Linda Mack, of Germantown, became worried about the economy when she realized that rocketing gasoline prices were cutting into her food budget. For Lynn Furman, it was looking down his street in Prince William County and seeing the same "For Sale" signs month after month. And, for John Brannock, of Arlington County, it was knowing that some of his neighbors had lost their jobs.

A growing number of people across the metropolitan area are anxious about the economy -- so much so that they are rethinking family budgets, delaying major purchases and preparing for hardships that may not come. In a series of interviews last week involving 25 households with incomes ranging from $30,000 to $100,000 a year, it appeared that nearly all are convinced that a recession is imminent.

"I'm trying not to panic, but it's hard to go from: 'I'm doing fine; I've got money in the bank,' to watching every dime," said Loretta Gaegler, 33, an Alexandria resident who makes $45,000 a year managing office complexes and shopping centers. "It's like the quality of life is slipping away."

"I know quite a few people who have been touched by this," Gaegler said. "I'm single. If I get laid off, what do I do?"

For Gaegler and others, this is a time to set aside credit cards; make do with old winter coats, old refrigerators, old cars; delay the new roof, fence or addition; forget about the luxuries. Some have backed out of buying new homes; others have altered plans to send their children to more expensive private schools.

There is also regret over not saving enough money, running up credit card bills and believing that this area's once-booming economy was immune to severe slowdowns. Now they find themselves struggling to pay their monthly bills while trying to put aside more money in case their worst fears come true.

"The anxiety is over things that might happen," said Linda Mack, 33, who decided to keep her toddler at home another year to save the $1,800 nursery school fee. "And that's why we have started to batten down the hatches. It's like we are getting ready for the hurricane."

That's a natural reaction to bad economic news, but experts say it is also the very kind of behavior that hastens a recession -- creating a domino effect as stores, restaurants and many other industries suffer and are forced to add to the number of layoffs.

"The psychology of recession begins to take hold," said Stephen S. Fuller, chairman of the department of urban planning and real estate development at George Washington University. "If you think you're going to be ill long enough, you get ill."

The anxiety, Fuller said, has been building since the stock market crash of October 1987 and has escalated since spring with reports of declining home and car sales. The threat of furloughs for federal employees, whose jobs are traditionally viewed as among the safest, and the possibility of war with Iraq have deepened the unease.

"I don't think I've ever heard people talk about money so much," said Eileen Eveleth, who lives on Capitol Hill. "It's unsettling."

But while there is much discussion of bad times, not everyone is predicting the worst.

"Right now the economy here is slowing down," said Kerry St. Clair, 45, a training specialist for the General Accounting Office. But "over the long term I'm optimistic . . . . I just think we are in another cycle."

Area job growth plummeted from 20,000 jobs in June to 1,000 in August. New commercial construction decreased again in the second quarter, marking the third consecutive quarter of decline. Housing sales continue to be down.

While financial experts debate whether such statistics point to a recession, some residents are basing their beliefs on their daily experiences.

In John Brannock's neighborhood in Arlington County, there are troubling signs -- including neighbors who have lost their jobs with defense contractors. "I don't want to extend myself," said Brannock, 33, an executive with a maintenance and environmental service company. "People are waking up with no jobs."

With a newborn son, Brannock and his wife, Christina, had planned to sell their 47-year-old Cape Cod-style home and seek a larger house. That idea has been scrapped for the time being, he said, because of the downturn in home sales.

The family has "gone from being able to do whatever we wanted to to being cautious and more aware of what we spend," he said.

For some, layoffs are not just a threat, but a calamity they have already experienced firsthand.

"I applied for unemployment insurance yesterday for the first time in my life," said Donna Fossum, 41, a lawyer who was laid off from a law firm about three months ago. "Everywhere I go to look for a job, people are postponing decisions, filling vacancies from within . . . . It's scary."

Many residents describe themselves as living from paycheck to paycheck. They worry about spending every penny they make to pay their bills. They wonder what will happen to them in an emergency.

"I was talking to one of my neighbors this morning," said Kris Rogers, a mother of three who lives in an area of Germantown where household incomes are around $75,000. "We had read someplace that you're supposed to have six to nine months' worth of living expenses put away for emergencies. {The neighbor} laughed and said, 'We don't have six to nine days.' "

Larry and Sunny Besterman, of Chantilly in Fairfax County, said one reason they are so worried about the economy is that they feel vulnerable, with "so many fixed costs" in their budget. They pay $125 a week for child care, have a mortgage on a $200,000 to $250,000 house, and monthly payments on two 1986 Hondas.

"We could be criticized" for getting into debt, said Besterman, 33, who works for a consulting firm that serves the Navy. "But a lot of this is psychological. There is a wealth effect. When everybody's house around you is going up {in price} , you feel wealthier. Now . . . you feel like you have fewer choices."

The darkening economic picture has had one decisive effect on many local families. They've decided to get their finances in order, to do whatever they can to make themselves feel safer.

David and Barbara Humpton, of Gaithersburg, who recently decided not to move from their $170,000 older home to a new $250,000 house, have taken the further step of seeing a professional financial planner to figure how best to spend their money.

For a $300 fee, they learned to stop relying on credit, to stop thinking of fast food as an inexpensive meal ("It's amazing how fast you can blow $10") and to talk to each other more about individual expenses. They have refigured their household budget, and Barbara Humpton destroyed her credit cards.

"We spent very independently," said David Humpton, 30, a father of two who is deputy manager of the City of Gaithersburg. "We didn't communicate about what we were doing."

Last spring, the Toomey family, of Prince William County, was pondering whether to send their daughter, Kim, to college. They decided that they could better afford the public Christopher Newport College in Tidewater, for about $2,200 a year in tuition, rather than the private Hollins College near Roanoke, which would cost them $10,650 in tuition.

"With the state of the economy, I didn't think it was a financial outlay we {could} make," said Mary Beth Toomey, a manager for the federal government, whose household income is $90,000.

The Humptons and the Toomeys are not alone:

Victor and Odessa Bibbins, who live in a $110,000 house in Cheverly with their four children, have already decided that Christmas this year "is going to be downscaled," Victor Bibbins said. "I have no problem saying, 'I'm not going to buy you a pair of $75 gym shoes that will wear out in three months.' "

Dan Mack, a computer programmer, and his wife, Linda, have reworked their family budget -- cutting down on trips into the District and amusements for their two young children. "We're not going to eat as many T-bone steaks either," said Linda Mack, who works part time for the State of Maryland.

Kim Rice, a historian who relies on federal grants, and her husband, Mark, who designs commercial and military boats, have decided to delay putting a new roof on their Northwest Washington home. They said they also plan to keep their cars "until they're driven into the ground."