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 high-income 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.
Kmart isn't the only retailer that's dusting off its "layaway plan" for the first time in decades. More retailers are letting consumers pay in advance for items weekly or monthly until the item is paid off.
Michael Bilello is vice president of the website eLayaway, a Tallahassee start-up that handles layaway programs for 1,000 retailers.
Since last fall, the 3-year-old site has seen its registration leap from 150 to 7,000. "The good old-fashioned layaway plan is back," says Liebmann of WSL.
"It's the notion that, 'I don't want to give up on everything, so I'll save for it.' "
Taking an extra job — or two
The number of people who have a full-time and a part-time job at the same time increased 11% to 1.92 million in October from a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Sabrina Akins of Woodbridge, Va., has had to take out short-term "payday" loans to tide her over until her paychecks arrive.
It's not that Akins, whose ex-husband is disabled, isn't working or earning money. In fact, she has three jobs: a full-time day job as an administrative assistant for a government contracting firm, a part-time night and weekend job as a security guard at a department store, and another part-time job selling cosmetics for Avon.
Still, with costs including her rent rising faster than her multiple incomes, Akins is considering moving to a somewhat less expensive apartment that's still close enough to family so she has help with child care.
She's also looking for a better paying full-time job but worries that in this economy it will take months to find one.
But she knows she has to look, because she doesn't want to "kill myself working two jobs because I fell asleep at the wheel."
Buying fewer luxuries
Of "luxury shoppers" with average incomes of $210,700 a year who were surveyed, half said they are spending less on luxury items now than a year ago, according to Unity Marketing.
Back when the economy was doing better, Suzanne Ferreri of Youngstown, Ohio, would put her extra income toward luxury items.
Why not? She's single and could afford it. Ferreri says she "used to always treat myself to one luxury item per season, like a designer handbag. Now, that's completely gone out the window."
Another luxury consumer agrees.
"When I open investment statements in the mail, they have severely dwindled, and it's a constant reminder of the overall economy," says Heidi Namin of Southbury, Conn.
So Namin has cut back on "extras," such as manicures, items for her home and things her kids don't really need. She's already cut back on dining out in favor of dinner parties and good food and wine for her family at home.
"With all costs of living rising, the only thing that is not rising is our salaries," says Namin, a financial administrator at a law firm.
Renting more movies
Sales of new Blu-ray high-definition disks (a newer DVD at home movie format) are more than triple that of a year ago, according to Home Media Magazine.
Home entertainment traditionally has been resilient to economic downturns, mainly because renting a movie for a dollar or two — or even buying a new DVD for $15 — is a lot cheaper than a night at the movies.
But the home entertainment business is shifting to the new Blu-ray high-definition format.
As a result, DVD sales fell in the third quarter this year, although studio executives point to the Olympics as a primary factor.
Pam Fox, 49, is a medical socialworker in Carlsbad, Calif., with a husband and two sons. She says they are cutting back on going to the movies, because it's so expensive.
"Just last week, I went with my son, Trevor, to see Lakeview Terrace, and tickets alone were $22," Fox says. "With popcorn and snacks, it's $50 for just two people."
One thing Fox and her family do more of: rent movies.
"Then we can have dinner and snacks at home," she says.
Staying close to home
Americans are expected to take 2 billion individual trips in the United States in 2008, down about 1% from a year ago, according to Global Insight. That includes all trips, from a car ride of more than 50 miles to an airplane flight across country for a vacation.
People are traveling less for leisure because of a combination of economic uncertainty, rising airfares and hotel costs, tighter credit and declining housing wealth, says Kenneth McGill, executive managing director of Travel & Tourism Services at economic research firm Global Insight.
"They have finally begun to postpone, or reduce outright, their travel plans," he says.
Last year, small-business owner Marcia Riley of Sarasota, Fla., went on five cruises with her husband and three children, ages 10, 11 and 13, but they no longer can afford to keep up that pace.
After sales at Riley and her husband's two restaurants started sinking over the summer, she canceled four cruises they had booked between November and spring.
She estimates they would've spent about $19,000 on the cruises and extras, such as arcade games and spa treatments.
"We don't have that disposable income anymore," she says. "We are hanging in there trying to do the right thing, waiting for things to get better."
Contributing: Jayne O'Donnell, Jon Swartz, Barbara DeLollis, Laura Petrecca, Thomas K. Arnold