, but I’m a bit more of a Pollyanna so it’s just called ‘Minimal Budget’. It’s our 1-income budget (the smaller of our two incomes) and it’s not lavish, but it gets the bills paid with a tiny bit extra.

E. Murphy
E. Murphy
9 years ago

What a fantastic post. I realized it’s what I’ve been doing all my life only now I can feel good about it.

Despite having very modest incomes and a few investment mistakes my husband and I have plenty of money in retirement, but still I prepare for the worst.

Ya jes nevuh know.

Mom of five
Mom of five
9 years ago

I’m an awfulizer too! There’s a quote from WB Yeats that we have hanging in our home: “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” We got the print as an inside joke to poke fun at my mother, but the older we get the more we realize it points to American born DH and me as well. Our awfulizing has turned us into closet hoarders – literally, our closets are jam packed with clothes we won’t throw away because we might need them someday. The pantry is packed to the… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago
Reply to  Mom of five

I have the stockpiling thing too. One of the ways I deal with it is turning the stockpile into literal savings – take a month each year and eat out of the freezer & pantry, and put the grocery budget money into my savings account instead. It keeps things from getting out of hand in the pantry, saves me money if I can manage to turn off the freezer for a few months afterward, and normalizes eating that way occasionally so if we *are* broke again someday it’s not a huge wrench to eat pasta & lentils all month.

Annemarie
Annemarie
9 years ago
Reply to  Mom of five

That Yeats quote is now our new and improved family motto. So perfect.

Deb
Deb
9 years ago
Reply to  Mom of five

Crazy about the Yeats quote and plan on sharing it with my mother as it is definitely her motto. This apple didn’t fall far from that tree either, unfortunately! 🙂

Beth
Beth
9 years ago

Great post! I love the term “awfulizer”! I think my friends and family would probably put me in that category.

I do find having an emergency plan and emergency reserves reduces my stress. When something happens, I can take a deep breath and remind myself “yes, I can pay for this without going into debt.”

I wonder if my “awfulizing” tendencies keep me from profiting though. I’m really hesitant to buy a home, and I’ve got a big emergency fund but not a lot of investments. I guess there’s two sides to this story.

Dogs or Dollars
Dogs or Dollars
9 years ago
Reply to  Beth

I agree with this. I contribute heftily to my 401k, but am not super excited about putting money into the market otherwise. Too many ‘what if’s’ particularly right now. I’m not quite at the stuff it all under the mattress point. Although, I understand the tendency. 😉

Becky
Becky
9 years ago

Thanks Robert for a great article. I read GRS every day and am a fan of all the writers, but only twice have I printed out posts and referred to them later. (Really, who prints out blog posts? Who under 70, I mean?) You wrote both of them: the one about the consequences of a decline in decision-making in one’s 80s and 90s (which I discussed with my 72-year-old mom), and this one. I am not a pessimist or an “awfulizer,” but I am a worrier. I appreciate now having a concrete project that I can fuel with my worry,… Read more »

Mary
Mary
9 years ago

We plan for the worst and hope for the best. It seems to work pretty well for us.

Julie
Julie
9 years ago

I’ve always called it “extrapolating” in my case. My dear sister keeps saying, “can’t you plan for things to get BETTER instead of WORSE?” I say, “easy for you to say, have your husband leave you with a special needs child for a younger woman and see if you don’t start ‘extrapolating!”

Charleen Larson
Charleen Larson
9 years ago

I used to be a anxious pessimist. But I found the cure to pessimism: Marry someone who worries ten times as much as you. 🙂 Now I’m Susie Sunshine and I’m a lot happier. Instead of worrying, worrying, worrying, I too have found that having a contingency plan for every possible bad thing is a comfort. Husband loses his job? No worries, we retire. (We’re sixtyish.) Health care eats up our savings? No worries, we sell our current house, kick out our renters and move into our rental property. About the only contingency I haven’t planned for is a zombie… Read more »

shash
shash
9 years ago
Susan S
Susan S
9 years ago

Great word. I’ve been an “awfulizer” for years, largely because my parents grew up during the Depression and raised us as if it never ended. Having emergency reserves and an emergency plan (although not as comprehensive as the author’s plan) allow me to sleep at night and ignore the day to day dire predictions by the media.

