Weak economy motivates Americans to save more

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 27, 2009; G01

As crazy as it sounds, losing a $70,000-a-year job has been good for Marty Morua's finances. The former Wall Street stockbroker says the setback forced him to scrutinize his family budget and snip away at expenses. And soon, even with less income, their savings grew.

First, he and his wife decided to live on her salary so he could be home with their 5-year-old daughter after school. Without a nanny, they saved $12,000 a year. He dropped services he didn't use on his cellphone -- texting and video games -- to pocket $250 a year. He took a defensive-driving course for a 10 percent discount on his auto insurance and dropped car-rental and roadside-assistance coverage, for an extra $150 a year.

For holiday gifts, he turned to thrift stores and gave home-baked cookies.

"When I was working, I didn't look at the price tag," he said. "In a strange way," he added, losing the job "has been a blessing to teach me how to become aggressive and wise about saving and ways to save -- areas I never would have thought about."

The recession has caused a seismic shift in the consumer culture, converting die-hard spenders into savers. A growing number of people, either smarting from a job loss or spooked by the financial crises of others, are scrambling to get out of debt, establish emergency funds, and add to their retirement and savings accounts.

After having taken the first plunge by cutting holiday spending, many are seeking more substantial ideas on how to sustain their frugality.

With the turn of the calendar, financial planners and counselors typically get an influx of calls from people seeking help with New Year's resolutions to save money. This year, the requests have multiplied.

"Before, people came to us when they hit a crisis. Now they come to us as a preventative measure," said Emily Appel, director of the savings program at Capital Area Asset Builders, a nonprofit organization in the District that mainly counsels low- and moderate-income residents.

Demand for the services has increased so much, Appel said, that the organization has added classes. Also, she said, more middle-income people and young professionals are signing up. "When you see your friends go through financial crisis, you want to know how to prevent that from happening to you," she said.

Frank C. Boucher, a financial planner in Northern Virginia, said he advises novice savers to put non-retirement funds into safe high-yield instruments, such as CDs. "The rates aren't terrific, but they're better than regular savings accounts," Boucher said. "Money-market fund rates are also very low. . . . Stay away from stocks and bonds unless you're putting money away for retirement, college education and if you [won't need the money] for three to five years."

Consumer spending, which represents 70 percent of the economy, helped propel the nation out of previous recessions. This time, consumers seem to be more cautious, and they are increasingly holding on to their dollars.

The savings rate in October reached 4.4 percent, up from 0.8 percent in April 2008. Some economists say they think savings will return to the 7 to 8 percent levels recorded before 1990.

If that happens, consumer spending could decline further.

"The increase in saving, which is the mirror image of reduction in consumption, will hurt the economy in the near to intermediate term," said Allen Sinai, chief global economist at Decision Economics, a New York consulting firm that analyzes the U.S. economy and financial markets. Banks are the winners when consumers save, Sinai said, but there are "more losers than winners."

"Who loses? The economy loses," Sinai added, because "weak consumption was part of bringing the economy into the deepest recession since the Great Depression." Unemployment will remain high, with businesses driven by consumer spending struggling. Retailers, shopping malls and commercial real estate will continue to be hit hard, he said.

Nevertheless, Sinai said, saving at this point is good for consumers. With borrowing and spending having gotten way out of hand, he said, consumers need this respite to regroup and repair their tattered balance sheets. After that, he said, people should be ready to spend again.

But many new savers say they don't even want to think about spending.

Jeff Davidson, 42, of Reston said he and his wife spent a few months on the unemployment rolls in North Carolina last year, shortly after returning from work assignments in Peru. At the same time, he said, his wife found out she had breast cancer. She recovered and they found new jobs, eventually relocating with their two kids to the Washington area.

Still, they were stuck with $12,000 in medical bills.

Although they didn't use a financial planner, they did just what many experts advise: They devised a budget on paper and tracked their spending. They discovered they spent $300 a month on entertainment and dining out, so those were among the first expenses to go. They switched their car insurance to Geico from Allstate, which they had been using for 23 years, saving about $180 a month. They saved more money by changing banks and health-care plans.

After paying down the medical bills, they're now working to boost their retirement accounts.

"Our plan is to increase our 401(k) savings and . . . contribute to additional IRAs," said Davidson, who works as a business developer for an engineering company. "That's the smartest thing we can do. After that, we'll work on getting the bank account to a comfortable level, and we agree we should have three months [of expenses] in the bank for an emergency."

Though they struggled at first to change old habits, some new savers say it has been liberating to get back to basics -- washing and ironing their clothing instead of going to the cleaners, cooking and packing their own lunches instead of eating out, and eliminating indiscriminate credit purchases.

Michelle Andrews, 47, of the District took a huge pay cut -- more than 50 percent -- when she changed careers from physical therapy to mental health counseling.

Before, she said, she'd dine out for breakfast, lunch and dinner. She'd spend hundreds of dollars on vacations and shopping sprees. She said she blew more money at convenience stores, often buying lottery tickets and $30 worth of magazines.

Not anymore, said Andrews, who has saved $1,000 toward buying a home.

"Now I don't take [the income] for granted," she said, "I don't look at the short-term satisfaction, I look at the long term."

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