How Investors and Consumers Can Take on Debt

Investor Guide 2012 - A CNBC Special Report
Investor Guide 2012 - A CNBC Special Report

On the third anniversary of the stock market's financial crisislow point, investors can look back with a combination of wonder and relief.

The major market indices have recovered all those losses and more, and the economic recoveryhas finally moved into third gear. and Finally, there may be sufficient grounds for optimism. Guarded optimism, that is.

In the back of our minds, however, there's a nagging feeling that better times are not really good times, and that progress can disappear quickly with the turn of the global economy.

The European debt crisis, though in remission, can threaten again. Petroleum pricescould soar to new record highs if the political stalemate with Iran leads to closing of the Strait of Hormuz, or, even worse, war with Israel.

Later in the year, there's the leadership change in China and the U.S. debt ceiling time bomb.

More down to earth for most Americans is whether thehousing malaiseis finally over after six miserable years and whether Washington's extraordinary fiscal and monetary stimuluswill unleash income-destructive inflation.

Better times yes, but debt remains a big issue for the American consumer and the U.S. economy. Though Americans have made progress in reducing heavy debt load, more hard work clearly lies ahead. According to a 2012 report by McKinsey, household debthas fallen by $584 billion — or 15 percentage points relative to disposable income — since the financial crisis, but two-thirds of that was the result of defaults on home loans and other consumer debt.

Moreover, the latest consumer credit data showed a larger-than-expected increase in credit card debt in January, but an overall decline in credit card use.

So, when it came time to produce our annual Investor Spring Cleaningspecial report, debt seemed fertile ground. Spring, normally a time of rebirth, optimism and consumer spending, may dawn a bit frosty and tentative again this year.

From your portfolio to your wallet, you'll find tips on how to make and preserve money.

If you're worried about inflation or retirement, check out our stories on investing in TIPs or converting part of your 401(k) into an annuity.

If debt has you down, learn how rebuild your balance sheet, take advantage of your bank's offer to refinance and avoid inheriting a loved one's debt.

And tell us what worries you the most.