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Michelle Singletary mug for column in Moneywise.

No, you weren’t overreacting if you spiraled into a heart-clutching panic when the U.S. stock market dived in March due to the first spread of the pandemic.

I got scared.

As I get closer to retiring, I watch my retirement account closer than ever before. Every swing down makes me freak out. Even when my account rises again, I get nervous wondering when there will be another plunge. But experts say there is often no cause for alarm.

“The stock market can do well even when the economy seems to be doing poorly,” said Dan Egan, managing director of behavioral finance for Betterment.

As we close out 2020, I asked some financial experts what lessons retirement investors should learn from a market that left people feeling jet-lagged from the turbulence this year. Here’s what they had to say.

Christine Benz, director of personal finance for Morningstar:

1. Put your retirement plan on autopilot.

For people who were investing through regular paycheck deductions in a company retirement plan, 2020’s short-lived market crash was a nonevent. Data suggest that most 401(k) investors didn’t flinch during this period, and that illustrates the virtue of putting in place a good, hands-off system. That way you don’t have to worry about what to do during periods of volatility.

2. Play a good defense.

Research on brain functioning demonstrates that it’s next to impossible to think long term if you’re worried about your short-term well-being. 2020’s first quarter provided a vivid illustration of this, as many workers experienced job losses just as the market was tanking. To be a successful long-term investor, it’s crucial to have enough liquid reserves set aside to carry you through unexpected events. Holding three to six months’ worth of liquid reserves is a good benchmark for most people, but those who should target an even bigger cushion include older employees, highly paid workers, contractors, or those who earn their living from the gig economy. These workers should aim to save a full year’s salary of liquid reserves.

3. It’s not too late to invest in stocks.

Investors who read headlines about the strong gains notched this year by the major markets might assume that they’ve missed the boat. The good news is that, at least until recently, only a fairly narrow segment of the market was increasing, while everything else didn’t perform nearly as well. That suggests that investors with stocks in their portfolios should make sure they have well-balanced exposure.

Carolyn McClanahan, a certified financial planner who founded the fee-only Life Planning Partners based in Jacksonville, Fla.:

1. Everyone needs an emergency fund.

This keeps you from tapping into money that can be expensive to use, such as credit cards, retirement plans and the sale of assets.

2. You need a plan.

People need an investment policy on how much to allocate to certain riskier assets (stocks, real estate) and safer assets (bonds, CDs, cash). By sticking to your allocation in times of market upheaval, you are less likely to sell out of the market in fear.

3. Invest in yourself.

What 2020 taught us is that even the most recessionproof jobs can be challenged in some circumstances. Some people think their jobs are recessionproof. Health care workers are one example. The critical-care workers kept their jobs, but those in medicine who were not deemed essential suffered cutbacks. By keeping your skills sharp, it’s easier to pivot to alternative work to create an income.

The stock market took us on a bumpy, scary ride in 2020.

So, here’s what these experts said you should expect in the new year:

“As much as we’re all relieved to have a vaccine, and return to normalcy is on the horizon, I wouldn’t rule out that 2021 will feature some market jolts along the way,” Benz said.

She said this makes it especially important that investors match their portfolio to their spending horizon.

“Investors who are getting close to retirement should consider reducing risk in at least a portion of their portfolios,” she said. “When they do eventually retire, they will be able to spend from their safe investments, cash and bonds, if stocks encounter a period of turbulence.”

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible.