Inflation finallly has caught up with Paul and Jeri Arension. Just last October, the moderately well-off-suburbanites -- he sells insurance and she is a house wife -- still were spending freely for whatever caught their fancy. They were planning to buy a new car. And Arenson even had his eye on an airplane.

But now, only 10 months later, the Arensons have turned decidedly more cautious, and aren't buying anything unless they conclude first that they genuinely need it and, second, that it's worth the money.

"We've really begun taking a look at the value of everything we buy," Paul Arenson says. "Inflation has carried the price to the point where we are really questioning whether it's worth it."

The Arensons' new conservatism -- echoed in conversations with dozens of consumers and businessmen in a trip to this and five other U.S. cities over the past month -- reflects a major change in consumers' behavior this year.

The great U.S. buying spree of 1979 -- which delayed the long-forecast recession and compounded the nation's inflation problem-finally has fallen victim to the wage-price spiral, and consumers have retrenched in earnest.

All over the United States, families and individuals are spending more cautiously, borrowing less, using credit cards less frequently and cutting back their impulse-buying.

What's more, they seem determined not to get back on last year's merry-go-round anytime soon.Hopes that consumers will spark a sharp recovery from the recession appear to be unfounded.

ironically, however, while pocketbooks seem more pinched than they were 10 months ago, the average American may be better off financially than he was last year -- despite the continuation of rapid inflation.

A close look at several communities shows that in many cases, consumers have cut their buying enough so their incomes now are covering their spending. With debt burdens longer swelling, some families are rebuilding savings.

The new national mood sharply contrassts with that of 10 months ago, when consumers -- still hopeful of maintaining their previous lifestyles in the face of declining purchasing power -- actually intensified their buying.

The resulting spree, spurred by a buy-it-now mentality bent on beating expected price increases and acquiring assets as a hedge, marked a significant departure from Americans' historic retrenchment in the face of inflation.

The ability of families to maintain their previous living standards last year was made possible at the cost of some profound changes in U.S. lifestyles:

Americans dipped into their savings as never before. They ran up far more credit-card and installment debt than ther parents would have considered prudent.

They refinanced homes to cash in on the increased equity from inflation. And wives went to work in record numbers to provide their families with a second income.

But talks with consumers, bankers and credit experts show that in the past few months the spree has been cut short by a series of developments:

President Carter's March 14 package of credit restraints effectively blunted Americans' freewheeling use of credit cards and prompted many families to conclude that they had overextended themselves financially.

Consumers also were frightened by the sharp speedup in inflation -- which reached an 18.2 percent annual rate in January and February -- and the resulting leap in interest rates, which exceeded anything Americans had thought possible.

The fast-developing recession -- and breathtaking rise in the jobless rate in recent months -- has made families far more anxious about the economy, more relucant to continue spending and apprehensive about their lack of savings.

With bank accounts all but depleted, consumers now apear to have stopped dipping into their savings to finance day-to-day purchases. With the economic situation to uncertain, many now seem to want to rebuild cash reserves.

The shrinkage of available jobs has cut back the chance for wives to continue their massive influx into the labor force. Some women who went to work in 1979 found themselves among the first to be laid off when the recession hit.

last springs's sharp rise in interest rates -- and the resulting cutback in available mortgage money -- has all but closed off the opportunity for homeowners to take advantage of their equity by refinancing their houses.

As a result, consumers have reverted to their more traditional response to a decline in purchasing power: they've retrenched. And analysts believe most Americans won't resume their heavy spending again for at least several months. a

"The buy-now mentality is, for all intents and purposes, dead," says Norbert E. Schwarz, a Rockford. Ill., consultant. "The means consumers used to finance their spending spree last year just are not available anymore." u

Agrees Eugene Zonghi, a Worcester, Mass., credit bureau executive:

"Last year, the average person felt that any dollars in the bank account ought to be spent. Now, there isn't the panic-buying anymore."

The practical consequences of this new shift have been felt at two levels:

First, in contrast to most of 1979, consumers are cutting back visibly -- ending impulse-buying, repairing old appliances rather than buying new ones, staying closer to home for vacations and driving less.

Ron G. Eckhardt, a Mason City, Iowa, policeman, and his family canceled a vacation trip to New York this year in favor of a camping trip to northern Iowa. "There's no way we could have afforded (the trip to New York,)" Eckhardt laments.

And Ronnie Daniel, a Columbus, Ga., appliance dealer, reports his service business is up sharply this year, offsetting a drop in refrigerator sales. "People are spending money to repair 20-year-old boxes," he says.

Then, too, Americans in almost all categories are shopping far more carefully than they did even a few months ago, paying more attention to special sales and comparing values closely in a search for genuine bargains. t

"We rarely buy anything unless it's on sale now," says Charles Blomgren, a young Rockford accountant. "Like carpeting: Before we would have just ordered it. Last Saturday, we spent all day shopping."

