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Nearly 1 in 5 Americans are stashing cash at home in fear of a recession

Woman looking under bed with flashlight.
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The ongoing conversation around if and when the U.S. will enter a recession is prompting many Americans to make some potentially costly mistakes when it comes to their money.

Based on their fears of a potential recession, 17% of Americans have started hiding cash in their home, according to a new poll from MetLife of over 8,000 U.S. adults over the age of 18. And 21% of respondents report they have become more conservative with their money.

Making these kinds of moves can prove costly. If you're hiding cash in your home, you're not able to take advantage of compound interest, which helps your money grow exponentially the longer you have it invested. Plus, inflation actually eats away at the value of your money, so leaving large amounts of cash lying around can make it harder to achieve your long-term financial goals.

"Hiding cash in your house is one of the worst things you can do," Erin Lowry, author of "Broke Millennial Takes on Investing," tells CNBC Make It. Beyond the financial implications, there's also the possibility that the money could get forgotten or destroyed.

Meanwhile, if you move your money into investments that are too conservative while you're young, you may lose out on opportunities to grow your money at higher rates. Between 1926 and 2015, an aggressive portfolio actually netted higher average returns than a conservative portfolio, investment company Vanguard found.

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The Budgetnista's 4 tips to protect your finances from a recession

Even people who are not going to extremes are being influenced by all the talk of a recession. About 41% of Americans say they check their investments more frequently because of talk about the potential for a market downturn, according to MetLife's survey.

"That's 100% the wrong move — because it's going to freak you out," Lowry says. If your investments are properly designed to withstand the ups and downs of the market, checking on them is just going to make you anxious and provoke an emotional reaction.

"What you need to be controlling for is you," Lowry says. One of the biggest mistakes you can make — especially if you have a well-built portfolio — is panicking and selling off your investments. If you get out of the market and then wait too long to jump back in, you may miss the upswing, which could prove a costly error in the long run.

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What is a recession?

Building a balanced portfolio means spreading out your money by investing in different types of assets, such as stocks and bonds, in a variety of different sectors. This lowers the risk that your entire investment will be wiped out if something happens to one particular company or industry. You can put this type of portfolio together yourself or you could opt to work with a professional or invest through so-called robo-advisors, which typically manage your money for you.

Beyond having a well-balanced portfolio, here are three simple, positive steps you can take to help mitigate any impact a potential recession might have on your finances.

1. Build up a savings cushion

One way to prepare for any financial setback is to have an emergency savings account. "You should be having at least three months," says Tiffany Aliche, personal finance expert and founder of The Budgetnista. However, saving up only three months of living expenses is for someone who knows they can get a job quickly, she adds. For example, a nurse. Nurses are in high demand and it's a job that you can find pretty much everywhere.

But if you have a specialized job, such as an aerospace engineer or a psychobiologist, it may be more difficult and take longer to find another position if you're laid off. In that case, you should aim to put away more than three months' worth of emergency savings, likely closer to a year or more.

Many people are already. About 40% of Americans say they have started saving more money to support themselves should the U.S. experience an economic downturn, according to MetLife's survey.

2. Cut back your spending

Almost half of Americans, 43%, told MetLife they're living paycheck to paycheck. If that's you, take the time to get your finances in good shape before a downturn hits.

Put together a monthly budget so you can identify where you're spending money and where it may be possible to trim, Aliche recommends. This is going to look different for everyone. For example, it might mean packing your lunch more often or opting for a cheaper cable package — or it may require some bigger changes, such as finding a more affordable apartment.

But if you're able to live below your means, it gives you a bigger savings cushion and some breathing room if you lose your job. That's because if a recession does occur, you may need to worry about unemployment. When economic growth slows, companies typically generate less revenue and may need to lay off employees.

"You should not be living at capacity because you want to be able to pivot," Aliche says. When the last recession hit, Aliche lost her $50,000 teaching job at a non-profit school. But because she was only spending about $30,000 a year, it was easier for her to find a collection of jobs that covered her living expenses.

3. Keep investing

Financial experts say the best strategy right now, especially if you're a younger investor, is to keep investing and making regular contributions to your retirement accounts every two weeks. This routine influx of money into your investments is a strategy called dollar-cost averaging.

It's a great strategy for long-term investors, like those saving for retirement using a 401(k) or an individual retirement account, because it takes the emotion out of the equation and keeps you from selling out during market lows and buying in at market highs. You could employ this same strategy if you have a brokerage account as well, but keep in mind that it works best if your financial goals have a long time horizon.

A 401(k) is actually a good place to invest amid market volatility, Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist at Charles Schwab, tells Make It. Typically these are structured so that you're buying on a regimented basis and many have an automatic rebalancing process to keep your investment allocations on track.

"Investing should never be about a moment in time, it should always be about a process over time," Sonders says.

Don't miss: Why a down market may actually represent an opportunity for investors

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Ramit Sethi: Here's how to recession-proof your life
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