29 and holding
29 and holding
9 years ago

Unrelated comment alert, feel free to ignore!

I get the whole monitizing thing, but the marketing popout box at the bottom of the page is completely annoying.

Penny Pincher
Penny Pincher
9 years ago

My Plan A is like your Plan B. I’ve got 4 p/t jobs, tenants and a roommate. I guess that’s income diversification if nothing else is. I’m paying debt faster than contractually required. I’ve been very fortunate during this downturn to have employment, but I did have to pick up an old skill and start marketing it again to have work, because I had been in real estate and that crashed, leaving me high and dry for about a year. I now make per hour about a third of what I used to make in billable time. But I’m surviving.… Read more »

imelda
imelda
9 years ago
Reply to  Penny Pincher

And herein lies my dilemma.

I’m crazy/paranoid enough to worry about all that stuff, but not crazy/paranoid enough to do anything to prepare for it.

So instead I just stress.

Tara
Tara
9 years ago

I’ve already partially instituted Plan B: no cell phone contract (use pay as you go), no cable TV, no land line phone, no gym membership, no loans – I have avoided every type of debt or contract I can, I’m just down to homeowner’s insurance, utility bills, food and monthly condo dues. No car, saving 50% of my salary, gold coins in the safe, guns/ammo/food/water well stocked in the house. Have plenty of clothes and other material items stocked up. Like Charleen in #10, if we both lost our jobs we could sell the rental property and live in one… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
9 years ago

“I’m always afraid that something awful is around the corner, especially when it comes to my personal finances and the overall economy.”

I’m not like that at all. I pretty much just think everything’s going to work out and will be OK. So far, it always has.

If one day it doesn’t? Well then I die, or move into my parents garage or something. I don’t know, I’m sure it will be OK.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago

I don’t mind expecting disgraces on a hypothetical level, however, I like to do this on an intellectual level, not an emotional one. At heart, I’m an optimist, intellectually, I’m of the mind that anything can happen, so why not.

Speaking of which, I need to alien-proof my winter insulation. Orgone rays are not something to be messed with.

Deb
Deb
9 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Oh no! I hadn’t thought of that! :::wringing hands:::

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
9 years ago

Every dollar (and hour) spent on preparedness for extremely unlikely scenarios is an opportunity cost for all the other things you could be doing. Want to go on vacation in Paris, or remodel your kitchen? Sorry, can’t, spent my money on bullets and gold coins.

Want to spend the afternoon having a picnic in the park? Sorry, can’t, busy formatting “plan B” scenarios.

Overdoing “preparedness” is economically inefficient.

Linear Girl
Linear Girl
9 years ago

As with all else, moderation is the key. It’s another cost/benefit analysis. Bringing a rain tarp on my camping trip when the weather calls for sunshine is easy and takes little space. Camping (or packing to leave) in the soaking rain is miserable enough to make the simple Plan B prep really sensible. Some take it to what seems an extreme, always planning for Doomsday to the exclusion of enjoying today. I just figure that those folks like to plan, they feel superior to those with less of an eye to the future, and they consort with other of a… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago

And yet, hanging out with the people at the Planetarium can be a hobby.

29 and holding
29 and holding
9 years ago

Perhaps your Plan B should include your parents moving into your garage or something? 😉

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago

I wouldn’t worry, Jor-El has a plan of his own.

Marsha
Marsha
9 years ago

This used to be my attitude. But then I had children. When I was young and childless, I was only hurting myself if my plans fell through. There’s lots more at stake now.

Krantcents
Krantcents
9 years ago

I think it just makes good common sense to have a plan B. Taking a good hard (realistic) look at your situation won’t hurt either.

First Gen American
First Gen American
9 years ago

Whenever my husband goes into a crowded room, he instinctively looks for the emergency exits. Just knowing where they are puts him at ease.

I think the same can be said for financial contingency plans. If you know you can make it out that door to financial solvency by eliminating A, B, C and D, then that’s all you need to know to give you piece of mind. If eliminating those things still leave you in a precarious position, then you need to beef up your emergency fund or take more drastic measures come emergency time.

