When Markets Fall, Investors Need to Focus on What They Can Control, Experts Say

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U.S. stocks whiplashed Thursday following Russia's attack on Ukraine as investors fled risk assets and turned towards safe havens such as gold.

It can be a difficult time for investors who have been used to seeing markets gain and are now dealing with volatility that comes with global uncertainty. However, financial experts recommend staying the course in the stock market and focusing on the things you can control.

"We can't control the markets, we can't control what's happening abroad, but what we can control is what we're spending and your debt," Kamila Elliott, a certified financial planner and board chair of the Certified Financial Planners Board of Standards, told CNBC's Sharon Epperson on Thursday's Financial Faces of Change: Managing Market Uncertainty event recognizing Black leaders.

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What you can do now

Beyond geopolitical tensions whiplashing markets, Americans are also dealing with record inflation pushing up prices.

Still, there are things that people can do to better their financial situations that have nothing to do with markets, said John Hope Bryant, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE, during Thursday's event.

That includes improving your credit score, paying down debt and putting away money into an emergency savings account, Bryant said. Even people who can't make more money right now can try to cut out bad financial habits to free up space in their budgets for saving or debt reduction.

"Make more, spend less," said Bryant. "If you do just these simple things, your life changes."

It's also tax season, which for many Americans means a refund could be soon on the way, said both Bryant and Elliott. Many families could get larger refunds this year due to certain credits expanded by the American Rescue Plan, such as the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit, Bryant explained.

"This is a great time to not procrastinate and file your taxes," Elliott said. "Take that refund and use it as your emergency account, use it as your stability over the course of the year."

What to know about volatility

Of course, if you're still reeling from the market's recent tumble, it may be a sign that you're taking too much risk in your investments.

"Now is a time when people do a gut check of their own risk tolerance," said Elliott, adding that people are always more comfortable with risk, such as having 90% of their portfolio in equities, when the market is up 30% like it was in 2021.

But, when markets fall, that's when reality hits.

"It's important for people to really evaluate their risk tolerance and time horizons accordingly," Elliott said.

People in or near retirement hopefully already had assets allocated to include some liquidity, said Elliott, but if not, now is a good time to check your portfolio and start making changes. Generally, financial experts recommend having three months to six months of necessary expenses in a liquid account such as in a local bank, a high yield savings account or a money market fund.

This helps protect people from withdrawing money from markets on down days and missing out on rebounds.

"It's for days like this when you have concerns about the markets," Elliott said. "Having liquidity is key during turbulent times."

It's also important to remember that volatility is the price of gains – there's no risk without reward in financial markets. Volatility can be an opportunity to buy more stocks and set yourself up for future gains, Bryant said.

Investors should expect more choppiness going forward but be assured that the market can handle it.

"It's clear the markets dislike uncertainty and uncertainty leads to the type of volatility that we're seeing today," said Sharon Bowen, chair of the New York Stock Exchange, during the event, adding that markets have seen this kind of volatility before. "But a function of our markets is to make sure they function smoothly in any condition."

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