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Still feeling market losses, taking stock for new year

CHICAGO - After two years of embracing frugality during the severe economic slump, millions of Americans in 2011 will make financial decisions they put off. This includes everything from buying a new car to getting back into the stock market.

CHICAGO - After two years of embracing frugality during the severe economic slump, millions of Americans in 2011 will make financial decisions they put off. This includes everything from buying a new car to getting back into the stock market.

But the recession has prompted even those who have been spared from serious financial trouble to second-guess old assumptions about investing, debt, and home values.

"It's almost scary to be doing OK in this economy," said Andrew Craig, who owns a small telecommunications consulting firm in Chicago.

Craig, 46, and his wife, Kelly, took a 50 percent hit in their investments and are rebuilding. Still, the couple from Clarendon Hills, Ill., have weathered the market turmoil well.

A key factor is that they had significant, stable income to help rebuild their losses. They have combined income of $210,000, no debt besides a mortgage on their three-bedroom house and can afford private schooling for sons Quintin, 7, and Cullen, 4.

Still, the stock market cut the value of their investments in half and left the Craigs questioning how to proceed.

"As we bottomed out and were climbing back up, we really felt we needed a new perspective," said Kelly, executive account manager for a biochemicals company. "We needed to be cautious because it might happen again."

The Associated Press paired them with a certified financial planner - Ed Gjertsen of Mack Investment Securities in Glenview, Ill. - to analyze how they are managing their money.

Following is Gjertsen's view on how they - and other Americans - can take control of their finances.

Retirement savings. Many investors moved their money into bonds after the 2008 stock-market meltdown. The Craigs, though, haven't wavered. Gjertsen said that should pay off in the long run.

With Gjertsen's help, the couple are determining if they have an appropriate mix of diversified mutual funds. It's important to make sure similar investments across funds don't result in too much exposure to any particular stock or industry.

Gjertsen set a savings target of $2.5 million for the Craigs to maintain their lifestyle when they retire. With roughly two decades to go, they are on a path to reach that objective, he said.

He suggests these steps for retirement planning:

Consider consolidating any retirement accounts with former employers.

Evaluate whether you're saving enough for retirement each month.

Analyze the investments in your mutual funds to make sure they reflect your tolerance for risk.

College savings. The Craigs have $10,000 set aside for each son in a savings account and are contributing an additional $150 per month to each.

Facing a tab for their boys' college costs that Gjertsen estimated at $375,000, they know they need to significantly step up that pace.

At Gjertsen's suggestion, they will set up a 529 college savings plan. This will allow them to invest the money and make tax-free withdrawals for eligible college expenses.

Parents have to decide how much of their children's college expenses to shoulder. What's important, Gjertsen emphasized, is that they don't leave themselves short in another key area.

His suggestions:

Calculate a savings goal for college expenses.

Research 529 college savings and prepaid tuition plans to determine the best choice.

Set up a plan for how much and how often you can contribute to college savings.

Debt management. The couple in 2007 took out a home-equity loan for Andrew to pursue an executive M.B.A. degree at Northwestern University. They were able to pay off the $120,000 expense in two years.

Now they have to focus on paying off the remaining $283,000 on their mortgage. They use three credit cards but pay off the balance each month.

Their absence of all other debt is impressive, says Gjertsen, and an example for anyone to follow.

His suggestions:

Analyze how much you're paying in credit-card interest each month; look for ways to lower that cost.

Set up a plan for paying off your debt, targeting high-interest borrowing.

Save before you charge; pay cash whenever possible.

Spending. The Craigs were frequent world travelers before they got married. Now they go abroad every two years. It's one sign of their general restraint.

Their house is a modest 2,000 square feet, and the only car they own is a 2002 Ford Explorer.

Still, they wonder whether they should pare back. "It's not so much what the Joneses are doing," Andrew said. "It's what should we be doing."

Gjertsen is putting together a spending plan to help them better understand where their money is going.

His suggestions:

Track your spending.

Set up a budget so your spending limits are clear.

Routinely review your spending and adjust your budget as appropriate.