Great article

Krishanu
Krishanu
9 years ago

The same adage: Hope for the best, but think (and prepare) for the worst.

Good article!

Lisa
Lisa
9 years ago

People who are prepared for a disaster tend to survive it better. In the heat of the moment, it can be hard to create a good plan, but a lot easier to implement one sitting on the shelf.

Increasing income, diversifing income, cutting expenses and diversifying investments are all good financial strategies. Learning practical skills, knowing your neighbors, and keeping supplies on hand are also helpful.

Diane
Diane
9 years ago

LOL, I call mine the Layoff Budget.

Good article I picked up a few things I can add to my layoff budget.

Justin | Mazzastick
Justin | Mazzastick
9 years ago

There is a lot of food for thought in this post. I have implemented some of the ideas in your post.

Lisa
Lisa
9 years ago

We have resorted to a plan B on a few occassions. It was called the “fly by the seat of your pants” plan. It didn’t turn out so well. We used up savings, went without prescription meds (insulin), went without food and pretty much limped along in hopes of finding work. We recently had to resort back to Plan B due to job loss (again) and in the end, we did better this time around, since we had savings built back up as well as meds/food. Our situation is still rough, since it split up the family. But paranoid or… Read more »

getagrip
getagrip
9 years ago

Don’t remember who wrote this, but I’ve always found it applicable:

Hope for the best,
expect the worst.
Life’s a play
and we’re unrehearsed.

Sara
Sara
9 years ago

Part of my worse case scenario plan always includes taking care of myself – regular exercise, a high quality diet, relaxation and meditation. I also spend time and money investing in new skills. Even in a down economy, there are still opportunities. Hey, I bet that the economic downturn was great for the bottom line at Get Rich Slowly (and other frugal blogs)!

Brad
Brad
9 years ago

I have so many friends living paycheck to paycheck. They never listen when I try to get them to start saving. Sadly some people just need to got through an emergency before they’ll know to be prepared.

Deb
Deb
9 years ago

At one time, not too long ago, my mind was full of thoughts and Doomsday scenarios, as #15, Penny Pincher, well described. Images of of post-economic-collapse America filled my brian, complete with starving, marauding hoards of gun toting criminals. I realized that my awefulizing had evolved into a serious case of `catastrophizing’. I decided to take action by first assessing our financial situation with our advisor. I was assured that were we to lose our jobs, we could get by for 6 months on our cash savings and a streamlined budget. Nearly a year if just 1 of us received… Read more »

Natalie @ Mango
Natalie @ Mango
9 years ago

A healthy dose of paranoia might mean the difference between being prepared and being caught off guard. Although paranoia might be a little strong… I’m going to go with… vigilant! And it isn’t just the economic world that is unpredictable right now– it is the world at large. Okay, that statement might be enough to send some people running for the cellar or something, but I’m just saying, prepare yourself for the unexpected, and then get on with your life! For example, for all of the people affected by natural disasters every year– if they are prepared with renters’ or… Read more »

Debbie
Debbie
9 years ago

Hand me the fleece off a sheep’s back and I can give you a handwoven (or knitted) wool coat. Now, it make take me a year, but I have the skills to do it. Spinning, weaving, knitting and sewing are all hobbies for me now, but it’s comforting to know that as I enjoy them, I’m honing my survival skills. As someone here said earlier, I think about such things not with emotion but as an intellectual exercise. My husband, however,has been hoarding guns and ammo for years…

marian
marian
9 years ago

My husband & I have excellent credit & could charge necessities for quite a while & afford to make the minimum payment until we were back on our feet. Our card is 11% and that’s a lot cheaper than withdrawing from one’s retirement acct. This is counter to most advice; we did charge quite a bit in 2003 due to a layoff and our finances recovered fine. We have a bigger emergenc6 fund then we did then. We also have about 3 weeks of food. but A year’s worth & guns & ammo. My security is in my neighbors &… Read more »

Diedra B
Diedra B
9 years ago

I know where some of the better soup kitchens are. I hope I wouldn’t have a pride problem as I feel the people who come there are my equals.

I feel inspired by some commenters that I should learn some solid, timeless, survival skills.

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