Last October, staff writer Art Pine visited six cities across the country and talked with 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 continues his profiles of couples and the changes the recession has made in their lives since October.
Dick and Sandy Cranford were full of great expectations when they moved here 12 years ago from the high-cost Washington, D.C., suburbs.
There was the romance of the New England winters, the ostensibly less-expensive shopping in nearby Boston department stores and a much shorter drive to Dick's parents' vacation cottage in Maine.
Today, the vacation house is still a sometime attraction here, but the rest of the cranfords' dream has fallen short of expectations -- thanks in large part to inflation.
Although the Cranfords live comfortably in a woods-shrouded suburban home just north of Worcester, Mass., they've ended up heavily in debt and -- until recently -- have been unable to afford the extras they'd taken for granted before.
"It's a changed attitude," Sandy Cranford told a visitor last fall. "We don't care about cars anymore. We eat out only on occasion. And the prices in department stores are inflated. We're pretty much living from month to month."
What put the Cranfords in such a bind, by their own admission, is that -- like many Americans -- they took too long in adjusting to the impact of inflation. They didn't cut back their life style until it was almost too late.
Although Dick Cranford's income had risen substantially in recent years -- last October, it was $18,900 a year from an insurance company job and another $3,000 from selling wooden jewelery he carves as a hobby -- it wasn't enough to keep pace.
"In spite of the pay raises I've gotten -- which have been reasonably good -- I feel we don't have as much spendable income," Dick Cranford said last autumn. Until recently, they made up for it by going into debt.
What happened, in essence, was that -- like many consumers in recent years -- the Cranfords overextended, charging extra purchases and then borrowing to consolidate their debts. As the months went on, their debt load grew larger.
Three and a half years ago, Cranford and his wife took out a $6,000 second mortgage, in part to pay debts and in part to remodel their home. But, Dick Cranford concedes, the situation only got worse.
The day of reckoning for the Cranfords came in 1978, when they decided to put an end to their charge-account buying and cut back on new purchases until the bills were paid off.
"We made a very specific, intentional decision that we would never charge another thing -- even gasoline," Cranford said last October. To bolster their resolve, the two cut all their credit cards into little pieces.
They also clamped down substantially on family spending. "You just don't buy any of the extra things," Sandy Cranford recalled. "I can't remember the last time we went downtown shopping." And they cut back on trips to Maine.
Over the past 10 1/2 months, the selfimposed austerity program has worked. The Cranfords' debt burden has been cut in half. And they're starting to put some money away again.
The Cranfords' determined belt-tightening hasn't been easy.The two essentially have foregone impulse-buying of any sort during the three-year period and postponed needed repairs on many household items.
"But," Dick Cranford says, "psychologically, it's been very successful."
Ironically, the Cranfords' really serious financial pain may finally be over.
Last month, Sandy Cranford, who put off looking for an outside job herself for several years so she could spend more time raising the couple's two children, landed a job as a hospital official -- a move that will add $14,800 to the family's income and clear away their current debt.
"We decided two jobs were needed," says Sandy Cranford, who gave piano lessons part-time last year to earn extra spending money. "One and a half weren't enough."
(Dick Cranford received a $1,700 raise last March and promotion to product analyst -- a post he says has "opened up a lot of horizons for me." The Cranfords -- he is now 40 and she is 38 -- have youngsters aged 13 and and 10.
But both Cranfords assert that the lesson of inflation has been learned so painfully that there's little chance they'll return to their earlier free-spending habits anytime soon.
Once the family's debts are paid, most of Sandy Cranford's salary will go into a company investment plan, the two Cranfords agree, and a special account to finance their children's education.
"What we're trying to do now," Cranford says, "is transfer our cushion of credit to a cushion of savings. The biggest thing I want out of all this is peace of mind."
The first acid test: Even with Sandy Cranford's new job, the Cranford's say, they're not going to buy a new car. Instead, they'll make do with a 10-year-old model that badly needs fixing.