Most of us know we should plan for adversity, but whether we do a great job of preparing is another matter entirely. I'm about to embarrass myself by facing up to my own poor planning during the late '90s. I'm sure some of you might be able to relate -- after all, one can know perfectly well what should be done, and still not do it. It's one of human nature's greatest pitfalls.
It's hard enough to prepare for unpleasant possibilities, but it's even more difficult to prepare for the unthinkable. However, although life might include unpleasant surprises or "unthinkable" disasters, there's still much to be hopeful about, especially when you take control of your destiny.
Flashback to 2001
In early 2001, I strongly suspected that the online newswire start-up I worked for -- owned by a now-defunct Internet company -- might go belly-up, as many others had already done. Although I had enjoyed the benefits of the boom years, including the hot job market that helped me build my career, I became increasingly nervous and decided it was time to plan ahead, rather than wait to get canned.
So I got a job at a well-established financial-newsletter publisher. It seemed an excellent fit, since my position was within the company's first and only Internet unit; it was a combination of old school and new school, and it fit my background well. I felt just a little bit smug about escaping the insecurity of a dot-com company when such companies were dropping like flies, and landing what I believed would be a secure job with a print publisher. And I looked on as the stock market became increasingly bearish.
I'm sure you know what happened next. First, on Sept. 11, 2001, the unthinkable occurred. For me, the horror was compounded because I was heading to work right after the plane hit the Pentagon. I ended up with a front-row view of the smoke billowing to the sky, surrounded by chaos and confusion. It took a long time to get over the shock, fear, and sadness I felt that day and on many ensuing days.
I certainly wasn't over it the following month, when the "safe" company I worked for laid off a number of staffers, including me.
In a final stroke of irony, I received a mere two weeks' severance because of my short tenure. I would have been better off financially had I stayed at my previous job and waited for the ax to fall. My former colleagues had received far superior severance packages and were laid off in a slightly better job market, since they had gotten their pink slips months before.
So much for my "planning."
Party years, painful hangover
The go-go Internet boom was fun, but it tempted people to ignore golden rules. For example: Save for a rainy day, because your salary may not always increase, and job-hopping to a higher salary is not always a reasonable plan of action. (A slow job market gives little leverage for negotiations when there are hundreds of hungry job-seekers just like you.) Given the climate of the late '90s, it wasn't wise, but probably isn't surprising that I hadn't saved enough money to survive prolonged unemployment. It was party time, and this party would never end -- everyone knew that! When you're in the midst of a bubble climate, it's easy to caught up in the silliness of the day. ("Who needs a business model?")
I had collected shares of a few stocks, many of which have since become Foolish investment recommendations. TiVo
More painful realities of the unthinkable: If you don't sock away plenty of money, you might have to rack up a lot of credit card debt if your job situation changes. And then, if you're late making credit card payments, your APR skyrockets, you get a double whammy of fees, and your credit rating gets screwed up. It's no fun when you're choosing which bills are too far past due not to pay, and which ones require a phone call to ask for an extension. Have you ever paid for COBRA? Trust me, it's expensive. But if the unthinkable happens without health care, well, there's another financial hardship. In the dark days when I had taken a low-paying job -- similar to my first-ever job in 1992 -- just to survive, at one particularly low point I realized that a Saturday matinee of 28 Days Later and a coffee had actually blown my discretionary cash until my next paycheck.
This story does have a happy ending, though. After two years of on-and-off unemployment and underemployment, I joined the Fool in late 2003. I had wanted to work here for years -- I felt it was not only investors writing for investors and Fools writing for Fools, but also people looking out for people. One of my dreams became the light at the end of the tunnel.
But even a change in the tide doesn't erase the difficulty of getting back on your feet after a few bad years. It's not just the minor case of post-traumatic stress syndrome you might have developed. The financial impacts may affect your life for years to come, as you work to pay down debt, rebuild savings, replenish 401(k) plans, and so forth. It could happen to anybody, and it could happen to you or someone close to you.
Plan ahead, Fool!
Certain buzzphrases flying around these days, such as "bear market" and "housing bubble," have stirred up some unpleasant memories, along with the knowledge that things could have been different. I have had many heart-to-heart chats with the Fool's personal-finance guru Dayana Yochim, and she has more than once influenced me to take control of residual financial troubles that remain from those tougher days. I know from personal experience that she's downright practical and inspirational, not to mention a true expert.
As luck would have it, the Fool has also recently launched Motley Fool Green Light, with Dayana and Shannon Zimmerman as co-advisors. This service, which helps regular people control their finances, would have helped me immensely back in the days when my best plan against the unthinkable was sorely lacking in wisdom and forethought.
Yes, the unthinkable can happen. If nothing unexpected ever happened, life wouldn't offer much depth or color . or lessons learned. The silver lining is that with some careful planning, some of the lessons can come with much less pain.
Amazon.com and TiVo are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. XM Satellite Radio is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers selection. Before you invest, though, get your finances in order with Motley Fool Green Light, available for a 30-day free trial today.
Alyce Lomax no longer owns shares of any of the companies mentioned. She's considering one day writing a follow-up to some of the more amusing elements of her bad two years -- including how she became a folk hero to her friends for about a week, how she became an inadvertent security threat at one potential employer, and the weirdest writing gig she ever considered applying for. The Fool's disclosure policy will never get laid off.