The advice most investors heard during last week’s stock market meltdown was the exact same guidance experienced farmhands give youngsters faced with riding a frisky horse that likes to buck and sometimes throw its riders. “Hold on tighter.”

During Monday’s historic 2,000-point drop in the Dow Jones industrial average, the airwaves were filled with “This is no time to panic” talk, which is unfulfilling and nonsensical, since experts never actually identify a good time to freak out.

Of course, most people who seek high ground when the market is free-falling don’t actually feel like they are flipping out. Instead, they believe they’re taking control, diversifying their portfolios, playing defense by adding assets like gold, or real estate, or bear market funds, and more.

Whether you’re part of the group looking to grab ahold of your portfolio to stay put and ride out troubles, or if your idea of a tighter grip is somehow increasing your activity to take greater control, the truth is that no move made in the middle of massive market volatility will make you feel good.

In general, what sours investors on holdings is one of three things: the investment or something about it has changed; their financial needs, goals or risk tolerance have changed; or the market has changed. Sometimes, it’s a combination of those factors.

Typically, the market is the least viable reason to act, even if a meltdown like the one we are in now is precisely what spurs most people to cut and run.


So if you feel like you are losing your grip at a time when you should be tightening it, look for actions you can make now that can be real, substantive and helpful through whatever the market, economy, coronavirus, oil industry, bond market, Federal Reserve, presidential-election cycle and more can dish out next.

Here are five things to do:

1. Add to your emergency savings.

“Virus economics” have more tentacles than meet the eye. The obvious stocks – the airlines, hotels, cruise lines and travel companies – were the immediate casualties, but once events are scuttled, cities lose tax revenues that could threaten their bond issues, restaurants lose diners and servers lose wages, and the entire business circle-of-life starts to shrivel up. No one knows how long this will last.

At a point when the stock market is causing heartburn, ready cash is an effective antacid.

This is not just about getting your emergency reserves up past the pitiful national averages – with studies showing the majority of Americans can’t really afford a $400 emergency, let alone a $1,000 expense – it’s about gearing up for the potential that the current crisis hits home, because even if no one in your family actually gets infected with the coronavirus, it is becoming increasingly likely that the epidemic will touch a lot of people financially.

Extra cash on hand helps to stop the spread of that financial illness.

2. Pay off your debts.

While interest rates are so low that consumers can feel like they’re getting a good deal on their borrowing, the “return” from paying off a debt is interest you won’t be paying later. That’s typically a far sight better than you can get in the fixed-income market.


Using a downturn to focus on eliminating debts is its own form of diversification.

If you built a smart and savvy portfolio — one you think you can ride through the downturn with — focus less on your investments and more on shoring up the rest of your financial picture; no matter how the downturn ends, you should be better-positioned to participate fully in the recovery.

3. Reevaluate your budget.

When the market tanks and the economy sours, a little belt-tightening – or at least knowing where your spending priorities are – is appropriate.

Most Americans don’t use a budget, even temporarily, but understanding where your money is going helps, and periodically seeing where you can save money is smart. Find out if your cellphone plan, internet provider agreement and other technological expenditures are outdated and expensive; see if you can save on your energy bill and more.

Money you find here goes a long way to helping get through the downturn, and to fueling the rebound.

4. Check your pulse on each investment you own.

Identify specific securities that make you queasy and why.

Don’t let jangled nerves since the February market peak sway you here; look instead for securities that had you on edge even while the market was rising. Maybe it is something that has never performed as expected, so your confidence was flagging, or perhaps it is a past winner that you now hold mostly to avoid paying capital gains on your winnings.


Look for the stocks and funds that no longer fit your investment profile, needs, style and more; search for trouble that goes beyond a simple whipsawing by the market.

If you can no longer justify holding some securities, your heart won’t grow fonder during a downturn. Come up with a targeted exit strategy, but decide how you will redeploy (or hold) any proceeds from these trades before making them. Make each move purposefully.

5. Know your experts.

There are plenty of talking heads, each following their preferred investing methodology. Be sure you know what their process is, and how it works.

Technical analysts, for example, may have seen and followed sell signals to leave the market a few weeks ago, but they typically are working on short-term indicators and are routinely in and out of the market. If that’s not your style, don’t get fired up when the tactical-allocation expert says on television that they’re mostly in cash.

Look and listen for experts you trust based on performance and investment style, rather than on their ability to land an interview (even on my podcast). Talking heads are trying to make money in this market, just like everyone else.

Don’t take any advice without first being comfortable with the source.