In Dallas, Tex., they've scrimping a little here and there, but in most cases they don't really feel it all that much.

In Columbus, Ga., they say it hasn't hurt them that badly.

And here in sun-warmed northern California, they're still spending as though it never happened.

The "it" is the widely decried impact of inflation, which economists say has cut purchasing power a sharp 4.3 percent over the past 12 months and gradually is squeezing family pocketbooks.

President Carter has warned that as a result of the current inflation, Americans must accept a cut in their real income -- in other words, a decline in living standards.

But a trip to this and five other cities across the nation shows that although the very poor, the elderly and single-income wage-earners have been hard hit, most middle-income families still haven't cut their living standards much.

Although many American complain they've had to scrimp somewhat over the past few months, the evidence is that consumers still are living well, if not quite in as free-wheeling a style as they'd like.

In virtually all parts of the country, workers still are spending freely for expensive, ordinarily nonessential items such as big-ticket appliances, travel, restaurant meals and home furnishings.

The continuing purchases represent a sharp shift in the way Mericans have responded to inflation. In previous years, whenever prices began soaring, consumers cut back on their spending. Eventually inflation cooled.

This time, however, families actually stepped up their buying -- both to get ahead of any future price increases and to acquire more property and assets, which have proved a better hedge against inflation than savings deposits.

But the continuation of previous living standards has come at the cost of profound changes in Americans' life styles that have postponed the adjustment temporarily and -- some analysts say -- fueled inflation even further:

The ability of families to maintain their previous living standards has come partly as a result of a massive move by wives to take jobs to provide the family with a second income -- a major change from even a few years ago.

Many Americans don't seem to care about saving part of their income, as they did in the past. In many cases, families have drawn on their savings to maintain their life styles, and aren't even trying to replace them.

Americans are far more heavily in debt than their parents would have considered prudent. There's been a staggering increase in the use of credit cards. Consumer debt burdens are at an all-time high.

Those who own homes are way ahead of those who do not, largely because they've been able to cash in on the increased equity from the past years' steep rise in house prices. And cash in they have.

However, there now are some early indications that the spending spree may be coming to an end, and consumers may be about to cut back, as they have during earlier periods of rapid inflation.

New government figures show retail sales nationally fell 17 percent in October -- the first nationwide sign of consumer retrenchment -- while auto purchases plunged 17 percent.

If the downtrend continues -- as many believe it will -- the predicted economic recession could be well at hand.

To be sure, there's little dispute that inflation has hurt some groups severely. Families without houses or second incomes have been hurt noticeably. So have some poor and elderly Americans, particularly those without federal Social Security and Suplementary Security Income benefits, which have been increased to keep up with inflation.

But the broad range of middle-income Americans still is managing to keep pace. Travel agencies are doing a land-office business. Luxury items, such as $900 TV tape recorders, are selling big. And shopping centers all over the country are filled with customers. Consumer buying is holding firm.

Henry Peckham, a Columbus, Ga. travel agent, said his business hasn't fallen off this year despite the 13.2 percent annual inflation rate and crimp in family budgets. "We're selling hotel rooms in London and Paris for $157 a night, and people don't even scratch their heads," Peckham says. "I don't know where they get the money. All I do is write the tickets."

And Dallas, Tex., paint salesman Don Hays says the inflation pinch isn't anything compared to the 1974-75 recession. "You cringe a lot more, but that's all. I'd be pleasantly mesmerized if it would stay where it is."

The paradox is an interesting one. Talk to dozens of people in a half-dozen U.S. cities, and you'll find a lot of griping about inflation, but not as much hardship as some statistics might suggest.

Many, like Dick and Sandy Cranford, a Holden, Mass., couple, are "living from month to month," buying mostly necessities, with less freedom than they had before to splurge on luxury items and to save and invest.

