When you think about the state of the U.S. economy — and its prospects for the future — are you the type of person who thinks: "Hey, no need to panic. I've seen worse."?
Or are you someone who says, with a bit of a tremor in your voice: "This is the worst economic crisis of my lifetime."?
It's probably no surprise that Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the economy. Only 19% of 1,008 people surveyed in mid-December by USA TODAY and Gallup said it was "very likely" that young people today would have a higher standard of living than their parents. That's down from 25% in early 2008. And 60% said today's economic situation was the biggest crisis in their lifetime, up from 40% last fall.
But you might be surprised at which Americans feel the worst — and why.
USA TODAY used the poll results to find five distinct groups of Americans based on how they view their finances, whether they think of themselves as spenders or savers, and whether they feel buffeted by outside economic forces beyond their control.
The groups aren't clustered together by classic demographic, income or even political boundaries. It's not who they are — but how they feel about the economy — that separates them.
Here are the stories of some of the people we surveyed:
•Of this group, 90% define themselves as "savers, not spenders."
•87% say the current economic situation is the worst in their lifetime.
•50% say it's unlikely that young people will have a better standard of living than their parents.
•57% say outside factors affect their personal finances "a great deal."
Prudent Pessimists love to save money, much more so than most Americans. Yet, they have the bleakest outlook of any group, and they feel as if their personal situations are, in many ways, beyond their control.
They're most likely to say they're worried about losing jobs, worried about earning less money, or worried about having their job benefits cut.
It's the group that's most likely to believe the United States is heading for a depression, and the most likely to be worried about the safety of their money in banks.
This group has the largest percentage of women (59%), and educationally, is in the middle: some college beyond high school but no college degree. It has the highest percentage of non-working women (32%).
They're people such as Marissa Albridge, of Bakersfield, Calif.
She has no debt, owns her Southern California home outright and considers herself pretty well off, considering some of the financial horror stories she's heard. She is, however, frightened by the future.
"I don't want to sound like 'poor me,' but we're struggling, too," Albridge says.
A 48-year-old retiree, Albridge worked as a therapist until her husband's pension became large enough to live on full time.
But with her husband having retired recently from his job as a Los Angeles County probation officer, Albridge is worried their savings won't last.
Albridge and her husband did everything right. They invested diligently in a government-established 457 deferred-compensation plan and watched their spending.
But with the stock market's recent losses, the savings and frugality don't amount to much these days.
"My husband's retirement plan went down to practically nothing," she says.
The Albrights aren't alone, by any means.
It would seem Betty White, 76, has little to worry about. She owns the home she's lived in for 40 years, and has a secure pension plan and steady health coverage from Medicare. Despite her better-than-average situation, she finds it difficult to say anything positive about the economy.
"When I was growing up, the harder you worked, the more you got from it. If you wanted to make the effort — more hours, overtime — the more you'd make, and the more you'd get ahead," White, of Midvale, Utah, says.
"It's not the same these days. Today, the more you make and the harder you work, the more you pay in taxes."
Newly retired, White worked at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center until her employer shut down last year. White, who has always seen herself as frugal, knows how to survive in difficult times.
"I grew up poor," she says. "We learned how to make do and do without."
But like 50% of her Prudent Pessimist counterparts, she is afraid younger generations won't be able to repeat the lifestyle she enjoyed.
"I don't know how (my kids and grandkids) are going to be able to pay rent and other expenses," she says.
White doesn't attribute the current economic crisis to just one factor. Illegal immigration, free trade and lack of domestic jobs all play a part, she says.
"Combining all of those problems with the debt, we're in trouble," White says.
And this Prudent Pessimist doesn't see it getting better soon.
She's even more downbeat than the average member of her group. While 87% of Prudent Pessimists don't expect the economy to recover in the next three years, she's not counting on a comeback for at least six years.
"I am hopeful," she says, "but doubtful."
Bad Shape and Suffering
•Everyone in this group (100%) says their personal financial situation is "only fair or poor."
•The highest percentage of any group (74%) say they are "spenders, not savers."
•The highest percentage of any group (62%) say their personal finances are affected by factors outside their control.
•This group is the least likely of any to own stocks (45%) or a home (60%).
Folks who are in this group are in bad financial shape, and they know it.
However, they're trying to do something about it: 85%, the highest percentage of any group, say they've cut household spending because of recent economic pressures.
Even so, they're more worried about their own financial situation than that of the nation as a whole. They feel very vulnerable, and perhaps for good reason.
This group has the highest percentages of unemployed (60%), more people with the lowest household income (50% earn less than $40,000) and the fewest who are married (40%).
They're people such as Nakita Wise, 51, of Louisville.
Until recently, Wise worked as a prep-chef at a Bob Evans restaurant. But arthritis recently forced her to stay off her feet — costing her the job and making it difficult for her to pay bills and growing medical expenses.
She's feeling the effects of the struggling economy, and it hurts.
"It's put people in depression; it put me in a hard spot," she says. "It's just ugly."
Wise, who in February 2008 had one of her knees replaced, is struggling to re-enter the workforce. She's recently divorced and finding limited opportunities.
"It's hard to get a job because I'm not too good with computers," Wise says.
Her son is urging her to learn to use digital media. Wise has looked into attending local schools' free computer-literacy classes, but her arthritis is keeping her from re-entering the workforce.
In the meantime, she's receiving help.
