Americans Plan Fun—and Frugal—Summers

Survey reports that most Americans are cautiously optimistic, and budgeting accordingly.

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"Cautiously optimistic" might be the best way to describe Americans' mood this summer. Consumers report that while they are optimistic about their own finances, they worry about the economy and the oil spill, according to the Chase Freedom-U.S. News Consumer Monitor. The survey of 1,000 people found that Americans are walking the line between indulgence and frugality by planning a fun but relatively inexpensive summer for themselves.

[Slideshow: 10 Things to Splurge on This Summer.]

While most Americans say they believe the economy has reached its bottom, only 1 in 3 believe it is getting better, and 4 in 10 say it will continue to get worse. Respondents were more positive about their personal financial situations, with 1 in 4 saying it will continue to get worse and 36 percent saying it is improving. Younger Americans (between ages 18 and 34), higher-income consumers, and single people were most optimistic about their own money. When asked to name the biggest problems facing the country, respondents named the economy, unemployment, and the oil spill.

Respondents also reported cutting back when it comes to their summer budget so they could save more: One in 3 said they are spending less on entertainment, including trips to the movie theater, and 1 in 5 said they are cutting back on restaurant outings. Many consumers said they had already incorporated these changes into their lives, and, when asked the same questions last year, a higher percentage of people said they were making these cutbacks. So while frugal moves are still popular, at least some Americans appear to be a bit freer with their spending.

[See Little Money, Little Vacationing for more information on the survey].

Among fun activities, road trips and vacations to the beach topped the list. In fact, most Americans say they will be road-tripping this summer, which means staying away from airfares, which have gone up an average of 9 percent compared with last year. Still, 56 percent of respondents said they will skip a summer vacation this year. Among the rest who said they will take a vacation, visiting friends and family was the most popular choice.

In an effort to spend less, most survey respondents reported taking care of their own home repairs and yardwork instead of outsourcing those services. One in 4 said they have already cut back on summer activities such as kids' camp or Little League. About half said they will cut back on summer novelty purchases such as barbeque grills or pool memberships if they haven't done so already.

Perhaps because of those frugal moves, more respondents said they will see an increase in their savings by the end of the summer (27 percent) compared with those who expect to see a decrease (16 percent). Similarly, more people reported that they expect to earn more money by the end of the summer (26 percent) compared with those who expect to earn less (9 percent).

[See How to Save on Summer Travel.]

To make the most out of your summer budget, consider these money-smart strategies:

Take advantage of free WiFi at Starbucks. Starting July 1, the coffee chain will offer free Wi-Fi in all of its stores. That means you'll get more for the price of a grande iced latte this summer. The service comes with no time restrictions and you don't even need a password to access it.

Check out laptop discounts. Apple, Lenovo, Dell, Samsung, and HP are among the computer companies offering impressive deals this time of year. Be sure to comparison shop on sites such as dealnews.com and PriceGrabber.com before making a purchase.

Review special airfare deals. While airfares are up overall, deals between specific cities can still be found, especially if you're flexible on timing and location. Keep an eye on the Twitter feeds of the big carriers, including Southwest (@southwestair), United (@unitedairlines), and Virgin (@virginatlantic) for some of the best deals.

Take advantage of energy-saving tax incentives. Whether you need to replace your air conditioner, clothes dryer, or fridge, new appliances are often more efficient and reduce your energy costs in the long run. There's also still time to nab energy-efficient tax incentives. Get details at energystar.gov. To save money upfront, take advantage of summer sales and free shipping offers at Home Depot and Sears.