Typical of many these days are Mike and Mary Lou Claassen, a San Jose couple, who have cut back on driving a little, and don't go out as much as they used to. "But we haven't had to cut back that much," says Mary Lou Claassen. Despite high interest rates, the Claassens just bought a new house. And they aren't really pinching.

But as in the case of many American families, the truth is that inflation hasn't hit nearly as hard as some analysts have portrayed it.

"Inflation is a problem, but people are learning to live with it," says James B. Lavin, a Worcester, Mass., labor leader, in a view confirmed by dozens of interviews during the two-week trip.

Added Mervin Field, a California pollster: "No question that people are able to cope. There's lots of evidence that people are making all sorts of tradeoffs to stay even. And they're relatively easy ones to come by."

In fact, for all the complaining about inflation, the impact of the recent price surge appears to be spotty, depending not only on individual family income levels but asset holdings and debt burdens as well.

For Melvin and Vanilla Thomas, a San Jose bluecollar couple, inflation has been a "killing" experience that has forced serious cutbacks in their living.

But Darrell Adaiar, a Des Moines, Ia., mailman, says he and his wife, Wilma, "really don't feel" the current inflation pinch. The couple, in their early 50s, "live simply and we've got all our purchases made."

Ratailers report that the continued surge in spending reflects in part today's way of beating inflation: Buy now before prices rise further. But it also reflects in part that for a good many Americans family incomes often have risen enough to keep pace with -- or even outstrip -- the increase in their living costs.

"To be real honest, we haven't been hurt," admits Corky Houchard, 28, a Dallas purchasing agent. "Most of my pay raises have been keeping well ahead of inflation. If anything, we're buying more these days."

The entry of wives into the labor force -- to help amass a down payment for a house or provide the family with a second income -- perhaps has been the most fundamental change that Americans have made to help keep pace with inflation. The Labor Department reported last month that almost half of all American wives now either have jobs or are looking for work. Over the past decade, 5.5 million married women in the United States have taken jobs.

But the statistics don't fully reflect the pervasiveness of the change, which most analysts link partly to the impact of inflation on family budgets.

In Rockford, Ill., which saw a new influx of women job-seekers after the inflation surge last April, counselor Polly Hill, herself a new job holder, can't think of "more than a handful" of friends' households where the wife isn't working.

In Dallas, when Cathy Houchard, the purchasing agent's wife, decided to stay home because she wanted to raise her children, she found only one neighbor out of 15 where the wife isn't working.

Says George Downing, a Worcester employment agent: "It's just understood at this time that anybody here who does not have a wife working is operating at the poverty level."

In many cases, the extra income enabled couples to buy a house. In fact, John H. Bruno, a Worcester banker, says he hasn't seen many mortgage applications "where the wife isn't working."

It also has made couples less fearful about their own financial situations. Mary Lou Claassen, 34, a San Jose hospital counselor, says she and her husband are not trying to save because "I know I have marketable skills."

Americans also have been maintaining their living standards by dipping into savings, a development that has not gone unnoticed by asset-conscious bankers. Americans saved only a scant 4.3 percent of their disposable income -- a record low rate -- during the last quarter, the Commerce Department reported. The figure has been declining for several years.

Ron G. Eckhardt, 43, a Mason City, Ia., policeman who is supporting his wife and three children on a $13,000 income, says he is "using a little of my savings every week" just to keep pace with inflation.

"It seems every time I get to where I can start saving, something big happens," Eckhardt notes. "Right now the transmission on my car is out, and I don't know where I'm going to get the money."

Bankers all over the country confirm that Eckhardt isn't alone in his inability to put money away. Jack Nielson, a Mason City banker, believes people "just aren't saving the way they used to. There's been a real shift."

In more affluent urban areas, many families have been trying to stay ahead of inflation by borrowing, either to consolidate their other debts or to provide seed money for more lucrative investments.

In San Jose, insurance underwriter Paul Arenson and his wife, Jeri, are just completing the papers to refinance their sprawling suburban home, both to pay off other debts and finance new business expansion.