Agrees Dick Cranford, a Holden, Mass., insurance analyst: "The low priority things are just not getting addressed. We waited 2 1/2 months to get our TV fixed. And we're putting off car repairs."

Cranford and his wife Sandy also passed up an appeal from their church to have everyone add $1 to their weekly stewardship pledge. "we just thought there was a limit," Sandy Cranford says.

Merchants report that Americans also have cut back sharply on their use of credit cards and installment buying -- in part the residue of Presidet Carter's March 14 credit-restraint program.

"We're doing a higher percentage of cash sales than ever before," says Mike Torgerson, a Mason City furniture dealer. "People are so moneywise now. They just don't want to take on new debt."

Adds Beverley D. Paquette, a Rockford marketing expert: "The attitude now seems to be 'If you have cash, buy it. If not, don't charge.' The consumer has gotten a lot smarter. He has been scared to death -- and not just a little."

As a result, shopping centers' around the nation have been conducting sales almost continually for the past several months -- a trend most merchants predict will continue through most of this year.

And Paquette reports a decline in neighborhood garage sales in that hard-hit city."With retailers practically giving away new goods," she says, "why buy anything used?"

Interviews show the belt-tightening often has had some benefits as well as drawbacks. With incomes continuing to rise, many families have emerged from the squeeze less strapped.

In San Jose, Eva Jimmerson, 78, a retired nurse, says the 14.3 percent increase in Social Security benefits the government provided last July has enabled her to "take a deeper breath" than she could last autumn.

"Now I can afford to pay 95 cents for a loaf of bread -- which is ridiculous," Miss Jimmerson snaps. "Underneath, inflation is very grating. I used to be self-sufficient.Now, here I am, dependent on the state."

And Joe Kennedy, a 22-year-old Columbus millworker, says he and his wife Tammy, "just seem to have more pocket money" this year following a cost-of-living raise early on.

Summarizes Dallas bank economist Byrd: "People are a little worse off than they were last October in terms of real income and purchasing power, but their financial statements probably read much better."

Adds Worcester congressman Joseph D. Early (D-Mass.), fresh from a "working recess" listening to constituents' complaints: "I don't think they perceive themselves as better off. But they are better off."

Indeed, both bankers and consumers report that Americans are using the respite to consolidate and pay off their previous debt -- sometimes even putting some money away in savings or investment accounts.

"The savings rate is not up sharply yet, but people are not going further into debt like they were," says Mason City banker Hal Haver. "It's a case of consolidating and regrouping."

Agrees Stan Deardeuff, a Mason City farmer: "It used to be if a banker nodded his head and said we could buy it, we bought it. I have one goal now: It's to reduce my debt burden."

And, like many Americans, Corky and Cathy Houchard, a Dallas construction-firm analyst and his wife, have begun striving determinedly to deposit $100 a month in a savings account -- as a reserve for cash emergencies. d

"We're in a different situation now," says Cathy Houchard, who worried about a possible unemployment spell earlier this year when her husband's firm began ordering layoffs. "We saw how fast our money, went."

Now that consumers have renounced their wastrel ways and atoned for their 1979 spree, will they now resume spending at last year's frenetic pace?

Some analysts are predicting a prompt rebound in consumer spending that they say will lead the economy into a vigorous recovery.

Not anytime soon, according to consumers, bankers, retailers and credit analysts interviewed in the past few weeks.

Mervin Field, the California pollster, agrees that for the near-term, at least, American consumers still seem to be "in a very lugubrious frame of mind," -- and not about to kick over the traces again anytime soon.

A surprising number, like Tom Legere, a Worcester bricklayer, simply feel they've worked too hard to pay off their earlier debt-burden and don't want to fall into the same trap again.

"We're getting back onto track a bit now," Legere says, "but we're a little wiser this time because we got our fingers burned." Besides, he confides, "I like out situation now. I'm in the driver's seat again."

The consensus among many retailers is that Americans will remain relatively frugal through early 1981, and then will resume spending gradually. With the jobless rate still high, the cautious mood should prevail for months. w

Ray Lichty, a Mason City credit manager, muses that many consumers are waiting to see the results of the November election, when they can reassess the future. "If the winter is mild," he adds, "that also will help some."

In the meantime, a good many Americans seem almost relieved by the chastening effect of the past few months' shock -- in effect, admitting that last year's spending spree was harmful and needed to be curbed.

"In some ways, this is going to do us some good," says Bob Prohaska, an Iowa farmer. "It's opening our eyes. We went a little too far with it last year."

Meanwhile, the spector of inflation continues to haunt Americans in all walks of life. "I don't think people have made up their minds on inflation," says Jimmy Yancey, a Columbus banker. "It could return very easily."