Even as some start to see light at the end of the tunnel in this long bear market, it's still important to make sure your finances are in the best possible shape. Unlike the big financial institutions, which have gotten so much direct support from the federal government, you need to rely on your own prowess to make ends meet during a recession.
To figure out whether or not your finances make the grade, take the following stress test and see how you do.
1. How much ready cash do you have access to?
Big financial institutions got themselves in trouble by having too much leverage and not enough capital. The bank stress tests done by the Federal Reserve showed that American Express
Similarly, anything from a job loss to an unexpected home or car repair bill can send your finances into a downward spiral if you're not prepared. That's why it's a good idea to keep at least three to six months' worth of living expenses set aside in an emergency fund.
Scoring: Give yourself one point if you have three months of expenses saved, and two points if you have six months of expenses or more in your emergency fund.
2. Are you saving for retirement?
When times are tough, it's easy to give up setting money aside for retirement. After all, that goal may be decades away, while things that seem much more important have a lot more immediate impact.
But you can't afford not to contribute to retirement accounts like IRAs or 401(k)s. If you have an employer that still makes matching contributions -- something that's becoming more scarce all the time -- you should at least save up to the amount of the match. Beyond that, contributing to a traditional IRA can give you a current tax deduction, while a Roth IRA lets your money grow tax-free.
Give yourself one point for contributing to either your 401(k) or an IRA, and two points if you make contributions to both.
3. Do you have a brokerage account?
Retirement accounts are great, but especially inside 401(k) plans, the investment options they offer aren't always the best. With your own brokerage account, on the other hand, you can invest in a wide range of stocks, funds, and other investments.
The key, though, is not to spend too much on fees and commissions. That's where discount brokers can really make a big difference.
If you've got a discount brokerage account, give yourself two points. If not, take a closer look at what discount brokers have to offer.
4. What investments do you own?
Once you have a brokerage account, you need to use it. Mutual funds make it easy to build a diversified portfolio, even with a small amount of money. But to earn really strong returns -- whether from a promising cancer drug developed by Dendreon
Give yourself one point if you invest in funds or stocks, and two points if you own both.
5. Do you have a written investing strategy?
To succeed at investing, you really need a plan. Sure, plenty of people have made big profits just by randomly throwing money at a bunch of stocks. But while you'll occasionally stumble across a struggling company like Tenet Healthcare
If you have a written plan, give yourself two points. And if not, check out this advice from Foolish retirement expert Robert Brokamp on why you should get a plan now.
How'd you do?
If you earned five points or less, you have some work to do. Luckily, the links above will show you how to get your score back on target.
If you got six points or more, you're in pretty good shape. But there's no reason why you shouldn't shoot for a perfect 10. It's not hard -- and you'll see the benefits right away, so don't wait another minute.
More on retiring well:
If you need some help getting your finances up to snuff, get help from our Rule Your Retirement newsletter. Each month during 2009, you'll find a new tip on keeping fiscally fit and getting your finances in order. Try it out free with a 30-day trial.
In answer to allegations that he engineered the stress test for his own benefit, Fool contributor Dan Caplinger did indeed get a perfect 10. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned. The Fool's disclosure policy passes the test.