Consumers cut back on small pleasures

Jason Jepson works for a chi-chi yacht dealer in Newport Beach, Calif., but he's so worried about the economy he stopped buying $1.79 PowerBars at his gym.

Richmond, Va., legal secretary Angela Harris is passing up her beloved $3.46 Iced Mocha Latte at Starbucks sbux.

William Muckelroy II, a research director from Eagle, Idaho, now carries a bottle of tap water instead of buying $1.29 bottles of Evian at Walgreens wag.

Such small luxuries seemed almost necessities in happier economic times. But no more for lots of folks, including those and other USA TODAY readers who described how they've changed their habits.

The murky financial outlook and recession fears are factors. Another driver: fear of being out of step with a cultural mind-set that increasingly says less is more. If your best friend and next-door neighbors are cutting back on little luxuries, shouldn't you be, too?

"For years, we had the opposite. It was all about keeping up with the Joneses. Now, the Joneses are starting to cut back," says Ellie Kay, author of 12 personal finance books.

The cold, hard numbers on the nation's economic mood bear out that consumers don't feel flush.

Consumer confidence plummeted in February to its lowest since February 2003, which was just before the U.S. invaded Iraq. The Conference Board's much-watched index of consumer confidence fell to 75 from 87.3 in January, the group reports

"There's a sense that prices are rising — and will continue to rise — but wages will not," says Ken Goldstein, economist at The Conference Board. "This is squeezing household budgets whether they're $200 per week or $200,000 per year. Folks are looking closely at anything they don't have to purchase now."

Most consumers actually feel more pain from these small cuts than from big ones. You miss your daily java jolt a lot more than, say, a new car you'd only hoped to buy sometime this year.

Small cuts can also have a big effect on the economy. If cutting back becomes a cultural mind-set, it can be very hard to turn around.

"The new status isn't how much you've got, but your ability to show what you don't spend," says futurist Watts Wacker, who advises businesses on trends.

"This is a seminal moment. It's not a fad that will die out when the economy picks up."

Trends guru Faith Popcorn puts it this way: "It's cooler not to spend."

There's no turning back soon for mortgage loan originator Martin Richardson of Suffolk, Va. He used to buy four suits a year at J.C. Penney jcp. In the past year, he didn't buy any and will make do with his wardrobe again this year.

"I can't afford it," he says. "Nothing could lure me back. Not two-for-ones. Not 20% off. Nothing."

It's not just leaner times, Richardson says. "I won't go back to my old ways when the economy improves," he says. "It's hard for friends to understand, but I'm working on becoming more of a minimalist. It's a relief to have less."

While making do with less is not for everyone, here's how some USA TODAY readers are cutting back on small pleasures — and responses from some of the businesses who might feel their pain:

Fishing for fewer fast-food meals

Between Sara Winters and her husband, David, of Columbus, Ohio, they bought lunch out about eight times a week, often at McDonald's mcd. She usually got a fish sandwich and a small soft drink. He typically got two fish sandwiches and a large soft drink. It added up to more than $170 a month.

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