Frugality is making a comeback.
Fearful that economic conditions could get worse and stay that way, Americans are showing an enthusiasm for thriftiness not seen in decades.
This behavioral shift isn't simply about spending less. The New Frugality emphasizes stretching every dollar. It means bypassing the fashion mall for the discount chain store, buying secondhand clothes and furniture, or trading down to store brands.
There's more business for repairmen and less for salesmen. Consumers are clipping more coupons and swiping their credit cards less.
Not long ago, yoga teacher Gisele Sanders shopped at the Nordstrom's in Portland, Ore., and didn't think twice about dropping $30 for a bottle of Chianti to go with dinner. That was before her husband, a real estate agent, began to feel the brunt of slowing home sales.
Now Sanders, 53, picks up grocery-store wine at $10 or less per bottle, shops for used clothes and plans to take her mother's advice about turning down the thermostat during winter. “It's been a long time coming,” she said. “We were so off the charts before.”
That kind of scrimping may be good for stressed family budgets, but it's bad for the nation's overall economy – and that has the potential to reinforce the miserly mood. Yet with home prices, 401(k)s and job stability suffering, such frugality is likely to be more than a fad.
“It is a whole reassessment of values,” said Candace Corlett, president of the consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail. “We've just been shopping until we drop and consuming and buying it all, and replenishing before things wear out. People are learning again to say ‘No, not today.'”
The trend is evident in where cash registers are ringing and where they are not.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., BJ's Wholesale Club Inc. and Goodwill thrift shops are thriving, while Saks Inc. and Abercrombie & Fitch Co. are struggling. Likewise, as casual dining chains such as O'Charley's Inc. and Red Lobster see fewer customers, McDonald's Corp. is serving more, including people who have given up $4 Starbucks Corp. drinks in favor of the fast-food chain's expanding coffee menu.
Even Spam has made a comeback.
Tellingly, Wal-Mart said recently it has seen a 2 percent jump this year in shoppers from households earning at least $65,000.
Retail sales fell 2.8 percent in October, the fourth straight monthly drop, as unemployment hit a 14-year high of 6.5 percent.
The National Association for Business Economics on Monday projected that the overall U.S. economy, after shrinking at the annual rate of 0.3 percent in the July-September period, will contract at a rate of 2.6 percent in the October-December quarter.
The housing bust, credit crunch and stock market plunge have eaten away at the retirement savings and confidence of consumers who for years operated on a buy-now, pay-later ethos, chasing bigger homes, bigger cars and better brands. That is forcing families to bring their spending in line with their income and to rethink priorities.
“Everybody has been trying to keep up with the Joneses and trying to look rich when they're not,” said Erin Pettingill, 24, a married mother of two preschool children in Provo, Utah, who started a blog called “Iamfrugal.”
“You can't necessarily have everything you want when you want it,” she added. “And there's nothing wrong with that.”
Economists and consumer experts say it's difficult to predict how long the pullback will last, particularly among generations of consumers who have never seen such a sharp economic downturn.
“This is scary stuff and confidence is such an elusive thing,” said Larry Waldman, senior research scientist at the University of New Mexico's Bureau of Business and Economic Research.
Timothy Duy, an economics professor at the University of Oregon, is convinced “the economy is moving away from consumerism.” A recent Pew Research Center survey found that more than half of Americans say they have cut back in the past year and about half agreed that people “should learn to live with less.”
It doesn't require a lost job or decimated retirement account to make shopping for new things seem wasteful.
In Maine, Sindi Card said her husband's job is secure. But because the couple have two sons in college, she tried to fix her broken 20-year-old clothes dryer. It was a stark change from the past, when she would have had a new one delivered.
With help from an appliance-repair Web site, she saved hundreds of dollars.
Corlett said one recent WSL Strategic Retail survey detected a “saving is cool” culture developing, with more than half of those polled agreeing they take pride in the ways they've found to save money. “The longer this (downturn) lasts, the more entrenched it will become,” Corlett said.
Associated Press writers Linda Stewart Ball, Anabelle Garay, Mary Hudetz, Tim Korte, Ramit Plushnick-Masti, David Sharp, Cheryl Wittenauer and Kristen Wyatt contributed.