Americans have put themselves on a budget. They're spurning Caribbean vacations, $10 cocktails, and designer coffees in favor of shoveling more money into savings accounts. In the first quarter of 2009, the personal savings rate hit 4.2 percent, its highest level since 1998. At the same time, consumer credit card debt fell by 6.5 percent. And in a recent survey by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, 57 percent of Americans said that they're spending less than they were a year ago.
That moderation, it turns out, could outlast the recession, and most economists and consumer experts say that's a good thing. In the NFCC survey, about half of the respondents who had reduced their spending said that they would continue to spend less even if their financial situation improved. "The consumer has fundamentally changed," says Margot Bogue, associate director of brand planning for the advertising firm Cramer-Krasselt. The new "evolved consumer," she says, shops with more discipline and focuses on buying products with lasting value rather than just accumulating stuff.
To take advantage of that shift and thrive in the new, post-recession economy, consider making these 10 changes:
Rethink your lifestyle. Veronica Neilan, a 25-year-old Brooklynite who recently completed a master's degree in forensic mental health counseling, is considering moving back to her mother's house in New Hampshire while she looks for a job. She will soon need to start paying back the $113,000 in student loans that she has accumulated over the past seven years. She's learned to ask for things such as pasta or gift certificates from relatives who are giving her presents, a move that keeps her food costs down. She rarely buys new clothes unless they are on sale or she can use a gift certificate, and when she needed a new television, she found one being given away free online. Neilan says she expects her frugal behavior to stick. "I don't want to be the person who buys a house they can't afford," she says.
Robbie Blinkoff, principal anthropologist at Context-Based Research Group, a consulting firm that recently conducted interviews with consumers, says lifestyle overhauls like Neilan's are easier for younger consumers to adopt. "They're just learning habits about how to consume. It will last into the recovery," he says, just as the Great Depression turned many people who are now in their 80s and 90s into lifelong savers.
Eliminate small expenses that add up. After Deborah Pont, 41, of Stonington, Conn., was laid off from her communications job at a large financial services firm in January, she dramatically reduced her budget: She stopped going out to dinner, shopping, visiting expensive hair salons, and getting her nails done. She also rediscovered grocery store coupons and started buying what's on sale. It was easy, in part because so many of her friends were making similar cutbacks. "Everybody else said, 'Let's not go out, let's not spend too much money,' so somebody would make dinner and we'd go to their house," Pont says.
What she discovered is that it's a relief not to feel pressure to spend so much. She has more time for things she enjoys, such as gardening and home improvement projects, and says that she probably won't return to regular spa visits even after finding a new job.
Blinkoff says Pont's discovery is not uncommon. "People have kind of woken up, and they feel the things they consumed don't match who they are and their identity," he says.
Downsize—permanently. Doreen Orion, 49, a psychiatrist and author of the memoir Queen of the Road, also decided to turn a temporary exercise in minimalism into a longer-term lifestyle. She initially cringed at the thought of leaving her dream house in Boulder, Colo., and her 200 pairs of shoes to go on a road trip with her husband. But at his insistence, they spent a year living in a 340-square-foot bus, camping throughout the country.
When the couple returned home to their luxe but hardworking lifestyle, they realized they were much happier with less. They calculated that, even though their 401(k)'s had fallen in value, if they sold their home and lived in their bus while working occasionally, they could support themselves. Such a dramatic change, she says, "put a spark back into our lives. . . . We discovered there can be an upside to downsizing."
Get competitive about it. The recession inspired Washington, D.C.-based yoga studio owner Annie Mahon, 46, to start a competition with her husband to see who could go longer without buying anything new. (They make exceptions for groceries, medicine, and certain items for their four children.) Instead of curling up with catalogues that arrive in the mail, Mahon puts them directly into the recycling bin. "It feels great, because afterward, there's no residual feeling of, 'Oh, I wish I had gotten this.' So far, it doesn't feel like I'm missing anything. It feels like I'm gaining," she says. Wanting or craving things soaked up energy, Mahon adds. She estimated that, six weeks into the competition, she had saved at least $1,000.
