It's become a national question. With jobs and money scarce, consumers are taking inventory and tossing lots of stuff once deemed important into a humongous discard pile. To safeguard the essentials—a safe home and supportive community, the kids' education, Internet connectivity, sustenance for a pet—Americans are giving up lots of other things. Some sacrifices are painful; others bring surprise benefits.
To gauge America's changing priorities, I synthesized market research, business trends, economic data, and reports from hundreds of consumers into a list of things that many people seem to be significantly cutting back on, or living without completely. Here are 21 of them:
Monthly payments. Old mentality: I don't care about the price, as long as I can borrow to pay for it and I have enough income to cover the monthly payment. New mentality: I've already got too much debt, and the banks won't lend me the money anyway. Result: More cash purchases and a lot less financing of cars, furniture and other costly items. "The era of unbridled, debt-financed consumer spending is over, and the monthly payer is out of action," Eric Janszen, president of iTulip, a finance-advisory firm, wrote in Harvard Business Review last year.
Window shopping. Browsing used to be an acceptable pastime. But consumers have discovered that window shopping encourages them to buy tons of stuff they don't need. So now, they're shopping only when necessary, making a list and sticking to it, or skipping the mall in favor of online sites, where temptations are weaker. "I no longer spend a day at the mall when I'm bored," says Debby Abrams of Rising Sun, Ind. "I don't buy, rebuy, and rebuy again: Buy a lamp, buy one I like better and put the first one in the basement, then buy a third one and put the second one in the basement."
Bells and whistles. The technology arms race is slowing, with consumers gravitating to simpler gizmos like Netbooks, prepaid cellphones, and older, used electronics. Shaving features is obviously a way to save money, but some users also find the simpler devices a relief. "My cellphone is back to being just a phone and not my connection to the rest of the world via texting or the Web," says Dorothy Robson of Durham, N.C. "Simplicity is definitely the new thing. Now if we can get the government to be frugal, that would be great!"
Clutter. As Americans downsize, do more of their own cleaning, and look for stuff they can sell online, they're discovering tons of things around the house they can get rid of. After Russ and Deborah Merchant of Delaware, Ohio, moved into a smaller rental home in 2007, they dug out hundreds of items they had never used and didn't need. For a year, they gave away more stuff than they purchased. "We keep being amazed at how having less stuff, with no deprivation, actually gives us better quality of life," says Deborah Merchant. "We've gained emotional and spiritual maturity."
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Cable TV. Many people are cutting back on pay-TV services or canceling them altogether, which saves $50 to $100 a month. As a replacement, some viewers watch free programs on Hulu or YouTube or make do with broadcast TV. Others are giving up television completely. "There's no money for cable TV, so my Internet does me for all my news and other entertainment," says Mariluna Martin of Los Angeles. "That's money saved, plus no TV means no blaring of bad news, fear-mongering, ad pressures, and other unpleasantness." Martin spends more time reading books and sipping tea at a neighborhood café. She finds that rewarding: "The changes I've had to make have made my life better. Things are simpler and healthier now."
A home phone. How many phones do you need, anyway? With cellphones ubiquitous, the home unit is becoming redundant. Internet voice services like Skype and magicJack slash the cost of calls but still provide most of the services that are available through the phone lines. Many people are reducing their cellphone service as well. Kathy Bowman of Joseph, Ore., figures she's saving about $800 per year since she replaced her cellphone with a prepaid Tracfone she mainly reserves for emergencies. Canceling a fax line to her home saves another $120 per year.
Privacy. Got room on the couch? To save on rent or mortgage payments, roommates are doubling up and grown kids are moving back in with their parents. Mark Hamister of Elyria, Ohio, says privacy is one of the many things he's given up as two of his grown daughters have moved back home, bringing boyfriends, pets—and a granddaughter. But he's not complaining. "We have learned to enjoy a simple, cost-effective, and minimalist approach to life by developing an appreciation for nature and family," he says. "Big, expensive toys and trips were fun before, but we really don't need them anymore."
Prepared foods. More people are cooking at home, and they're doing it with fewer premade sauces, marinades, dressings, and other ingredients. "Moms are back to basic cooking," says Chance Parker, a market researcher at J.D. Power & Associates. "They want to use fresh herbs and spices. It saves money, and it's more healthy." Patricia Tremblay of Dayton, Ohio, has given up her microwave as she's cut back over the last two years. She now cooks instead of zapping a premade entrée. "I've traded convenience for choice and done well, with the added bonus of weight loss and a sense of accomplishment," she says. "It's a great beginning that seems likely to stick."
Tupperware parties. Sales of Tupperware and other storage products are up, since people are cooking at home more and husbanding leftovers. But consumers still want the best deal, and they're skeptical of merchants—even if it's a friend or neighbor. "I flatly refuse to go to any 'home parties' where the hostess is selling candles, plastic ware, etc., and she gets free merchandise," says Lois Barber of Sandy Hook, Conn. "The stuff costs about three times what you would pay retail. My blanket excuse is, 'My sister sells it.' "
Packaged cigarettes. The average price of cigarettes is about $5 a pack or $45 a carton, which mounts quickly for regular puffers. Kicking the habit is the most obvious way to save money, but short of that, more smokers are buying small machines that let them roll their own smokes. "We learned to make our own cigs with a machine that cost $40," says one smoker. "We now save around $120 a month."
