10 Ways To Survive Without a Bailout

Make the most of the recession by solving small problems, getting smarter and having more sex

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If you haven’t qualified for a bailout by now, your chances are sinking fast. Washington has spent just about all the money it can stomach for awhile and done its best to give something to everybody. If you’re not in a line for a tax cut or housing rebate or mortgage modification or green-energy job, you may have little choice but to wait for the next financial meltdown.

But who says the whole solution has to be about jobs and money? There are plenty of ways to while away a recession and maybe even bail yourself out in the process. Such as:

1. Fix something. Look around your house. There are plenty of things that don’t work right. Maybe it’s something old and mechanical, like a blender or the bike you haven’t ridden in years. Or maybe it’s something new and digital, like a camera or a laptop with a virus. You used to pay somebody else to fix things like this, or just trash the offending gizmo and buy another one. But now you’re cutting back on extravagances. So find the manual, or download it, and tackle the job yourself. And when you start to feel comfortable with your new repair skills, come over to my house and help with my pile of projects.

[See how to tell when the economy’s getting better.]

2. Learn how we got into this mess. For people who don’t work in the financial industry or the news media, the financial crisis is hard to comprehend. But new resources are emerging that do a good job of demystifying esoteric stuff like subprime lending, mortgage-backed securities, credit-default swaps and all the other things that helped cause the recession. The nonprofit Milken Institute has published a dry-sounding report – “The Rise and Fall of the U.S. Mortgage and Credit Markets” - that’s actually a concise, readable explanation of how the housing boom and bust produced the worst recession in at least a generation. A new book by Dave Kansas, The Wall Street Journal Guide to the End of Wall Street As We Know It, tracks the crisis back to its roots in the S&L debacle of the 1980s - in merciful plain English. Other useful primers are sure to materialize soon. A better understanding of what happened won’t end the recession, but it will make you a lot smarter about your financial life and other decisions in the future.

3. Have more sex. Consumer confidence is dismal, and we need something to feel good about. Why not sex? Europeans have charged for years that Americans are overworked and undersexed. Let’s prove them wrong. If done right, it will take your mind off your dwindling retirement fund or your precarious job prospects. Another bonus: If you have a partner, it ought to be free. And if you don’t have a partner, well, you didn’t get this advice from me.

4. Start a blog. Feel like adding your voice to the growing national rant? This is how. A lot of hosting sites, like blogger.com, are free, while others, like wordpress.com, charge a few bucks a month and give you more control. If your friends like what you have to say, your blog will gain popularity. If they don’t, then it’s better that you channel your vituperations into cyberspace anyway. And there’s a good chance you’ll discover other bloggers who feel the same way you do.

[Find out how to skirt taxes and still land a plum job.]

5. Solve a problem. We’ve all become experts at complaining about the problems that ail America. How about solving one? Start small. Mediate a family spat or help a struggling student raise his grade by a notch. When you get bogged down, pretend you’re Tim Geithner or Ben Bernanke trying to solve the foreclosure epidemic: Sure, you could dither forever trying to figure out the fairest outcome for everybody. But you might die of old age first, while the problem mushrooms. So do a little something now instead of waiting for a universal solution to materialize later.

6. Make a movie. Decent digital videocameras cost less than $200, and less than $100 used. Software for adding background music and special effects is cheap, or free. Your movie doesn’t have to be great – in fact, it probably won’t be. But it will fire up some synapses that have been dormant or dedicated to worry, and it will be fun to see it on YouTube. Combine with No. 3 above, and you’ll discover the most profitable industry on the Internet.

[See how Wall Street continues to doom itself.]

7. Stop using clichés. Please, no more economic tsunamis or Ponzi schemes for awhile. Stop throwing out the baby, with or without the bathwater. Everybody knows the party’s over, so you don’t need to keep reminding us. Stop looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. And if you feel the audacity of hope or some variation, keep it to yourself. Mouthing clichés is a hard habit to break, because these well-known turns of phrase often express ideas in more vivid terms than most people can come up with on their own. But speak a little slower and give it a try. Maybe by the end of the recession, we’ll be a more eloquent nation. Bonus points go to anybody who can come up with fresh words to replace “bailout,” “stimulus,” and “shovel-ready.” (Send nominations to flowchart@usnews.com.)

[See why “Wall Street talent” is an oxymoron.]

8. Innovate. Come up with a better way of doing something. You don’t need a business plan or investors, just some keen observational powers and a bit of cleverness. Maybe there’s a better way to clean up after your dog. Or get your groceries home without using plastic bags. Or plan a week’s worth of school lunches for your kids. When you feel like you’ve actually done it, say so in your blog or just mention it to friends. Even if you don’t get paid for it, you’ll find it satisfying. And who knows, you might discover the kernel of a business idea.

9. Babysit for a working Mom. Everybody’s got it tough. They’ve got it tougher. Just an hour or two of extra childcare per week could ease a great deal of stress. Tell yourself you’re doing it for the children of the world. If you really want to be a saint, do it for a single working Mom.

[Read about one CEO who gets it.]

10. Help fix capitalism. Spend your money smarter. Pay as you go. Ask a million dumb questions until you’re sure you understand what you’re getting into. Take intelligent risks, but ask yourself what could possibly go wrong – and have a plausible backup plan in case they do. Shame the deadbeats by outperforming and outmaneuvering them. Most of all, solve your own problems instead of hoping that somebody else will. Because there will never be a bailout big enough to cover everybody.