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.

When the school year began, Winters started packing lunches for herself and her husband, as well as her 15-year-old son.

"We're not panicking. We're more aware of what we spend our money on," she says. "We miss McDonald's fries, but you have to think about your future."

McDonald's customers know that "regardless of whether they have a little money to spend — or a little bit more to spend — there's always something on the menu for them," says spokesman Bill Whitman.

The Winters family also spends less time at a nearby Barnes & Noble bks bookstore — a favorite family hangout — and a lot more time at the public library, says Sara Winters, who works in marketing.

Still, when a search of the library and a used-book store didn't turn up a series of science-fiction books her son, Jack, wanted, she made an exception and spent $40 to buy them at Barnes & Noble. "When your son wants to read, it's hard to say no."

Barnes & Noble spokeswoman Mary Ellen Keating says that during recessions, consumers may pull back on big-ticket items, but they tend to keep buying books.

Movie theater out; Netflix in

About once every six weeks, William Muckelroy II and wife Lore would hit the local Regal Cinema rgc in Boise to catch a movie. A pair of tickets, two popcorns and two soft drinks set them back just under $30. After the show, they'd often stop at a restaurant — an additional $40.

Now, they pay $17 a month for a subscription to online DVD service Netflix nflx— and watch about two movies a week.

"At the end of the month, the credit card statements are less," says Muckelroy. Their last movie out was eight months ago.

Dick Westerling, Regal senior vice president of marketing, points out, however, that theaters have a long history of not being hurt in downturns and that Regal's loyalty program signed up 3 million new members last year.

Muckelroy also used to stop at the convenience store during errands to grab a bottle of Evian water that typically cost $1.29.

Ditto for his wife. He figures they spent $40 a month on bottled water.

Then, his wife started to carry tap water in a bottle. He followed and hasn't bought water in months.

"I realized it was stupid," he says. Still, he adds, "It's been rough. I miss the taste."

Evian spokeswoman Lauren Kinelski says the company hasn't seen sales "suffering as a result of consumer cutbacks."

Of all Muckelroy's simple luxuries, few cost more than his monthly trips to The Body Shop, which sells natural and socially responsible personal care products. With items such as $8 bars of soap, he'd sometimes run up an $80 tab.

"I was a Body Shop die-hard," he says. "I not only like their products, but I like what they stand for."

But the expense, he says, "got ridiculous." Now, it's Dial and Irish Spring bars at Walgreens — and only on sale.

Body Shop spokeswoman Shelley Simmons says, "Many of our customers see us as an affordable luxury."

She also says, however, that it recently offered a three-for-the-price-of-two deal on skin care products and that a loyalty program gives 10% discounts.

Pre-workout energy bar takes a $1.20 price cut

One of the first things to go for Jason Jepson, a marketing executive at a yacht dealer: his pre-workout PowerBars. He paid about $1.79 for each one at his gym, slightly less at his neighborhood Vons supermarket.

Jepson ate an energy bar before working out five days a week. He's still does, but now he's buying Tiger's Milk bars at Trader Joe's for about 59 cents each.

At $1.20 less per bar, he figures his annual savings is about $312. "I'm in a different financial position than I was five years ago," he says. "I want to save."

Jepson's move is not a movement, according to PowerBar spokeswoman Kathleen Boyle. "Our data shows that the PowerBar business remains healthy."

From Starbucks lattes to Folgers

To say legal secretary Angela Harris loves Starbucks is an understatement.

At least four times a week, she would plunk down $3.46 for a beloved Iced Mocha Latte. She was spending more than $55 a month, or about $664 a year.

Now, she makes Folgers coffee at home and squirts in some Hershey's syrup.

It "doesn't taste the same," says Harris. "But with gasoline at $3 per gallon, I can pass up Starbucks."

Starbucks has had other issues in addition to the economy and is in the midst of a plan to revitalize its focus on its customers' experience. "We are taking bold steps to reignite the emotional attachment with our customers and make foundational changes to our business," CEO Howard Schultz says.

At its March 19 annual meeting, Starbucks will reveal five new consumer initiatives. It also is testing $1 regular coffees in some Seattle stores.

Surviving on plain water

A glass of water never tasted right without some Crystal Light flavoring, says Sharon Honeywell, a bookkeeper from Flourtown, Pa. Her favorite flavors: green tea and raspberry.

Around Christmas, when the weather got cold and the budget got tight, she quit cold turkey and now tries to drink plain tap water.

"Sometimes I miss it," she says. "I get a craving for something besides water," so she treats herself to a soft drink once in a while.

Crystal Light spokeswoman Bridget MacConnell says the company "listens to what consumers want" and has been trying to offer it, such as enhanced versions with vitamins.

No more $100 designer jeans

Visits to Spa Nordstrom jwn for Deshaun Davis are few now. The college professor from North Richland Hills, Texas, found herself spending $311.76 monthly at the department store's spa for such services as $85 facials and $25 lip waxes.

While she was in the store, she'd been known to saunter over to the sales floor and pick up a $100 pair of designer jeans.

Now, it's $19.95 jeans at Gap Outlet gps.

"I'm never going to pay $100 for jeans again," says Davis.

The upscale chain has felt some economic chill, but spokeswoman Brooke White says, "While we may face short-term challenges, we focus our efforts on things within our control. Things like treating each customer with respect."

After Davis cut back her treatments — "I've only gone once since January," she says — Nordstrom noticed. Her beautician has sent her notes that she's missed.

TELL US: Are you changing your spending habits because of the slowing economy? If so, what are you doing?