Lattes. The $5 daily coffee is always one of the first small luxuries to go. But more people are brewing at home. Sales of single-serving home brewing machines have soared.
Guilt. Keeping up with all the latest trends and technology takes an emotional toll. "When I could afford it, I always felt pressured to buy the latest software and gadgets," says Kathryn Husby of Plantation, Fla. When job and health issues curtailed the family income, she and her husband cut back to bare necessities. That meant she didn't have to learn a new set of buttons or menu options every year; she just kept pressing the same familiar buttons on the old model. "I'm happier than I've been for many years," she says. "I feel like I'm in charge of my life instead of multinational corporations telling me what to consume."
Extra calories. Some Americans say they're eating less to save money and drinking more water or doing other things to suppress their appetite. Restaurants are hurting as people eat out less, but some diners are trimming the check instead of scotching the entire outing. Some strategies for lighter eating: Going out for lunch instead of dinner, sharing entrees, skipping appetizers and side dishes, and turning restaurant leftovers into one or two at-home meals. A few restaurant chains, like Panera Bread, the Olive Garden, and Buffalo Wild Wings, have even managed to gain business by offering high-quality food at slender prices.
[See 8 Restaurants on a Roll.]
Newspapers and magazines. It's bad news for the publishing industry, but millions have canceled subscriptions to print periodicals and started getting free news and information online (which is probably where you're reading this article!). The trend may be strongest among tomorrow's consumers, otherwise known as teenagers: A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that kids between 8 and 18 spend just 38 minutes a day with some form of print media, down from 43 minutes in 2004. That's out of a total of 7 hours and 38 minutes they spend every day using some form of media.
Healthcare. A forced reduction in healthcare coverage is probably one of the most crushing effects of a weak economy, as the unemployed and others without insurance make drastic trade-offs to cut costs and get by. Millions of Americans are forgoing doctor visits, abandoning medication, ignoring problems, and simply hoping they don't get seriously ill or hurt. "I don't go to the doctor as often," says Debby Abrams. "Aches and pains work themselves out. I have some neurological thing going on in my left thumb right now, but I'm going to ignore it and attribute it to aging rather than go to a neurologist."
New gifts. Regifting is a time-tested practice—but there's always room to refine your strategy. Linda Amicucci of Tenafly, N.J., holds a "treasure party" with a group of friends after Thanksgiving every year to swap recyclable gifts. "We bring all the unwanted, unused items in our house that could be used as gifts or were given to us as gifts throughout the past year," she explains. "We swap items, since a gift received last year during a grab bag cannot be regifted in the same social circle. But in a different social circle, it's a brand new gift!"
New cars. It's no secret that new-car sales plunged to levels 40 percent lower than the peak in 2006. But many buyers who have traded down to a used model are surprised at the quality of the merchandise. "I have found that many people take really good care of their cars," says Jay Bailey of Phoenix, who's currently shopping for a used SUV. "You can find cars that have over 100,000 miles that have been maintained so well that you can easily get another 100,000 miles out of them." Many other car shoppers apparently agree, one reason used-car prices have actually been rising, with some models hard to find.
Comfort. Thermostats all across America are going lower in winter, higher in summer. After losing his job last year, Phil Landry, a Florida software salesman, analyzed his use of utilities, among other things, and decided to shave costs by setting the temp at 86 in the summer. "Every once in awhile I'll lower it to 84," he says. "But as long as you're not running marathons in the house, 86 is OK." Carrie Chiarenza, an Army officer who is based at Fort Hood, Texas, and is currently serving a yearlong tour in Iraq, takes supershort "combat showers" when she's at home, and she applies other tricks learned while living in the field. "Never leave any water running if you don't have to," she says. "So when lathering hair with shampoo, water comes off. Same thing with hand washing. Sometimes the task takes longer, but it helps the environment, and my utility bills."
A daily commute. If you're unemployed, obviously there's no job to drive to, one reason the number of vehicle miles driven has dipped to 2004 levels (and traffic on some of the most congested highways has eased). Telecommuting increased during the recession as well, and more people say they're riding bikes or walking more to save on gas costs—or a gym membership.
Fancy dates. Online dating services like Match.com are growing, but courtship is a bit of a comedown these days. Discount-dating advisers suggest cooking at home instead of eating out, looking for free performances, browsing at bookstores, going hiking, and exploring yard sales (yes, yard sales). And some discouraged singletons are sitting on the sidelines, waiting for better times. "I am not dating," says one woman who recently lost her job at a financial firm in San Diego. "Who will want to date an unemployed female?" Still, she says, "I am determined and motivated to survive this recession." And date again.
Debt. Who needs it? "I have learned that it takes little time to run dangerously high credit card balances," says Tom Poirer of Lowell, Mass., "but an inordinately long time to pay it back. I have learned to deprogram myself from the consumerist mayhem." Many Americans seem to agree. Total credit card debt is about 7 percent lower than it was a year ago, and Americans have paid down more than $100 billion in credit card loans and other types of revolving credit since October 2008. We may ultimately end up with less stuff. But at least we'll be able to afford what we have.