And Stan and Belen Beardeuff, a Mason City farm family, also have taken advantage of increased borrowing power. "We just borrow on the land value in hopes that farm prices rise, and pay it back a year from now," Deardeuff says.

Ted Blackwell, a Santa Clara County savings-and-loan executive, reports there's been "an awful lot" of such equity financing in recent months, both in San Jose and in California as a whole. The East has seen a similar trend.

And a good many American families have been beating inflation -- or at least striving to stay up with it -- simply by charging it, a surge that analysts say has kept retail sales buoyant longer than expected, and one that may be about to taper off.

With interest rates a bargain until recently and most credit-card firms willing to let customers pay debts gradually, bankers say many consumers are charging even big-ticket items that they previously would have bought for cash.

San Jose banker Bob Finocchio says the main motivation is to buy now before prices go up even further. "They're convinced inflation is here to stay. They can pay it back in cheaper dollars."

"People don't think about the interest cost," says Jack Kincade, a Dallas specialty-shop owner. "It's 'how much down? How much a week?'"

Fueling this charging spree, analysts say, has been the aggressive marketing of bank credit cards by big-city banks, which have become a major source of credit in recent years for middle-income Americans in all regions.

New York City-based Citicorp, for example, openly solicits charge customers as far away as Columbus, Ga. In many areas, a family can find itselt with duplicate cards from two or three big banks -- amassing a $2,000 line of credit!

In San Jose, a credit manager at a large furniture store conceded that salesman openly urge customers to buy now, even if they have to charge it, because "it'll go up next week." It's "not a sales gimmick," he insists.

The combination of these changes had led to near-record debt burdens for American workers -- and some analysts are worried that the average American family may be getting in over its head in terms of personal borrowing.

New Federal Reserve Board figures last month showed overall consumer credit, the major measure of Americans' indebtedness, up a record $4.45 billion, almost double the moderate $2.25 billion rise in August.

But there are signs that consumers finally may be falling behind. Dallas banker Don Wright reports that delinquency rates on bank credit cards have begun edging up in recent weeks, the more families lagging on paying bills.

In Mason City, Lorris Long, a loan company manager, says he's now amassed the "biggest list ever" of accounts delinquent 60 days or more. "Even the good risks are slipping a little every day," he says.

John Curran, a Worcester bank president, notes debt burdens are growing so large that "we're starting to get loan requests from people who indicate their plastic-card indebtedness exceeds 40 percent of their income.

"That's a big alarm-bell -- very dangerous," he says.

San Jose's Finocchio expresses similar concern. "I would say right now if a lot of people missed one paycheck they'd be in trouble. All uses of credit are being taxed."

As a result, both banks and retailers who issue credit have begun tightening up a bit, both to whom they offer credit and on how quickly they crack down on late borrowers.

Libby Mayo, a recreational vehicle dealer in Dallas, reports that the banks he deals with are coming up with "twice as many turnaways" for credit as they did only a few months ago -- a trend that seems repeated in other regions.

Finance companies, as well, have become more restrictive. Mason City's Long, for example, says his firm is "saying no to people now that we wouldn't have six months ago."

And Jack Sutherland, a Rockford banker, says his loan officers are "calling a lot more people" more quickly after they fail to respond to the first notice of delinquency.

In part as a result, at least some consumers are beginning to crack down on their own buying habits, and are beginning to retrench -- at least until they repay some of their debt burden.

In Holden, Mass., Dick and Sandy Cranford have "cut up every one" of the 13 credit cards they had and reduced spending for the duration. "It's been painful," says Cranford, "but I feel good about it."

And Charles and Karen Blomgren, a Rockford couple, say they haven't used their credit cards in a year. "We'll have everything paid off by the end of this year," Blomgren estimates. "Then we'll start buying again."

Most local analysts believe the retrenchment has begun in earnest.

