Holiday spending was down this Thanksgiving weekend in another sign that a choppy economic recovery is keeping consumers cautious about purchases.

Even as the number of shoppers rose to 141 million — an expected increase from last year’s 139 million — the average consumer kept to a tighter budget, according to a survey released Sunday by the National Retail Federation.

Shoppers spent an average of $407.20 between Thursday and Sunday, down 4 percent from the $423.55 they spent last year. Overall sales slipped 2.9 percent from 2012 to an estimated $57.4 billion.

“The truth is, for far too many Americans, things aren’t great,” said Matthew Shay, president and chief executive of the National Retail Federation.

A shorter holiday shopping season and ho-hum spending projections had stores scrambling to open doors earlier on Thanksgiving, Shay said. Online discounts began earlier, too, with retailers kicking off Internet sales days before the turkey hit the oven.

Overall, holiday sales are expected to rise a tepid 3.9 percent to $602.1 billion.

More than half of Americans said they had already begun their holiday shopping in October. An earlier-than-usual start to Hanukkah may have also pulled sales forward, analysts say.

“There had to be an impact,” said Maggie Taylor, an analyst for Moody’s.

Retailers opened earlier than ever on Thanksgiving Day this year — and the crowds followed, with 45 million consumers shopping on Thursday. That is a nearly 29 percent jump from last year, when 35 million people shopped on the holiday.

One-quarter of the weekend’s shoppers had hit the stores by 8 p.m. Thursday. By midnight, that figure swelled to nearly 40 percent.

Thanksgiving Day “is now becoming a very critical part of the overall weekend,” Shay said. “It’s clear that people want to be out that night, and retailers are responding.”

Roughly 59 million people shopped online during the Thanksgiving weekend. On average, consumers spent $177.67 online, accounting for 44 percent of their total weekend shopping. That’s slightly up from last year, when the shoppers spent an average of $172.42 online over the Thanksgiving weekend.

“Online shopping over the Thanksgiving weekend continues to be more popular as retailers tout special holiday savings through their mobile apps and Web sites,” said Pam Goodfellow, director of Prosper’s Consumer Insights, which conducted the survey.