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.