Samuel Jones, a Worcester savings and loan executive, says he thinks "we're beginning to see the change. They're slowing more because they're running out of monthly payment money."

And Dwight Ohrum, a Dallas consumer counselor, notes that "more and more people are coming in who aren't really in trouble yet. A lot of folks are beginning to readjust," he says. "But for some, it may be too late."

"People are shopping wiser -- there's a little more reluctance, a little more price resistance," notes John Van Duyn, owner of a clothing store in Mason City. But "we're still having a nice year."

If the cutback continues -- as many analysts now are convinced it will -- it could hasten the predicted economic downturn, and possible make it somewhat deeper than expected. Indeed, in some parts of the country, businessmen report consumers already are turning cautious as a result of their heavy debt burdens.

The crimp also is beginning to show up in other areas as well. In Rockford, collections at the First Evangelical Covenant church are falling 8.5 percent below budget. Pastor Stanley Henderson blames inflation in part.

For some American families, the current inflation pinch started two years ago when prices began surging in the face of increasing demand. But most say the real crunch began last spring, when fuel prices began soaring as well.

For Susan Tucker, 30, a Phenix City, Ala., whitecollar worker, the shift came last April. "When I started paying $14 for my children's jeans -- that's when I noticed it," she says.

The squeeze has hit one-income families especially hard. "It takes everything I make just to stay even," says Muriel Martin, a San Jose single parent. "I feel the devil's out to get you with the plumbing and the car."

Another victim has been the young, white-collar couple, whose pay raises often haven't kept pace with prices. "We're making more than ever before," says Steve Derrick, a Dallas office mamager. "But it's going faster."

And families on fixed incomes -- retired couples and welfare recipients -- have felt the squeeze more than others.

Some retirees, like W. J. and Gladys Cooper, a Carrollton, Tex., couple, have gone back to work. "At the time we retired, we thought we'd have enough money," recalls Mrs. Cooper. "But I don't see much hope of quitting."

Dick Fisher, director of San Jose's chapter of the Council on Aging, reports his agency now has a "backlog of older people who want to go back to work" but he can't place them readily because of age discrimination.

In Columbus, Lyle and Mamie Harrell, both 67, have put off an inner-ear operation for Mrs. Harrell. Harrell also "used to do a lot of volunteer work. But I can't afford the gasoline anymore."

And Al Cross, a Santa Clara County social worker, says the inflation squeeze has brought on a visible increase in the number of poor families that "just go under."

"Others have cut their food budget and stopped buying even basic clothing," he says. "Their health has deteriorated. Eventually they just give up and send their kids to the shelter."

In San Jose, both groups ironically have been hurt by the boom in the electronics industry. As hiring has increased in high-technology industries, middle-income families have pushed the poor out of apartments.

By far the most frequently heard complaint is that there simply isn't enough money for extras."It used to be we just had money to go out and blow," says Joe Kennedy, a Columbus, Ga., millworker. "Now there's none."

As a result, the first casualty of the past year's inflation has been impulse-buying of nonnecessities.

But Americans also have scrimped in other ways over the past few months, from buying more on discount to repairing old cars rather than buying new ones, and putting off visits to the doctor and dentist.

John Rogers, a Phenix City pharmacist, says his customers are "making pills last longer and trying to stay away from the doctor. Sales of over-the-counter items "really are down." s

And in Mason City, Mary Kalvig, 25, decided last July to undergo sterilization to limit the size of her family. "We can't afford kids in the first place," she says. "We just want to get these brought up."

But for many Americans, the impact is marginal. For a Rockford psychologist's wife, Sandy Pearson, the major cutback has been on expensive vacations: "There were several places in Europe we really wanted to go to," she says.

And for many, there still is a spent-it-now mentality -- the notion that you might as well buy now because things will be more expensive later.

That attitude may be beginning to change, but it's still most Americans' response to inflation.