Take advantage of the way retailers have changed. An advertising campaign touts that "summer costs less at Wal-Mart." One television spot features the simple pleasures of the season, including hot dogs, popsicles, and running through sprinklers. Target's "New Day" ad campaign, which ran from September through May, highlighted ways to save money: cutting hair at home, staying in for a movie night, biking to work.
Lena Michaud, a Target spokeswoman, says the company has seen sales increase for products that let people cut costs by staying home, including nail polish and hair color, single-serve coffee brewers, and popcorn poppers. People also are making the most of what they already have. Michaud says that Target's sales of scarves and fashion hats have gone up as customers freshen up old outfits with new accessories.
"We are not bouncing back. The face of retail and consumption has been fundamentally changed," says Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. Even before the recession, there were too many stores, a problem that has started to self-correct through business bankruptcies and closings, such as Circuit City's. What's changed? "People are no longer celebrating how much they spend but how little they spend," says Underhill.
John Quelch, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School, says that although the length of the recession will determine just how long the newfound frugality lasts, up to 10 percent of consumers will change their behavior on a sustained basis. "Many of those changes will be in favor of reducing consumption and a simplified lifestyle," he says.
Although these consumers are still in the minority, there are enough of them to make retailers take note. "It's a huge shift in buying power," says Quelch. Because consumer spending makes up such a large portion of our economy (about 70 percent of gross domestic product), 10 percent of consumers represents a huge dollar value.
Make use of new government policies. New programs from government and financial institutions encourage consumers to hold on to their thrifty habits. Recently passed credit card legislation makes it harder for people under 21 to get credit. Congress also allocated funds for financial counseling for those facing foreclosure and already requires counseling for those considering bankruptcy.
Educate yourself. Susan Keating, president of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, says her organization is pushing lawmakers to require prepurchase counseling for first-time home buyers and for people considering nontraditional mortgages. In the NFCC's survey, 28 percent of respondents said the terms of their mortgage turned out to be different from what they expected. "That suggests they didn't understand it going in," says Keating. The NFCC would also like financial education courses to be mandated in high schools. Some states, including Missouri and New Mexico, already have such requirements, but most do not.
Save more. President Obama has suggested providing savings incentives to low- and middle-income Americans by matching half of the first $1,000 such families set aside. It's those groups that have the most trouble saving, says Tamara Draut, vice president of policy and programs at the research organization Demos and author of Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead. Government data on savings rates aren't broken down by income level, and Draut suspects that those in the higher income brackets are driving the recent increase in savings rates. "They have the ability to move the aggregate in a way that might be masking the continued declines in savings among low- and middle-income people," she says.
Even before the recession, Draut says, low-income households were struggling to pay for necessities, such as healthcare, food, and child care, let alone scrape together enough for a savings account.
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Look for a better bank. Kevin Martin, executive vice president of personal financial services at HSBC, says that financial institutions have an opportunity to turn Americans' newfound habits into lifelong behaviors. Banks that offer automatic deposits, online banking, no fees, and no minimum requirements for opening accounts make it easier for people to save money, he says.
Don't overdo your newfound frugality. That's not to say most consumers are going to cut up their credit cards and lead lives devoid of material pleasures. Americans love to shop, after all. But they'll likely be more thoughtful about where and when they dole out that hard-earned dough. As the weather improves and tax refunds arrive, Bogue says, people may opt for some selective indulgences. "One consumer told us, 'If I get $1,000 back [in tax refunds], I may buy a $300 purse. If I don't do it, I'll go crazy,'" she recalls.
But the new splurges will probably be tightly controlled, Bogue says. "People come out of the frugality fatigue, and then they're grounded. They have discipline. . . . It's never going to go back to the way it was. We've been so rocked to our core."