It’s hard to know what path to take in the midst of chaos, but you can make better choices by focusing on a few critical numbers.

Written by
Peter Dunn

originally seen in USA Today and The Indianapolis Star

I've stared at that thin plate of glass ever since I realized it existed. It taunts me. And the metal pendulum hammer is asking to be unleashed as well. I want so badly to crash that hammer through the glass; the pulling of the fire alarm actually seems anti-climatic compared with the breaking of the glass in the case of emergency. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to be in an emergency situation, but I do want to do what's necessary to begin to resolve whatever conundrum I might find myself in.

The smell of smoke or the sight of flames would be a pretty clear indication that you might want to grab the hammer chained to the "in case of emergency" fire alarm box and start smashing. My glass-breaking fantasies are about to come to fruition. However, financial emergencies aren't so defined. So much so, that people don't know when they should be breaking glass. If your financial life is suboptimal, and you have developed some sort of financial discomfort immunity, it’s possible you don’t realize your financial life is on fire.

I'm currently in charge of educating about 1,400 soon-to-be terminated manufacturing workers over the next nine months. As you might imagine, there are numerous reactions to their own reality. Some people are relatively prepared, some aren't, some aren't willing to determine that until it's too late to do anything about it, and some aren't willing to break the glass, despite the smoke and flames.

Before you declare the fortuitous nine-month period as a long enough runway to prepare for a financial life without income, try not to forget the vast majority of Americans can’t prepare for a life without work income (retirement) given a 40-year runway. We are all lulled to sleep by a lack of sharp pain.

The phrase “don’t panic” is often tossed around in stressful situations, as it should be. If you were to panic, you wouldn’t be clear-headed enough to make the appropriate chaos-mitigating decisions. The trick is to crank your concern up to the appropriate level. Think of it this way: If you fear saying the phrase “I shoulda …,” then crank up the concern in the moment. Apathy tends to breed “shoulda(s).”

Your level of concern will often determine the magnitude of your actions. From what I’ve seen, when people are faced with heinous financial realities, they tend to try to fix the problem with rather insignificant actions. It’s like eating a triple bacon cheeseburger and large cheese fries but ordering a Diet Coke out of your concern for moderation and health.

Extreme actions are often warranted, but the right kind of action is imperative. The laundry list of extreme financial actions is ugly. Selling your house, getting an additional job and dining on a $40 weekly budget are painful decisions. And those are the good ideas. Never mind cashing in your retirement plan, going into credit card debt and filing bankruptcy.

As you might imagine, people generally hate selling their home for financial reasons. I probably would, too. But selling your home to remain solvent isn't failure. Staying in a house you can’t afford and having it ruin your life is failure. Similarly, not too many people get excited about getting an additional job on top of the 40-some hours of work they currently experience. Securing a second job is not failure. Refusing to secure a second job when you need to secure a second job is failure.

It’s hard to know what path to take in the midst of chaos, but you can make better choices by focusing on a few critical numbers.

First, identify your largest expenses and be honest with yourself on the impact of eliminating them. Of course, moving would be inconvenient and less than ideal, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the solution.

Next, identify whether a chunk of money would fix your problem. Maybe paying off a debt or securing an emergency fund will buy you the time you need to survive the onslaught. If that’s the case, find a part-time job and work it like a mercenary until you’ve raised the chunk of money you need to bridge the gap.

Finally, short of choosing the bankruptcy path, let your net worth be the guide. Your goal is to make it to the other side of the canyon without incurring debt or liquidating assets, which would result in your net worth falling. You can avoid a net worth decline by cutting expenses and, of course, temporarily increasing income.

I hope never to be in a situation in which I finally get to break the glass, but if I am, I’m ready. I hope you are, too.

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