NEW YORK -- Many Americans saw their retirement savings accounts shrink last year, and results so far this year also have been negative.
That's led some to look at the weakening U.S. economy, which was further set back by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and think about moving out of stocks and stock mutual funds or cutting back their 401(k) and Individual Retirement Account contributions.
But experts say that now, more than ever, people should stay the course.
"The third quarter was a particularly frightening time to be getting a statement," said Ann Hartmann, a financial planner in Toledo, Ohio, and president of the Society of Financial Service Professionals. "But people should assume we'll come back from this crisis, just as we've come back from every crisis."
She added: "The crux question is, What do you think is going to happen to GM and Dow Chemical and all the other major companies in this country in the next 10 years? If you think they will survive and thrive, then you should stay in the market, which is a reflection of those companies."
Thinking for the long-term is key to surviving a downturn, the experts say.
That's just what Steve Hawrysh, 44, a computer project manager in suburban Minneapolis, and his wife, Jennie, are trying to do. After a recent meeting with their financial planner, they decided to hold on to their current mix of stocks, equity mutual funds and bonds.
"At this point, cashing out would be like throwing bad money after bad," Hawrysh said. "Retirement for us is still a long way down the road, and we figure that over the long haul, it (the market) will come back."
Dallas Salisbury, chief executive of the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington, D.C., suggested that skittish savers should take a deep breath and review their retirement goals.
"People every year should do a review of their asset allocations against their 'I can't sleep at night' quotient, which is their risk quotient," Salisbury said.
Those within a year or two of retiring might want to make sure their savings are allocated so it's easy to withdraw the cash they need for the initial year or two of retirement, Salisbury said.
All others might consider actually raising their retirement account contributions.
"When interest rates are very low, and equity returns are low, you should be thinking about increasing the amount you're saving, not decreasing it," Salisbury said. "If you don't save more, you won't have the amount of money you need when you retire."
Dee Lee, who heads Harvard Financial Educators in Harvard, Mass., also believes that it's a good time to invest more.
"I've been telling people to increase their contributions," said Lee, who is the author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to 401(k) Plans." "Essentially, stocks are on sale, and you can get a lot more for your money."
Lee also urged people to take a hard look at what it's really going to cost them to retire.
"There are some goals in life we can't budge on," she said. "If you've got a baby in your arms, the kid will go to college in 18 years and that's a fixed expense. But retirement is a moving target."
By that she means that there are a lot of compromises involved in retirement planning: perhaps you can do with a less-expensive home, or maybe you or your spouse can work part-time, or that hoped-for round-the-world cruise may not be affordable.
"Remember, too, that even if you retire next week, you still will be leaving a good portion of your money in your savings account to continue growing for you," Lee said.
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