Debt Management

Frugality: Just a fad? Or will consumers keep saving post-recession?


The tanking economy brought us recession chic. It became cool to clip coupons, throw potlucks and swap used items, but how long will it last?

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The tanking economy brought us recession chic: Paying for splurges with plastic went out of style, and instead it became cool to clip coupons, throw potlucks and swap used items.

But have we really made a lasting change to our old credit-happy ways? Experts say yes — kind of.

Some economists have proclaimed the so-called Great Recession over, but economic forecasters and consumer psychologists say the predicted slow economic recovery doesn’t mean a quick return to old shopping habits, and that this recession — the worst since the 1930s — likely has left a deep and complex mark on the psyche of the U.S. consumer that will  last for years to come.

What will the future look like? New research conducted with both consumers and experts provides a glimpse into which recession-influenced changes might be passing fads — and which ones likely will last.

The Great Recession: bad enough to create real change?

Every recession is unique, but experts say there are two general types. One is short and brief, usually followed by a quick rebound to pre-recession habits. The other is long and severe enough to shape a generation — think of the grandparent who lived through the Depression years, and who still stashes money in a sock and saves sandwich crusts.

This recession, though, may be the exception, some experts say, one that doesn’t fit neatly into either category.

“This recession is halfway between a normal one — if you can talk about something like a recession as normal — and the Great Depression,” says Michael Willmott, co-author of “Complicated Lives: The Malaise of Modernity” and a consumer trends forecaster.

5 tips to prevent a post-recession backslide

Do you like your new frugal habits? Want to keep them after the economy improves? Take these steps.

  • Take stock of changes you’ve made. Get out your financial records — Quicken reports, check book register, credit card statements, household budget — and write down the changes you made and how much you saved. “So many of these changes become habit without really thinking about them, and that makes it really easy to let them slip away,” says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.
  • Prioritize your changes. “Triage or prioritize all of the changes you’ve made — which were the hardest versus which were the easiest to make, and which had the biggest payoff versus the smallest payoff,” Yarrow recommends. Then, decide which to keep. Example: You’re a coffee connoisseur who switched to instant. You’ve hated every sip and saved just a few dollars a week. Feel free to switch back — without guilt. On the other hand, if you’ve saved big by switching from the bookstore to the library, keep at it.
  • Get a post-recession buddy. Team up with a friend who also is committed to keeping changes made during the recession. Together, review your changes and set goals. “We tend to be better at keeping commitments to other people than to ourselves,” Yarrow says.
  • Turn recession-era habits into fun traditions. Look at some of the social changes you made during the recession, and make them official. For example, if you’ve been holding potlucks because you and all of your friends were broke, then start a monthly Potluck Club. “We feel rich instead of poor if we’re doing something that is unique, and something that requires us to stretch ourselves in some way, so we are growing and advancing,” says Kathleen Gurney, an expert on the psychology of money.
  • Try staying on your recession budget in post-recession times. Maybe you lost your job or took a pay cut, but now your situation has improved. Stick with your recession budget and automatically deposit the extra into a savings account. Create short-term and long-term goals for the money. “It’s a lot easier to do if you have plans for that extra money, Yarrow says.

This recession was severe enough to push many consumers to cut back substantially. Coupons made a comeback — consumers redeemed almost 10 percent more in January of 2009 than they had in that month the previous year, according to coupon-processing company Inmar. Entertaining on the cheap got popular — the event-planning website reported that starting in fall 2008, potlucks began to account for one-third of activities planned by site users. Swapping used items became trendy — the site grew tenfold from the fall 2007 to fall 2009.

However, psychologist Kathleen Gurney, an expert on the psychology of money, says she’s skeptical about consumers’ ability to stick with those frugal habits. “All of our best intentions can be sabotaged by our old habitual reflexes — it’s like a New Year’s resolution,” Gurney says. “Now that things are on the upswing, people are really going to have to practice self-regulation.”

Say goodbye to extreme frugality

Just like a fad diet of grapefruit or cabbage soup, many experts say so-called extreme frugality likely will not last. A report released in October 2009 by RetailWire, an online retailer discussion forum, summing up an online survey of more than 300 retail experts — including high-level executives, retail consultants and merchandising professionals — called certain consumer behaviors knee-jerk reactions to the recession. The report authors wrote: “They are just fads.”

