The steep declines in this bear market have taken investors by surprise. But for many people, the most painful part of the falling market hasn't been the size of the drop, but rather two other factors: how long it's taking for stocks to hit bottom, and the fact that just about no stocks have gotten through this without losses.

Why are those two things such a big deal? Because many investors -- especially retirees and anyone else who lives off their investments -- rely on being able to sell shares for their living expenses. So far, this decline hasn't given you many chances to raise cash without selling at lows.

Cramer and cash
Last month, CNBC's Jim Cramer warned investors that anyone who didn't have five years' worth of cash for their expenses should sell enough stock to raise it right then -- even with shares already beaten down from summer levels. Cramer took some flak for taking that view with the market already down sharply, and there's no denying that his advice came too late for many investors.

But the warning wasn't entirely without value. After all, if your only experience with downturns came from the bear market of 2000-02 and the 1987 crash, then you probably learned a much different lesson than what more experienced investors who survived the stock stagnation of the 1970s know.

No mercy
The things that those two more recent drops suggested to new investors were:

  • You can always find some sector to hide in during a bear market.
  • Even if the whole market comes down, it'll bounce back pretty quickly.

After all, when the Internet bubble burst, tech companies saw their stocks get massacred -- but some other stocks did fairly well. In 1987, when the whole market crashed, stocks hit bottom quickly and were back at new highs within a couple of years.

This time around, however, things look very different. Stocks in every sector have taken big hits. In the S&P 500, just 31 stocks have seen gains in the past year. Consider some of the major sectors in the S&P 500, and how some major stocks in each sector have done:



1-Year Return


ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM)


Financial Services

JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM)


Industrial Materials

General Electric (NYSE:GE)


Health Care

Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ)





Consumer Goods

Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG)





Source: Yahoo! Finance, 11/10 close.

As you can see, while some sectors have done better than others, there's simply been nowhere to hide. Everyone's losing money.

Get the cash you need
If you were counting on a quicker recovery, you may be in a bind. Obviously, you don't want to sell now. But there's no guarantee the market won't stay low like this for months or even years -- and the way the economy's acting, you might really need some cash sooner than that.

So if you're in a bind -- or think you might be in one soon -- here's how to raise some funds without hurting yourself too much.

  • Sell what you'd sell anyway. There are a couple of good reasons to sell stocks right now, including tax-loss selling to lock in some tax benefits, or getting rid of companies that you no longer have long-term confidence in. Instead of taking those proceeds and investing in better stocks, go ahead and use that money if you need it.
  • Look for dividends. A great way to stay in the market but generate more cash flow is to buy dividend-paying stocks with high yields. There's no shortage of blue-chip companies with attractive dividend yields right now -- and those dividends can make the difference between having to dump stocks at fire-sale prices and being able to hold on until stocks recover.
  • Max out your cash income. Similarly, once you've raised cash, make sure it's working for you, too. Lots of bank checking and savings accounts pay little or no interest, but even in today's low-interest environment, you can find some banks paying 3%, 4%, or even more for CDs and other types of accounts.

Ideally, you'll never need to tap this cash for an emergency. But having enough money on hand can prevent a financial disaster if something bad happens to you. So buckle up tight and hang on for the ride of your life -- but know that whatever happens, you're prepared for it.

For more on protecting yourself from financial trouble, read about:

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has always been way too conservative for his own good -- but it's served him reasonably well this time around. He owns shares of General Electric. JPMorgan Chase and Johnson & Johnson are Motley Fool Income Investor picks. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy is designed to handle any emergency.