15 money moves for tough times

While economists debate whether the country is in a recession, consumers are being buffeted by skyrocketing prices, growing debt, layoffs, the subprime lending squeeze and a stock market roller coaster.

While you may not be able to control the price of oil or the prime rate, there are some simple things you can do to shore up your finances, safeguard your future and ride out whatever the economy throws at you.

Here’s a list of ideas that hopefully will help you get through any hard times, plus tips if the hard times have already hit your household.

1. Eliminate the nonessentials. One way to avoid putting spending on automatic pilot: Write down everything you buy and the price. Then go through the list and “be brutal,” says Nancy Register, associate director for the Consumer Federation of America.

Ric Edelman, CFS, RFC, and author of “The Truth About Money,” agrees.

“You need to make sure you’re not spending any money that doesn’t absolutely, positively need to be spent,” he says. “A lot of people are spending money frivolously on wants they consider needs.”

If you have kids, “It’s a great time to explain wants versus needs,” says Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for Consumer Action.

2. Start a go-to fund for emergencies. The average family will face up to $2,000 a year in unexpected bills, says Register. For families already stretching to pay the bills, those surprises can trigger long-term financial problems. While you can’t plan what or when, you can have money set aside just in case.

“You need to really boost your cash reserves,” says Edelman.

His recommendation? Aim for one year’s living expenses in an assortment of liquid vehicles, like a bank account, money market account and short-term CDs.

One way to kick-start that fund: Shave off 10 percent of your take-home pay every time you get a check, says Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Keep it liquid and make saving automatic. Look for a money market account that pays the highest rate you can find, says Register. Want to make sure you’re consistent? Arrange to have the money deposited electronically.

Deposit any “extra” money you receive, like that birthday check, bonus, tax refund or raise.

3. Consider cutting back (rather than cutting out) some expenses.Depending on your current situation and concerns, it might make more sense to just scale back.

“It’s much more effective if people cut back rather than cut out,” says Cunningham, “because it’s the change in behavior that’s so tough.”

Examine services you’re paying for and not fully using, like the cell phone plan with unlimited texting or the premium cable package. Are there less expensive options that would make you just as happy? Would bundling (buying several services from the same provider) save money?

Make it a family discussion, says Cunningham. “That way, everyone is pulling in the same direction.”

4. Safeguard your current job. Remain engaged and enthusiastic, keep a high profile and network, network, network.

Make yourself visible “as someone who wants to be part of the team,” says Martin Yate, executive employment coach and author of “Knock ‘Em Dead 2008: The Ultimate Job Search Guide.”

Three keys to making yourself invaluable: First, analyze how much you save or produce for the company. And don’t be afraid to let higher-ups know what a key role you’re playing in company success.

Second, stay current with the latest developments, continuing education and technology in your field.

Third, participate in at least one local professional organization. Not only will the connections help you in your current job, they can also make securing the next one much easier.

“It immediately gives you a relative, professional network for your search,” says Yate.

5. Be on the lookout for your next job.Just like a corporation, you have to ensure your own financial survival, says Yate. If you believe that your company or job is in jeopardy, update that resume, reach out to your network, hit the job boards (anonymously) and ignite your job search.

6. Keep your debt load light.Use credit only if you are paying off balances in full every month. Otherwise, switch to cash, checks or debit cards, says Cunningham. “That way when the money’s gone, the spending stops.”

7. Barring a complete personal financial meltdown, continue funding your retirement. “Retirement is going to come,” says Edelman. “You need to be ready for it.”

8. Swap extraneous spending for smart long-term moves.You can live another month without a new DVD player, but servicing your car or home heating system could net you a nice savings through fuel efficiency and keep you from having to shell out for expensive repairs later.

9. Investigate refinancing.If your credit is good and you’re planning to stay in your house for a few more years, refinancing could be a smart move.

Prime rate loans are the lowest they’ve been in two years, so investigate if a refinance could save you money every month, says Edelman.

Do the math and analyze what it could save you.

10. Re-examine your insurance.You don’t want to be underinsured or overinsured. The key is to have enough to cover you at the best rate you can find. Shop your policies, set your deductibles at the highest amount that you can comfortably pay out of pocket and make sure you’re getting credit for everything appropriate, like having car alarms, air bags and a good driving record, says Cunningham.