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10 Years Later: Lessons from the Financial Crisis of 2008

Has it been 10 years already? This month marks a decade since Lehman Brothers went bust and taxpayers began the long process of bailing out big banks. After enduring the pain of the 2008 financial crisis for years, the tenth anniversary, with World Financial Planning Day following shortly after, is a perfect time to review some of the big lessons learned. To keep with the theme of 10, here are 10 takeaways to keep in mind:

1) Get Personal. When markets are in turmoil and you are feeling scared, your personal situation should guide your decisions. The first step is to figure out where you stand, which includes having a thorough understanding of the status of your cash reserves, consumer debt and current retirement contribution level.

2) Develop a Cash Flow. When we feel out of control, the simple technique of identifying how much money is coming in and how much is going out can help you develop a short-, intermediate- and long-term game plan.

3) Maintain a Healthy Emergency Reserve Fund. Bad luck can occur at any time, but an ample safety net (six to 12 months of expenses for workers and 12 to 24 months for retirees) can help you avoid selling assets at the wrong time and/or invading retirement accounts.

4) Balance Fear and Greed. At market tops, greed kicks in and we tend to assume too much risk. Conversely, when the bottom falls out, fear takes over and makes us want to sell everything and hide under the bed. Avoid acting impulsively and keep a diversified portfolio that will balance out the highs and lows of the market – more on that in the next lesson.

5) Maintain a Diversified Portfolio. One of the best ways to prevent emotional swings is to create and adhere to a diversified portfolio that spreads out your risk across different asset classes, such as stocks, bonds, cash and commodities... and don’t forget to re-balance periodically.

6) Keep Making Retirement Contributions. Amid uncertainty, this is hard to do, but if possible, stick to your plan and keep putting money away. If you need to reduce the amount due to unforeseen circumstances, try to at least capture any company match

7) Manage Cash. If you need money within a year or so, keep it in a safe place, like a checking, savings or money market account, a short-term Certificate of Deposit (CD) or a bond. Do not tempt fate by putting money that you know you will need at risk.

8) Beware of the Sales Pitch. When we are fearful, we tend to not make the greatest decisions. So, if someone (a broker, salesman, etc.) pitches a brand-new product, either when the bottom has fallen out or when markets are reaching new highs, take time to carefully evaluate whether or not to take the plunge.

9) Be Mindful About Real Estate Purchases. Because housing was the spark that lit the 2008 financial crisis, it’s worth noting the obvious: prices can drop, and putting down 20% for a mortgage is no longer recommended. Try to stick to plain vanilla home loans, such as 15- or 30-year fixed rate mortgages, unless you really understand what you are doing! There’s a good reason that old rules of thumb work.

10) Turn it Off and Take A Break. Every crisis is replete with scary music and graphics. Once you have assessed your personal situation and made some choices, it’s smart to tune out from the 24/7 coverage. The reason is clear: the drumbeat of bad news can lead to negative thoughts, like “I am never getting this money back”, or “I will never retire.” These can take over your brain and crowd out everything else, resulting in an endless loop, which psychologists say can distort reality, disrupt thinking and erode performance. If you are starting to feel anxious, return to this list and remind yourself that you have a plan and you are sticking to it.

As we reflect on the lessons learned from the 2008 financial crisis and start thinking about our current financial situation as we near World Financial Planning Day on October 7, be proactive and re-evaluate your financial plan.

Or, if you don’t have one in place yet, take initiative to start mapping one out. Contact a CFP® professional in your area for more guidance on creating and maintaining a comprehensive financial plan and developing sound financial habits to keep you on track to achieve your financial goals.

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