Americans are digging deep to save money

Spendthrift (spend' thrift') n. a person who spends money carelessly; squanderer.

Frugal (froo' gel) adj. not wasteful; not spending freely; thrifty.

As economic news has worsened and recession appears inevitable, Americans' spending habits have swung from one definition to another.

Spendthrift to frugal, in record time.

After years of free-spending and saying "charge it" at every turn, Americans are using words such as "scrimp and save" and "scrape up some cash." Now, they're cutting back on almost all fronts, regardless of how much they earn. According to a recent USA TODAY/ Gallup Poll, 55% say they've cut household spending as a result of lower prices in the stock market and fears about the economy. Just slightly more say they'll spend less on Christmas gifts this year than last.

They're cutting back on travel for the holidays (63%), eating out at restaurants (81%), entertainment such as going to movies (72%), and household services such as housekeeping or lawn service (37%).

But the easy savings are over, and Americans are digging deeper. They're selling old gold jewelry and ransacking closets to find "stuff" to put up for sale on eBay. More are using grocery coupons and buying holiday gifts on layaway.

"We're hoarding every penny and trying to pay off some credit card debt," says Nichole Black of St. Louis.

She sold a "kinked-up" gold necklace she hadn't worn in 20 years and put the money in her savings account. Her husband found a carpooler on Craigslist to share gas costs, and they didn't buy any new school clothes for their daughter this year. "I'm just trying to hedge against any bad times," Black says.

Even the relatively wealthy are trimming unnecessary spending, says Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail in New York. Her company just surveyed 1,500 adults and found that highincome consumers are being stingier as they've watched the value of their stock investments plummet.

People with incomes over $100,000 a year are cutting back on eating out at restaurants, picking up takeout, buying home furnishings and even drinking specialty coffees, according to the WSL survey.

That may not seem like much, in comparison to those who can't afford to buy gas to drive to work. But "emotionally and financially, (the wealthy) are feeling quite shattered by this as well," says Liebmann. "Now, they're in the soup with everyone else."

The government says consumer spending fell off a cliff starting last summer, with the largest drop since the early 1980s hitting in September.

Retail sales in October were down 2.8% from a year earlier, a record drop.

But those statistics don't show just how tight-fisted the U.S. consumer is becoming. Here's what some people are doing:

Selling extra stuff

Americans typically have about $3,200 worth of goods at home they could sell to raise cash, says eBay CEO John Donahoe.

Until last month, Jessica Sanner only bought items on eBay. But the sagging economy has forced her to improvise.

"I looked around my apartment, took some pictures of some things and listed them" on the online auction site, says Sanner, 20, a college student in Bristol, Conn. She says she couldn't make ends meet on a part-time job that pays less than $300 a week. To her surprise, her perfume sold for about $25. Within days, she sold five more items.

"I get rid of unused items and supplement my paycheck," she says. "It's so easy."

John Donahoe, eBay's CEO, estimates that Americans have an average of $3,200 worth of stuff gathering dust in their homes — stuff he thinks they'll start selling on eBay.

Already, 1.3 million people make their primary or secondary income from eBay, the company says, and Donahue expects that to increase during the next few months. "People become more entrepreneurial in tough economic times," he says.

The sign outside Harts Jewelers in Weymouth, Mass., says "scrap gold."

On a recent day, owner Gary Liebert had about 10 people show up to sell their jewelry to him. That's more than he normally sees in a month.

Liebert says he's seen everything from young people who say they need money to older people selling their diamond rings and wedding bands to pay bills, to one man who said he needed the money for heart medication.

"You do get people with sad stories," he says.

Eating at home

Nearly two out of three restaurant operators reported declining sales in September, says the National Restaurant Association.

Cutting back on dining out is the No. 1 or No. 2 money-saving move for Americans, no matter their income, according to WSL Strategic Retail. That's led to new nesting around the kitchen table for many Americans who have been hooked on dining out for a generation.

Cyrus Tookes of Jacksonville says he and his family of six children have "tightened the reins a bit" on food and clothing expenses. They're cooking more at home, and they're buying in bulk, too.

He and his wife, Monique, also started putting smaller portions of food on each child's plate after discovering that "the trash can was eating better than we were!"

Trimming grocery costs

Coupon use is increasing after 15 years of decline, according to the Promotion Marketing Association's Coupon Council.

Suzanne Forte of Atlanta is among those who are using coupons as a way to save money on groceries.

"For the first time, I have collected coupons for grocery store items, transferred my prescription to a new pharmacy to take advantage of a $25 check and cut costs in other ways," says Forte, who is expecting a baby.

"I have always been a little thrifty, but the current economy and expecting a new child has inspired me to cut back even more."

Saving before buying

One in five people surveyed say they're saving to buy something they want, instead of charging it, says WSL Strategic Retail.