Let's beat a dead horse: It's really bad out there. And if you're one of those trying to improve your financial fitness, you're probably cutting spending wherever you can. That's why retailers and restaurants, among others, are struggling most right now. Since these companies can't count on a government bailout any time soon, you'll have to bail them out with your own wallet if you want them to survive.

Fickle consumers and their ever-changing tastes can make retail investments burn your portfolio, even in a decent economy. With the economy now anything but decent, I've got to wonder whether some retailers will have the finesse to make it through the next season. For purposes of protecting your portfolio, or pure schadenfreude for some of you, I've identified three such companies with dubious balance sheets and unsure prospects for the coming year.

Forever young?
Becoming irrelevant (aka uncool) is the kiss of death for retailers. Alas, it looks like Stein Mart (NASDAQ:SMRT) has been banished to the reject table in the cafeteria. For years, boomer ladies ages 35 to 60 flocked to Stein Mart and other shops like Chico's FAS (NYSE:CHS) to check out the latest fashions designed especially for them, rather than their twentysomething daughters.

Fast forward, and trends have dramatically changed. Turns out 60 is the new 40, and looking young is the flavor of the week. Stein Mart isn't alone in its pain -- Chico's just changed management to counter its same-store sales declines. But Chico's at least has hope; its burgeoning White House / Black Market brand is targeted toward younger shoppers, and the company isn't financially burdened with debt. Even struggling Ann Taylor (NYSE:ANN) has hope that ladies may seek its more classic, career-focused interview suits and separates as they search for new jobs in this volatile employment market.

Stein Mart's demise didn't just happen overnight. It's been a long time coming, with an overall 10.6% drop in same-store sales year to date. Financially, Stein Mart's quick ratio of 0.50, debt-to-equity ratio of 0.42, and inability to generate strong cash flow put the company in a less-than-stylish place. As such, Stein Mart is aggressively slashing workforce and SG&A costs to survive in the short term.

Even though Stein Mart is pricing merchandise to move (and reduce inventory), that just might not be enough to survive, especially when it isn't clear whether the company can fundamentally change its brand to meet the needs of  customers seeking a younger, fresher -- dare we say cooler? -- look.

Classic looks go out of style
Just the name Eddie Bauer (NASDAQ:EBHI) conjures up thoughts of comfy flannel shirts and warm wool sweaters -- the kind of clothes that are appropriate no matter what the economy holds, right? Uh ... not so much.

Maybe Sears Holdings (NASDAQ:SHLD) was onto something when it moved Lands End offerings inside its Sears locations, driving competition in the outdoor-clothes space. Maybe Eddie Bauer management hasn't been able to figure out how to survive in the wilderness as a stand-alone company after it's spinoff from Spiegel. Or maybe folks just don't have the money to buy Eddie Bauer's moderately priced clothing.

In any case, to say that Eddie Bauer is struggling would be an understatement. The fundamentals are pretty bad, with a quick ratio of 0.10, total debt-to-equity ratio of 1.37, and trailing-12-month interest coverage ratio of 0.60.

The company had a little more than $3.5 million in cash as of September 2008, a number more in line with what investors should have in their retirement portfolios than what a major retailer should have on its balance sheet. Meanwhile, inventories reached $175 million, and total liabilities reached $522 million. No fuzzy wool socks for investors here.

Obviously, given retail's pitfalls, these numbers are downright scary. That's why the stock price has dropped by nearly 90% in the last six months; shares now trade below $1. Eddie Bauer stock certificates look an awful lot like lottery tickets these days, especially after a holiday season that delivered coal in most retailers' stockings.

Caribou Coffee goes cold
However bad the economy gets, I won't be giving up my morning cup of coffee anytime soon. But as Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) found out the hard way, folks are starting to make their coffee at home, instead of buying $4 lattes on their way to work. Caribou Coffee (NASDAQ:CBOU) is trying to fight its way to profitability in these tough times by cutting costs, closing stores, and changing management, but reaching solid profitability won't be easy for it.

With less than $7 million on its balance sheet as of Sept. 28, Caribou has not delivered a profitable quarter in the past five years. Again, this decline isn't just due to a blip in the economy. Caribou doesn't have much long-term debt, but with a quick ratio of 0.40 and a trailing-12-month ROE of (56.5%), this company isn't delivering much value, either.

Caribou management admitted that it is in the middle of a "multiyear" process designed to improve its current situation. Unfortunately, that's a bad place to be in the midst of a lousy economy. With its stock price down almost 85% from its closing price of $12.02 on its IPO date back in February, Caribou has moved from a prime growth opportunity to hardcore survival mode, leaving investors with ice-cold prospects.

Right now, some retailers are more focused on staying alive than building long-term growth. Maybe Stein Mart, Eddie Bauer, and Caribou Coffee can find ways to improve in the midst of our current tough times. But in their present states, investing in these stocks seems little better than speculation.

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Fool contributor Colleen Paulson does not hold positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this article and is (fortunately or unfortunately) no relation to the current Treasury Secretary. The Fool's disclosure policy looks good in anything.