Post-Recession Americans Saving More, Risking Less

NYSE Traders
Scott Eelis | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Americans learned some difficult lessons in Great Recession. The question arising from two recent studies of financial habits before and after the crisis is whether we learned them too well.

On the one hand, the crisis made us more frugal, according to "Five Years After," a report released this week by Fidelity Investments. Some 42 percent of 1,154 rank-and-file investors interviewed said they are contributing more to 401(k)s, IRAs or health savings accounts.

We're also more apt to live within our means: Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said they have less personal debt now than they did five years ago.

(Read More: Women Need to 'Lean In' on Finances)

Kathleen Murphy, president of Personal Investing at Fidelity Investments, attributes Americans' new-found thrift directly to the deprivations they suffered during the recession. "Emerging from the depths of the crisis, many investors found resolve and started taking control of their personal economy," she said.

Their pro-active behavior has paid off in mental as well as financial security: More than half of Fidelity's respondents said they felt more prepared and less scared than they did before the crisis.

On the other hand, our frugality seems to be based on fear. A new report from the research firm Spectrem Group found that Americans have developed a mistrust of the stock market, especially when it comes to their retirement savings. Just 36 percent of investors' 401(k) assets are devoted to stocks, down from 40 percent before the crisis, Spectrem's report found.

In the same period, investment in stable but low-earning money market funds had risen from 21 percent of assets to 16 percent between 2006 and the end of 2012.

In the short run, this conservative posture doesn't seem to have hurt us much. The average 401(k) balance has soared to record highs with the sustained boom in the stock market, rising 12 percent in the last quarter of 2012 alone.

(Read More: How Congress' Retirement Package Compares to Yours)

But experts are concerned that workers' aversion to risk causes them to miss out on the long-term gains that the stock market has historically afforded. While Spectrem found that faith in the stock market was improving overall, seniors who had already crossed the retirement finish line were more likely to express confidence in equities than those still saving. Barely a third of active workers in Spectrem's survey called themselves confident in the power of the stock market.

If the retail investor is not stoking the Dow, where is the boom coming from? As CNBC's Jeff Cox has noted, the market's recent surge has come as cash-rich companies have plowed nearly $1.2 trillion into stock buybacks since mid-2009 as individual investors have largely stayed pat in the cash, bonds, and other instruments built to weather another storm.