Will the new frugality born of the recession reshape a generation?
Helen Wilson knows thrift. In the years after the Great Depression, she raised chickens and planted vegetables at her home in Alexandria to feed her children.
Now she smirks a little when her daughter Loretta Haley, 55, describes the recession as "life-changing."
"Absolutely I've changed my spending habits," Haley said, as she and her mother came out of a Shoppers Food Warehouse with just a few bags of what she described as "healthy" groceries in a giant shopping cart. "I'm only getting essentials."
For Wilson, 86, this new push toward frugality doesn't compare to the habits she's kept up for generations. She reuses wrapping paper from one Christmas to the next, depends on layaway instead of credit cards and saves plastic food containers rather than buying Tupperware. Unlike her daughter, she has steadily built her savings.
People beginning to live within their means could well be the silver lining of the recession. If people like Haley embrace change and maintain better financial habits, they will benefit in the long term, and the economy will, too.
"There will be good things that come out of this recession," said Marcia Tillotson, a financial adviser at Wells Fargo Advisors. "Many people had not been conscious of what their lifestyle cost. Now, all of a sudden, they have become conscious of how they spend their money."
The question is, will the panic and uncertainty of the financial crisis shape a generation and an economy in the deep mold of the Depression? Or will our pledges of prudence have all the heft of a New Year's diet resolution?
"You have to feel the pain before you really make a change," said Gerri Detweiler, a personal finance adviser for Credit.com. "The longer it takes for the economy to feel normal again, it is likely to have a longer-term effect on our spending habits, and the more ingrained these habits of thrift will become."
Wiser habits in each household, experts say, will eventually help strengthen an economy that still shows vulnerabilities.
"The economy really represents decisions made by tens of millions of people every day," said Bernard Baumohl, the chief global economist at the Economic Outlook Group.
He expects that a retooled economy will be fueled less by consumer spending.
According to his forecasts, by about 2015, consumer spending will contribute 65 to 67 percent of the gross domestic product -- a broad measure of economic output -- down from the traditional 70 percent, while exports and business spending will contribute more to GDP growth.