Positive behaviors that appear to be now entrenched include saving more in 401(k) plans, paying down debt and taking greater care to invest wisely.
"These tend to be very sticky decisions, because you begin to budget and spend around a higher savings rate," said John Sweeney, an executive vice president on retirement and investing with Boston-based Fidelity. "People are taking control of their financial lives, and control breeds confidence."
Survey participants were interviewed over two weeks in February, nearly five years after the government-brokered rescue sale of Wall Street firm Bear Stearns to JPMorgan Chase. That event, in March 2008, is regarded as a tipping point for more the tumultuous upheavals that followed, including the September 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers, which the government allowed to fail.
Housing prices plunged, unemployment spiked and stocks tumbled more than 50 percent from the market's October 2007 high to its March 2009 low. It wasn't until last month that the Dow Jones industrial average returned to its pre-crisis high.
Key survey findings include:
Fifty-six percent reported their financial outlooks changed from feeling scared or confused at the beginning of the crisis to confident or prepared five years later.
Survey participants estimated their household had lost 34 percent of the value of their total assets, on average, at the low point of the crisis. Thirty-five percent experienced what they considered to be a large drop in income, and 17 percent said at least one head of their household lost a job.
Forty-two percent increased the amounts of regular contributions to workplace savings plans such as 401(k)s, or to individual retirement accounts or health-savings accounts.
Fifty-five percent said they feel better prepared for retirement than they were before the crisis. However, among the group of survey participants who reported they continue to feel scared, just 34 percent said they're better prepared for retirement.
Forty-nine percent have decreased their amount of personal debt, with 72 percent having less debt now than they did pre-crisis. Just 31 percent of those who indicated they're still scared reported that they have reduced debt.
Forty-two percent have increased the size of the emergency fund they've established to meet large unexpected expenses. Among those self-reporting as scared, only 24 percent have a bigger emergency fund than they had pre-crisis.
Seventy-eight percent of those saying they're prepared and confident said the financial actions they've taken are permanent changes to their behavior. Fifty-nine percent of the scared group said they've made permanent changes.
Sweeney said the survey findings and Fidelity's own data on customers' actions during the financial crisis suggest investors have become more engaged about managing their portfolios. People also have become smarter about managing the risks of potential investment losses and avoiding unsustainable debt levels.
"We can't control the markets, but we can control how much we save and spend," he said. "It will help them better weather the next period of market volatility."
One of the most pronounced changes in investor behavior since the crisis has been growth of savings invested in bonds and bond mutual funds. Bond funds have attracted more than $1 trillion in net deposits since 2008, while money has been pulled out of stock funds for the past six years in a row. Bonds typically generate smaller long-term returns than stocks, but with less chance of short-term losses.
Year-to-date data show cash has finally begun flowing into U.S. stock funds, while bond funds continue to attract money.
Sweeney noted that stocks historically have generated larger returns than bonds, making them a better option to offset the effects of long-term inflation. But he acknowledged bonds are likely to continue attracting retiring baby boomers and others seeking reliable income.
"We're going to see a long-term systemic shift into bond funds as the population ages and the need grows to reduce risk in their portfolios."
The survey was conducted for Fidelity by the firm GfK. Fidelity, the second-largest U.S. mutual fund company behind Vanguard based on fund assets, was not identified to the 1,154 survey participants as the sponsor. GfK used its KnowledgePanel sample, which first chose participants for the nationwide study using randomly generated telephone numbers and home addresses. Once people were selected to participate, they were interviewed online. Participants without Internet access were provided it for free.
To qualify for the survey, participants had to be at least 25 years old, and identify themselves as a financial decision maker for his or her household. Participants also had to own investments other than a bank savings account or certificate of deposit. There was no minimum threshold for the dollar amount of invested assets required to participate.