BOSTON -- Americans have grown more cautious and disciplined in handling their money since the financial crisis struck in 2008, a survey by a leading mutual fund company suggests.
People say they don't spend as much, save as little or embrace as much risk as they did before the crisis, according to a survey of nearly 1,200 people by Fidelity Investments.
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As a group, people say they're saving more in 401(k) retirement plans and reducing debt.
Survey participants were interviewed over two weeks in February, nearly five years after a meltdown of risky mortgage investments caused home and stock prices to sink, sent unemployment soaring and nearly toppled the U.S. financial system. Not until last month did the Dow Jones industrial average regain its pre-crisis high.
Key survey findings include:
• Fifty-six percent of respondents said they've gone from being scared or confused about managing their money to confident or prepared five years later.
• Forty-two percent are now contributing more to workplace savings plans such as 401(k)s or to individual retirement accounts or health-savings accounts. Just 5 percent are contributing less, and 53 percent say they're making no changes.
• Fifty-five percent said they feel better prepared for retirement than they did before the crisis.
• Seventy-two percent have less personal debt than before the crisis. Among all survey participants, 49 percent said they had reduced debt in response to the crisis.
• Among those saying they went from being scared to confident, 42 percent have increased the size of an emergency fund they've created to meet unexpected expenses, and 32 percent made no changes to their fund. The rest have no emergency fund or have reduced it.
John Sweeney, an executive vice president on retirement and investing with Boston-based Fidelity, said the findings and Fidelity's own data on customer behavior during the financial crisis suggest that investors have become more engaged about managing their portfolios.
"We can't control the markets, but we can control how much we save and spend," Sweeney said. "It will help them better weather the next period of market volatility."
One of the most pronounced changes in investor behavior since the crisis has been the growth of savings invested in bonds and bond mutual funds. Bond funds have attracted more than $1 trillion in net deposits since 2008. By contrast, investors have pulled money out of stock funds for six straight years. Bonds typically generate smaller long-term returns than stocks but with less chance of short-term losses.
Stocks have surged 130 percent since the market began its recovery in March 2009, and investors who shifted savings from stocks to bonds haven't fully benefited from the rally.
Year-to-date data show cash has finally begun flowing into U.S. stock funds, while bond funds continue to attract money.
Sweeney noted that stocks historically have generated larger returns than bonds, making them a better option to offset the effects of long-term inflation. But he acknowledged that bonds will likely continue to attract retiring baby boomers and others seeking steady income.
"We're going to see a long-term systemic shift into bond funds as the population ages and the need grows to reduce risk in their portfolios."
But many analysts say the long-term outlook for bonds is risky. Their yields are near all-time lows, and interest rates will eventually climb. If the economic recovery continues to accelerate, the Federal Reserve will rein in its bond-buying program, causing rates to rise. When that happens, many investors could be surprised at how quickly bond funds could suffer losses.
Still, the potential losses for bond investors won't be nearly as severe as the losses that stock investors absorbed in the financial crisis.
The survey was conducted for Fidelity by the firm GfK. Fidelity, the second-largest U.S. mutual fund company behind Vanguard based on fund assets, was not identified to the 1,154 survey participants as the sponsor.
GfK used its KnowledgePanel sample, which first chose participants for the nationwide study using randomly generated phone numbers and home addresses. Once people were selected to participate, they were interviewed online. Participants without Internet access were given online access for free.
To qualify for the survey, participants had to be at least 25 years old, and identify themselves as a financial decision maker for his or her household. Participants also had to own investments other than a bank savings account or certificate of deposit. There was no minimum threshold for the dollar amount of invested assets required to participate.