As The Economy Sinks, The Frugal Consumer Arises

April 20, 2009|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,

Myron Murray has exchanged nights sipping expensive cocktails in bars and restaurants for get-togethers with friends at home. He eats out less, saves more and thinks much harder about what he buys.

The 34-year-old manager of an Annapolis Sam's Club isn't afraid of losing his job and hasn't seen a drop in his income. But the recession has prompted Murray to be more responsible about his money - a change that could last a lifetime for him and other consumers.

"I think I need to plan a little better now for the future," Murray said. "The current economy caught a lot of people by surprise. If we build better habits now it won't shock a lot of people if [a downturn] happens again."

The past decade was one of splurging, as easy access to credit cards and home equity loans enabled Americans to live more lavishly than previous generations. Pop culture trends also had an impact, with shows such as Sex and the City and Keeping Up With the Kardashians depicting lifestyles in which Jimmy Choo shoes and Louis Vuitton bags were within every girl's reach, sociologists say.

But as the economy has come crashing down, some predict a permanent cultural shift in spending habits. Some anthropologists and economists say more consumers will be like Murray and spend more practically. They'll buy smaller houses, eat out less and save for big purchases.

Many consumers are being forced into these changes as they watch the value of their homes plummet or find themselves swimming in unmanageable debt. But for others it's a moral shift as they realize that all that buying doesn't add much to their lives beyond a closet full of clothes.

"People are at that higher level where they're saying something is wrong with the way we're spending and it has got to change," said Robbie Blinkoff, co-founder and principal anthropologist at Context-Based Research Group. In conjunction with the Carton Donofrio Partners Inc. advertising and marketing firm, it recently surveyed people about the economy's impact on their spending.

The survey, in five cities including Baltimore, found that a new "grounded" consumer is emerging. These consumers are realizing that life is not defined by what they buy and that credit isn't a true measure of their financial worth. They're moving to limit the amount of "stuff" in their lives, the survey found. And they're learning to live within their means.

"The consumer will go through this process of evaluating what stuff they bring into their life to make sure it brings meaning into their life," Blinkoff said. "They'll be less superfluous."

The economy has taught Chung Yi that he can live comfortably on a salary of less than six figures.

He left high-paying jobs and started a green contracting and design company in Baltimore. With a smaller salary, Yi, 27, has cut back on spending. He spends a quarter of what he once did on clothes and buys furniture at the Restoration Hardware outlet, rather than the company's full-price store. He's even gone straight to the manufacturer for some items.

Yi and his girlfriend have also decided to eat at less expensive restaurants and have discovered neighborhood dining establishments around the city.

Yi has come to appreciate the more frugal lifestyle.

"It's going to have to be a new way of life," he said. "We can still live on a smaller salary and have a great lifestyle, and we can put more money in the bank when I make six figures again."

Christopher Carroll, a professor of economics at the John Hopkins University, said more people are realizing that things they once saw as necessities are actually luxuries. He noted that high-end retailers have watched their sales plummet and that Starbucks is losing coffee sales to cheaper alternatives such as McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts. Debt is forcing many of the changes.

"What we'll end up with is an economy where there is more investment, less of a trade deficit and spending is more in line with income," Carroll said.

Melanie Pefinis, a 44-year-old yoga and Pilates instructor who lives in Baltimore, has noticed her friends shopping less and talking about how to live more frugally.

Pefinis, who was already living a pretty thrifty life, has given up her Starbucks coffee indulgence and is renting videos for a dollar from the grocery store rather than going to movies. She's been forced to do some of this because her income, savings and investment dropped by nearly half when people cut luxuries such as yoga and Pilates from their lives. But she also said the economy has made her think more about her financial future.

"The economy showed me there has to be a new paradigm shift from what I have done for so long," she said. "It really took this bottom dropping out for people to say that maybe we don't need all this crap."

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