With new — and frightening — stock market headlines dominating the news on a daily basis, it's getting harder and harder to remain calm. Your retirement accounts may be plunging, your savings and checking accounts may have changed hands in a bank buyout, and your job security might be questionable. In addition, staples like gas and food now cost more.
There is no question about it: These are rocky times. But panicking — particularly in this situation, which you and I have very little control over — will get you nowhere fast. In fact, it may very well stick you in a position worse than the one you're in now.
"Do not get caught up in the day-to-day swings in Washington and on Wall Street. It can make you emotional, it can make you scared, and nothing leads to worse decisions," says Hugh Johnson, chairman and chief economist at Johnson Illington Advisors in Albany. So what do you do? First, take a deep breath and remember that history has shown us that given time, the economy will bounce back. Then, give yourself a financial checkup, focusing on the following:
This is not the time to be making a lot of moves in the market. But that doesn't mean you can't double-check your strategy and make sure your asset allocation is still on track. You want to be taking enough risk with stocks to earn a hefty return, but not so much that your emotions start to take over. As you get older, you need to become a bit more conservative simply because you don't have as much time to make up for losses. As always, the most important thing is to continue buying into the market on a regular basis. History tells us that doing so over time gives you the best shot of coming out on top. "By putting a little money in an investment account, which consists of both stocks and bonds, you'd be surprised what a 5, 6, 7 or even 8 percent return grows to over 30 or 40 years. It's really magic," says Johnson.
That being said, there is a difference between your long-term investments — for retirement or college — and your short-term ones. The money that you need in the next three years should never belong in the stock market. It belongs in safer havens like CDs and money-market accounts. If you have your short-term assets at risk in the markets, ask yourself which you will really need in the next three years, then move those to safety. You will take a hit, but the alternative is that if you leave them at risk, they could fall further. Spending
We are a country of spenders: We like to go on vacations, buy new cars, live in big houses and wear this season's shoes. In fact, this out-of-control spending had a big hand in the mess we currently find ourselves in. It has to stop: If you can't pay for something upfront — with cash, or without having to borrow from the money you've earmarked for the mortgage, car payment or groceries — then you shouldn't buy it.
If you don't already, you need to start paying attention to what you're spending your money on. "All too often, people spend on things that really don't even matter to them. They'll look at their spending and realize that $800 went toward coffee or something else that's not their priority," says Gary Schatsky, a fee-only financial planner and president of objectiveadvice.com. At this point, I'm sure you're sick of hearing about the dent that your latte is making in your wallet. But someone else's coffee might be your lottery tickets, or bottled water, or taxi fares. Sure, they're important to you in the day-to-day, but in the grand scheme of things, wouldn't you rather make those small sacrifices now and retire comfortably and on time?Liquid savings
More than a few people have learned the hard way what happens if you lose your job and don't have a savings account to fall back on. In an economy like this one, emergency funds are more important than ever. Of course, on the flip side, this economy makes it harder to save because we're pinching pennies just to cover the basics. You really have to get creative. I've always been a big advocate of "every penny counts." If you're $5 under on your grocery budget this week, or the cell phone bill was less than you expected, put that extra cash in the bank, because those little bits can add up fast. While in the past I've said that three to six months of living expenses is sufficient, right now I'm more comfortable telling you to shoot for the full six. Stash it in a money-market account that earns you a bit of interest and provides easy access. You'll be surprised by how much peace of mind a little cushion can provide. Credit
Credit is tight now, and it may get tighter. You may have noticed that the credit card offers in your mailbox are becoming few and far between. If you've shopped around for a mortgage or car loan in the last few weeks, you've likely been told that your credit score needs to be top-notch. The truth is, what was considered a great score a few years ago may be viewed as merely good, or even mediocre today. This means that now, more than ever, you need to keep your nose clean. Pay your bills on time and stop applying for cards or loans you don't really need. In addition, don't carry a balance and focus more attention on paying off your existing balances.
With reporting by Arielle McGowen
Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money Magazine and serves as AOL’s official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC’s TODAY Show and is also a columnist for Life Magazine. She is the author of four books, including 2004’s “Pay it Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day” (Portfolio). To find out more, visit her Web site, .