The 7 new rules of financial security

In a world turned upside down, you must re-examine some basic assumptions. A good place to start: understanding the true nature of risk.

4 of 7
Rule No. 4: Borrowing
Rule No. 4: Borrowing
Thinking of really stretching to buy a house, pay tuition, or start a business? Be extra cautious when all your neighbors are doing the same.
Old thinking: Borrowing sensibly is a good way to build wealth.
New rule: Borrow cautiously. You have to worry about the other guy's debt too.

The quarter-century leading up to 2007 wasn't simply a golden age for stocks. It was also a bull market for leverage. (That's Wall Streetspeak for debt.) Since 1982, mortgage rates have fallen from 16% to below 6%. The levy on college loans dropped to around 3%. Americans responded to easy credit in a predictable way. The personal savings rate fell from over 12% to zilch, and household debt payments as a percentage of disposable income rose by a third as families "put it on the card" and paid for lavish kitchen upgrades with home-equity loans.

Looking back, America's borrowing binge was nuts. Families were leaning on housing wealth, and that wealth was shaky.

The obvious moral here is to be conservative. There are always good reasons to borrow, even today. You need a mortgage to buy a house, and a college education provides enough of a lifetime payoff to justify a loan. But you ought to stretch less.

There's a subtler lesson too. David Ellison, president of the FBR Funds, says that you have more exposure to leverage than you think, especially now that everyone is trying to unload debt. Perhaps your employer borrowed a lot over the past decade and now needs to conserve cash, so it's laying off staff. Suddenly that HELOC you could easily handle on your salary doesn't look like such a super idea. You can't lean on your investments for help, because many of the companies you owned used leverage to pump up profits, and now they can't borrow, so their earnings and stock prices are falling. And it's harder to shore up your own balance sheet by selling your house when banks are reining in lending and potential buyers are scared to borrow for an asset that may decline further.

What to do: Be conservative about debt? Make that very conservative. Especially when your neighbors aren't. Get a mortgage you can afford for the life of the loan, and put at least 20% down.

NEXT: Rule No. 5: Housing
Last updated April 13 2009: 6:02 PM ET
More Galleries
8 great summer vacation deals Want the perfect summer getaway? MONEY searched for destinations with balmy weather, unique attractions, fun stuff to do, and great deals from four different categories: beach, mountain, culture and city. More
Best ways to catch up on your retirement savings Even the most financially responsible people make a few mistakes or run into obstacles along the way. These tips -- from cutting taxes to selling securities -- can preserve a safe retirement. More
Nearing retirement? Fortify your finances Your financial goals are within reach. Here are tips and tools to make sure you achieve them. More

Special Offer

Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.