In the latest installment of our series on government reports that make you say "duh," the Federal Reserve announced today that on the whole, American households were poorer at the beginning of 2009 than they had been the previous year.

That's not news to anyone. But the key lesson you should take from the report may not be so obvious. While falling real estate values and dropping stock prices are mostly beyond your control, you can help reverse the trend of falling net worth by focusing on the one thing you can do to improve your finances: cutting your debt.

Some ugly numbers
The Federal Reserve's flow of funds report typically makes great reading material if you're short on sleeping pills. But recently, those with a morbid sense of curiosity have pored through the document looking for further proof of just how bad the current economic climate really is.

The most recent release doesn't disappoint on that score. Total assets amounted to $65.7 trillion at the end of 2008, down nearly 8% in just the fourth quarter and almost 15% for the year. As you'd probably expect, the losses spanned across household balance sheets -- real estate values fell about 11% in 2008, while financial assets dropped 18%.

On the liability side, although households' overall debt levels finally ended a streak of large annual gains, they certainly failed to shrink significantly, clocking in at $14.2 trillion. Mortgage debt fell very slightly, but consumer credit more than offset those losses.

The net result was an $11 trillion loss in net worth, to $51.5 trillion. That's an 18% drop just since last year and the lowest level since 2003, representing the undoing of five years' worth of appreciating wealth for American households.

Impact on business
Even worse, though stable debt levels may not sound like great news, they're having a huge negative impact on businesses that count on consumer or corporate spending -- in other words, just about the entire economy. Here's just a sample of warnings about first-quarter earnings that companies have announced so far this year:


Date Announced

Growth Estimate for Current Quarter

Growth Estimate for Next Quarter

Applied Materials (NASDAQ:AMAT)

Feb. 2



Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG)

Jan. 30



Novartis (NYSE:NVS)

Feb. 24




Jan. 19




March 4



Source: Company press releases and Yahoo! Finance.

In addition, the debt freeze among consumers could spell more danger ahead for companies that rely on debt financing for sales, including homebuilders like Pulte Homes (NYSE:PHM) and high-end electronics and appliance seller Best Buy (NYSE:BBY).

How to keep getting richer
Unfortunately, out of the three main areas the report identifies, you can't do much about two of them. Real estate prices won't set a bottom until they're good and ready, and most homeowners have little choice but to sit and wait for a recovery. Similarly, investors in stocks have seen big losses, and while this week's bounce in stocks has been encouraging, it's likely that there will be more volatility before stocks establish a strong foundation for more extensive gains.

What you can do, however, is to do your part to keep the other side of your personal balance sheet in line. Although some may blame rising savings rates for continued weakness in the economy, that's no excuse for you to maintain irresponsibly high debt levels for yourself.

If you dedicate yourself to reducing debt and keeping your savings levels up, then you'll be better able to weather a storm of decreasing asset values. Although you still may not see your net worth recover to year-ago levels in the near future, keeping debt under control will make that eventual recovery a lot faster -- and easier to achieve.

Read more about how to keep your finances healthy:

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has mostly stayed out of debt, at least for now. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Novartis is a Motley Fool Global Gains pick. Procter & Gamble is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Best Buy and Intel are Motley Fool Inside Value selections. Best Buy is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. The Fool owns shares of Intel, P&G, and Best Buy, as well as covered calls on Intel. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy keeps you out of trouble.