Last October, staff writer Art Pine visited six cities across the country to talk to people about the economy and how they were coping with the problems it created for them .
Last month Pine revisited the same cities and interviewed many of the same people. The results of his trip are being outlined in a series which began on Aug. 3 and will end on Aug. 10. Today Pine profiles two couples and the changes the recession has made in their lives since October .
Ten months ago, Paul and Jeri Arenson clearly were benefiting from the soaring inflation rate -- and spending as though they thought it might go out of style.
Anytime the Arensons wanted something, they just went out and bought it -- usually on some form of installment credit. For more expensive items, they occasionally took out a loan.
The spending didn't seem excessive then. As an insurance agent specializing in estate planning, Paul Arenson's commissions were burgeoning along with land prices. His expected earnings for the year: between $70,000 and $90,000.
Credit was easy to get. The Arensons live in a sprawling suburban house, whose value has been skyrocking in recent years. In 1979, they refinanced their home mortage to take advantage of built-up equity.
And finally, the Arensons were acutely conscious that interest charges are tax-deductible. In Paul Arnenson's tax bracket, that meant whenever the Arensons bought on credit, Uncle Sam paid half the borrowing costs.
"The planning that we're thinking about is predicated on inflation," Paul Arenson told a visitor last fall. "There's a new set of rules, and we have to learn to work within them."
But this year, the Arensons -- he's 55 and she's 51 -- have turned abruptly cautious. They aren't buying anything unless they decide they really need it. cAnd they make sure it's worth the money.
To top that off, they've shifted to an almost-entirely cash economy -- no credit cards, no installment payments, no borrowing of any sort. And they feel decidedly better about it.
"It's amazing how well we get along without them," Jeri Arenson says, recalling the plastic cards she tucked away earlier this year. Her husband, Paul agrees; "We just feel like we're in control."
What happened, in a nutshell, is that inflation finally caught up with Paul and Jeri Arenson -- and they responded like consumers everywhere.
The turnaround came earlier this year, when the prosperous San Jose couple was hit with something they thought would never happen: A credit-card company served notice that it wouldn't renew their account.
The rebuff so jolted the Arensons that they immediately began taking stock of their spending patterns. And the results, Paul Arenson says -- after three months of detailed budget-keeping -- simply were "startling."
As Arenson confesses: "We found we had gotten into some really bad habits over the years with easy access to credit. What was really startling was the miscellaneous spending. It was just wild."
The Arensons' reaction was to put their credit cards away and begin paying cash for everything."If we want to buy anything, I take the money out in advance," Jeri Arenson says.
They also began to think a lot more carefully before spending money in the first place.
Last October, for example, the Arensons had planned to buy a new car, but now, after a month of looking, they've decided to make do with their old ones -- on grounds that the new models just aren't worth it.
"We can afford another car," explains Arenson, in the wake of their car-shopping attempt, but "The guy will look at you square in the eye and say, 'Sir, this car will cost you $20,000.' That's just plain crazy."
Although the Arensons are not as carefree with their spending, they're enjoying it more -- at least by their own assessment.
"We're in a lot better cash position than when I saw you last October," Paul Arenson told a visitor late last month. "We're really building some cash reserves, and we feel a lot better off."
In retrospect, at least, the Arensons concede that inflation was making things too easy for Americans in their bracket -- and assert that the new spurt of self-discipline is doing them good.
And the jolt from the credit-card company? "It was a blessing in disguise," Jeri Arenson declares. "Our personal goals last year had made us stretch," Paul Arenson agrees. "This is a marvelous way to live."