If the current economic mess results in one good thing, it's the power to make us wake up and be more responsible for our money.
The economy didn't sink overnight, so many of us had the opportunity to take action when things started sliding. Some did and some didn't, and I bet the majority of humans who are passive by nature (68 percent, according to psychological studies) are the ones who got hurt the most.
If that was you, the wake-up call has been given. By taking a few actions starting now, you can build a safer wall around you for the next recession.
Perhaps the first thing to do is manage expenses. Develop a discipline that says you will not spend unless you have put enough away in savings to hold you over during a job loss, emergency and then retirement. In good times, the appetite for living large is great. In bad times, you start saying to yourself "Why did I buy that?" Develop a habit of investing money every month. I recently showed a middle-aged person how investing just $250 a month allowed them to avoid running out of money in retirement.
Next, if your portfolio disappointed you, take another look at what investments you feel safe holding. Your risk may have been higher than what you actually could handle. The carrot stick could have been holding signs of double-digit returns, but it distracted the horse from the oncoming train. Take time now to diversify and even out the high-risk and low-risk investments.
Start by changing your 401(k) or IRA contributions into lower-risk investments if none have been chosen already.
If debt is what did you in this time, make it a point to drill in your mind that debt is for emergencies and your house only. Don't find yourself one day unable to pay bills and having your good name ruined. Consumer debt obligations, such as credit cards, should be paid off within 30 days. Just the elimination of debt can boost your savings by not having it go toward paying interest to someone else.
Finally, once you have done all the above, mark your calendar for a year from now to see how you are doing.. You'll be able to make adjustments to stay on track by giving yourself an annual financial checkup.
These basic principles - discipline in spending and saving, managing risk and debt followed by a yearly review - are keys to creating a lasting wealth and avoiding your own personal recession. If you don't take these steps, the only person you can blame for your downfall is yourself.
© 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.