The new frugality: Americans forced to change spending habits

The New Normal.

It's a phrase used in recent months by analysts who see slower growth and lower expectations for business for years to come.

But other observers reject that, saying the U.S. will see a strong recovery with few lingering effects from the recession. They point to the stock market's rebound as justification of that optimism.

What they do agree on is that this year's Christmas sales will be an early signpost for the future.

So far, it's been a tough year for retailers. People largely stopped buying in the spring and summer, but local shop owners are reporting that people are starting to relax a bit.

Dawson Grimsley, chief executive of Davis-Moore Auto Group, has his own barometer of buyer anxiety: He sold two 425-horsepower Dodge Challengers one day last week.

That tells him there are a few people out there who aren't worried about the economy anymore.

As for the rest, it will take time, he said, but they will be back.

"It will take time to be back to normal," Grimsley said. "But when it does get back to normal, they will buy — they love cars, they love clothes, they love to eat out."

A 50/50 Christmas

Consumer confidence really is hanging in the balance, said Michael Stead, Bank of the West's head economist and director of capital markets.

Overall, he's fairly optimistic that most indicators are moving up and that unemployment will start dropping soon.

But, he said, consumer spending is 70 percent of the economy. How much people spend this Christmas could say a lot about how the nation recovers next year.

"If I see another drop this Christmas, it will mean consumers are getting their debt levels down, and that puts a little damper on economic growth.... My hope is that if we come in flat versus '08 we will continue to move forward in a reasonable manner."

About half of the big chains predict Christmas will be worse than 2008, and half predict it will be better.

The traditionally optimistic National Retail Federation is forecasting sales will be down 1 percent from 2008, which was down 3.4 percent from 2007.

The big chains have started early with Christmas promotions this year, although experts say there won't be as many markdowns because the chains expected the worst and bought conservatively.

Shoppers may have stopped panicking, but they aren't necessarily feeling cheerful, either, according to the Conference Board, which conducts a monthly survey of consumer attitudes.

"Income expectations remain very pessimistic and consumers are entering the holiday season in a very frugal mood," wrote board economist Lynn Franco in the November survey.

Randy Staub, owner of All Sports, a sports apparel and collectibles shop at 8909 W. Central, said he expects this Christmas to be better than the last one.

The free fall is over, and people feel the economy is near the bottom. Those who have a job are starting to feel a little more relaxed about the future, said Staub, who also operates a store in Newton.

"It will be better than '08 because last year was, 'Oh, my gosh, how far is this really going to fall?' " he said.

A new normal?

But longer term, say some economists and analysts, America will be hobbled by debt, regulation and demographic changes for years to come.

American consumers hit record levels of debt during the housing and credit bubbles of the past five years.

The savings rate actually went negative at some points over the past few years as people borrowed against their homes to spend. The result was credit-driven consumption and a construction boom.

But when the bubble popped, the savings rate reversed itself in a hurry in the past year. In the third quarter, households saved 4.5 percent of their income as they worked to pay off debts or rebuild retirement funds.

In the short run, that's a problem because that's thousands of dollars per person per year not pumped into the economy.

"They are consuming less, but consuming nevertheless," Stead said.

But, longer term, there has been a change in the circumstances and culture that will ensure higher levels of saving.

For Dave Strohm, president of True North Advisors, a Wichita investment group, the issue is that baby boomers borrowed and spent long after they should have grown more conservative with their money.

That drove consumption — and economic growth — but the stock market collapse has meant that most boomers have had to move from spending every dollar to saving 5 percent to pay down debt and restore ravaged retirement accounts.

The baby boomers' party is finally over, he said, and now they have no choice but to pay the band — although, with government borrowing, they're sticking their children with part of the bill.

"For those of a certain age, the change (in culture) will be permanent," Strohm said.

He sees slower growth in the U.S. economy in the coming years while growth continues in the developing world.

"Wichita is actually in a pretty good spot on this," he said. "We are very much involved in the global economy in aircraft and agriculture."

Lyndon Wells, executive vice president of Intrust Bank, agrees that slow growth will continue in the future in the U.S., but said international growth also presents a threat to Wichita.

Wichita's aircraft companies will be compelled to outsource more production in order to compete globally, although he sees the city retaining the engineering and management components of the industry.

The region must adapt, he said, by focusing on producing more engineers. It must also create new industries, such as composites and alternative energy.

Jeff Witherspoon, executive director of Consumer Credit Counseling Service, has seen the number of people counseled or attending class hit a record high of 19,000 in 2009. It's one of Wichita's few growth industries — he hired another counselor this year.

He sees people every day who have bought too big a house, too big a car and maxed out their credit cards. Often, they are bankrupt.

He preaches the gospel of frugal living to them, and, he said, they are starting to listen.

He sees the culture changing. People don't really want to behave more responsibly, he said, but they have to. And the problem is so deep that it will take years to climb out.

"People will have to be satisfied with less and will have to make tough choices," Witherspoon said. "They won't be happy about it, but they'll adjust."