March 4, 2009— -- To see how far reaching the recession is, look no further than the Chicago Public Library.
Before the recession, the library system loaned out roughly 7 million books, CDs and movies a year. But today, the annual lending rate has skyrocketed to 9.8 million.
"Honestly, what we've seen is that people have been reevaluating their spending. There's kind of this rediscovery of the library and realizing that that same best-seller you want to go buy at the bookstore … you can get at the library," said Ruth Lednicer, spokeswoman for the library system. "If you can get it on DVD from Netflix, you can get it from the library."
It's just one of the many ways Americans are adjusting to their new economic reality.
Since the recession started in December 2007, consumers have cut back on vacations, stopped buying cars and run from the real estate market.
And who can blame them? They've seen their retirement savings dwindle, their home values drop and the national debt soar.
To give a further sense of just how much America has changed since the start of the recession, ABC News has taken a look at some key economic indicators and some not-so-likely ones. Here's a snapshot of the economy before and after the recession:
Sources: RealtyTrac, Labor Department, Employee Benefit Research Institute, Department of Agriculture, Chicago Public Library, Mortgage Bankers Association, National Association of Realtors, Treasury Department, Autodata Corp., FDIC, Bankruptcy Data Project at Harvard, Department of Transportation and the Federal Reserve. Figures are for the most recent period of data available.
"We've woken from a daydream. We've been walking around as zombies and basically believed that everything was possible and nothing would harm us as a consequence of what we did," said Martin Lindstrom, a brand futurist and author of "Buy-ology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy."
"We're not taking things for granted anymore," he said.
Lindstrom said that the wake-up call is actually "incredibly healthy."
"From a positive note," he said, "I think we got a slap on our chin and woke up. And that hurts, of course."
Coping With Recession
So what do people do to deal with the recession?
"We go back to basics as human beings. A recession is the same as being under stress," Lindstrom said. "We create a framework around ourselves to survive. And that's why we buy brands, which we believe reflect those rituals."
So that's why Rubik's Cubes and Legos are selling well, he said, while flashy new toys aren't. People aren't looking for the latest luxury goods, but old-time classics that have proven their reliability.
Another recession favorite: chocolate.
"At least I can treat myself to a five-minute break where I can escape from reality," Lindstrom said of the snack. "That is basically their replacement for the holiday trip to Paris or Switzerland."
Art Hogan, chief market analyst at Jefferies & Co., said it makes sense that people are not buying cars. It's typically the second-largest purchase people ever make and banks have been making it harder to borrow money.
"In a tough economy, those decisions get pushed off," he said.
Americans' willingness to rediscover the library, stay in for a movie or cook at home is all "part of the nesting theme," Hogan said.
Shoppers, trying to get the most value for their dollar, are flocking to Wal-Mart, BJ's, Costco and Target.
"It means that everyone is feeling the brunt of the economy although 92 percent of us are still working and 96 percent that have mortgages are still paying them," Hogan said. "We certainly get to hear about how bad things are on a daily basis and it affects everybody's spending activities."