Experts surveyed predict that these belt-tightening measures — such as trading dinner at the corner bistro for Rice-A-Roni at the kitchen table, grabbing clothes from the closet instead of hitting the mall and taking a road trip to Tampa instead of a cruise to Tahiti — likely will last only six months to year and a half, or as long as consumers are strongly feeling the effects of the recession. For example, 73.6 percent of RetailWire respondents say that eating out less is a short-term fad while 73.1 percent say the same about buying fewer new clothes and 72.2 percent about vacationing closer to home.

“Most likely, people who liked to go out to lunch before the recession will start going out to lunch again, and people who were brown-bagging it before will continue to do that — but the crossover will go away,” says Ray Jones, managing director at the consulting firm Dechert-Hampe and co-author of the RetailWire report.

Some consumers surveyed say they might start shelling out for purchases they shunned during the recession. For example, in a Consumer Reports Research Center survey released in September 2009, the most-mentioned post-recession splurge — planned by 17 percent of respondents — was a vacation. In an American Express Spending & Saving Tracker monthly survey released in October 2009, 61 percent of consumers said they expected to spend more in the next 30 days than in the previous month. “Consumers are finding more optimism toward spending — and dining out and travel were two areas where consumers said they were planning to loosen their purse strings,” says American Express spokeswoman Desiree Fish.

Frugality, in moderation

However, that does not mean consumers will go right back to their pre-recession ways. “As we transition to our new reality, we will still go out to dinner, but not as often,” says economic forecaster Joel Naroff, president of strategic economic consulting firm Naroff Economic Advisors. “We will still take trips to Europe or the Caribbean or Disney World, but they won’t be as lavish — we won’t spend quite as much.”

A combination of factors — consumer feelings before the recession, the emotional impact of living through the worst recession many consumers had experienced, continuing high unemployment and the fact that our economic bubbles have all burst — will create a new consumer who spends money more conscientiously.

Experts say that — in contrast to fads — trends that were taking shape before 2007, but were accelerated and deepened by the recession, are much more likely to stick. Even before the recession, consumers were feeling overwhelmed by too many choices, according to Willmott. “There was a demand for simplicity that was picking up anyway — a boredom with excessive consumption,” he says.

Consumers will continue to simplify and seek value, experts say. For example, between 60 percent and more than 80 percent of experts surveyed by RetailWire said consumers will continue to plan shopping trips with lists and store circulars, use store loyalty cards more and buy high-quality store brands. “Once you’ve been acclimated to going to the discount store or buying the store brand of detergent, you aren’t going to revert back to your earlier behavior,” Jones says, noting that easy, nonpainful changes are more likely to stick.

“Once you’ve been acclimated to going to the discount store or buying the store brand of detergent, you aren’t going to revert back to your earlier behavior.”

Consumers also will continue to save more than they did before the recession hit. Forecaster Naroff predicts the personal savings rate will continue to hover around 4 percent to 5 percent for the next three to five years, while Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics at Moody’s, foresees a slight uptick. That’s because, consumers have realized — from watching their wealth decline during the recession — that they can’t reach their savings goals by starting with a tiny nest egg and sitting back while it grows. “Now [consumers realize] you’ve got to contribute regularly, you’ve got to add to that savings pool over time,” Hoyt says. “That means there’s going to be more saving than there was before.”

Bubbles popped

Experts say consumers also will borrow less, partly because there is not as much credit available and because they don’t feel as rich. According to information released by the Federal Reserve, revolving credit continued to fall steadily, decreasing by an annual rate of 13.3 percent in September 2009. Naroff says the lack of economic bubbles — such as the tech bubble of the ’90s that “drove up the stock market and made everyone think they were wealthy” and the housing bubble of this decade, in which consumers “used their homes as ATM machines” — will play a part. Naroff says, “Now we don’t have any bubbles, and that will be a key factor in keeping credit growth down over the next three to five years.”

A survey by Citi, released in September 2009, revealed that almost two-thirds of consumers (63 percent) say that the recession has forever changed the way they spend — and save.  The same percentage said they would continue to reduce their debt, 61 percent said they would continue to cut down on credit card purchases and 60 percent planned to continue to save and invest more.

Forecaster Naroff says: “There definitely will be lessons learned from this recession.”

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