The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services has been helping to pay her rent, and Louisville Metro Community Action Partnership is paying other bills, such as her utilities. The United Way and local churches have helped guide her toward other charities.
Wise's son, Bruce McPheeters, 31, an engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, is paying some of her medical expenses.
"My son, who is much better off, does not have the financial stability he once had," she says. "He's not going on vacation this year because he's paying for my medication."
In a word, Wise is uncertain.
"Sometimes you have enough to get by, and sometimes you don't."
•This group includes the largest percentage of any group (64%) who believe outside factors "don't have much" effect on their personal finances.
•They are the least likely of all groups (41%) to say they've been harmed by the economy in the past few months.
•They represent the smallest percentage (18%) who say they're worried about losing their jobs.
•They are the least likely (36%) to say this is the worst economic crisis of their lifetimes.
In-Control Realists aren't all the wealthiest Americans. They're not all the poorest. Their incomes range from rich to poor and in between. They're the least likely to have a college degree. And they're split pretty evenly on whether they're spenders (56%) or savers (44%).
But they're a pretty confident group.
Sixty-eight percent say their finances are in excellent or good shape, the second-highest of all the groups, and only 36% see this as the worst economic crisis of their lifetimes.
That might be because so many of them are young and full of hope.
In-Control Realists are the group with the largest percentage of people younger than 35 (31%), and the second-highest percentage of women (56%).
They're people such as Leslie Vnenchak, 30, of Jenkintown, Pa.
In October, around the time former president George W. Bush signed a $700 billion bailout for the troubled financial sector, Vnenchak and her husband, Matthew, signed a contract to buy their first home. A month later, she gave birth to her first child.
"We decided to do it all at once," Vnenchak said, chuckling. "I wouldn't recommend that."
Vnenchak, a part-time speech pathologist, and her husband, a physical therapist, feel their jobs are safer than those of most professionals because health care is a growing industry. "We haven't been affected too bad," she says.
Another reason Vnenchak is not too worried about her retirement is that she has decades left in the working world.
For now, retirement is not on her radar.
"If businesses decline, taxes will increase, so I might have to go to work more days," she says. For this mother of a 3-month-old, being away from her son, Kyle, is more grave a deprivation than any financial one.
No Need to Panic
•No one in this group thinks this is the worst economic crisis of their lifetime.
•A majority (56%) don't even think it's a crisis.
•This is the most optimistic of all groups; 66% say today's young people will have a better life than their parents.
•And everyone in this group (100%) believes an economic recovery will start in fewer than three years.
This group is just plain sanguine. (That's "cheerful and confident; optimist; hopeful," according to Webster's Dictionary.)
This is the only group in which a majority isn't worried about having enough money for retirement.
They're the least likely to worry about losing job benefits such as health insurance (22%). And they're second behind the In-Control Realists in believing that outside factors don't affect their personal finances much.
This is the oldest group; the average age is 50. It has the second-largest percentage of men (54%). And it has the smallest group of low-income people; only 3% earn less than $20,000. It has the highest percentage of retirees (29%).
This group is likely to be white, male and Republican (38%).
Like Terry Harris of Lakeland, Fla., they feel like they've seen it all before.
"It really comes down to: What's different today than yesterday?" Harris says. "The mortgage industry screwed us all up, but my house is paid off. My bank is still running. I work in a job in health care, and people are always going to get sick. Unemployment is high, but it was higher when Jimmy Carter was president."
Harris, 41, is married with three children. Times are a "little tight," but he's not worried.
"It's nothing we haven't lived with before," he says.
He's confident he could take his skills as a systems programmer for a local hospital to any business.
"I remember back in the '70s, you couldn't get a job. You couldn't buy a house. My parents bought a house, but it was very difficult. There were gas lines at the pumps because of the (OPEC) oil embargo, and we were waiting in line in the heat for gas," he says.
He's not that concerned that economic Armageddon is on its way.
"I'm not worried about my immediate situation," he says. And, as far as the economy: "America still makes stuff. It'll be fine."
I'm OK, the Economy's Not
•By far, this is the best off financially of any of the groups; 97% say their finances are in good or excellent shape.
•Yet, everyone in this group (100%) says the economy is in the worst economic crisis in their lifetime.
•This group has the largest percentage of stock owners (77%), and largest percentage of homeowners (80%).
•But they're more likely than two of the five groups to be worried about losing their jobs or benefits because of economic turmoil.
This is the most affluent, most educated, most male, most white and most married of all the groups.
It has the highest income: 50% have annual household incomes of $75,000 or more. It has the highest percentage of whites (93%).
This group includes men such as Ken Bomeisl, 59, who retired after 30 years with the New York State Department of Health and moved to Henderson, Nev., one of the nation's fastest-growing cities, near Las Vegas.
"I'm in great shape," Bomeisl says. He's got a government pension, saved conservatively in stable funds and paid cash for his condo in a development with a pool.
The economy is another matter.
"People got themselves into trouble. Let's not blame it all on the banks and hedge funds. They were taking out mortgages for $1,300, $1,400 a month, and I'd say, 'I make more money than you, how can you afford it?' But they thought real estate was just going to keep going up and up and up."
He sees the poor economy's effect all around him. Two of his neighbors' condos have gone into foreclosure, and he knows if he had to sell today, he'd get less than he paid. But he doesn't have to.
He's all set.
TELL US: How does your economic personality affect your finances?