Barbara Ott works three days a week at a jewelry store in the heart of historic Leesburg. Her husband is in business development. Their two children are grown, and their income is about as high as it’s ever been.
They figured that with the kids gone they’d be eating out more. Not so — only about twice a month these days. Vacation? Not this year. And the new upstairs carpeting will have to wait.
Nothing says they can’t indulge a little the way they had dreamed — except the feeling that things are bad and about to get worse. Their 401(k) got whacked. Will there be enough for retirement? They would rather save it than spend it.
“Do I spend what I used to? Absolutely not,” said Ott, 57.
The Otts and hundreds of thousands of American families like them represent one of the biggest reasons the economy is in so much trouble today and faces the prospect of more pain in the years ahead.
The tiny ripples caused by cutbacks from Americans closing their wallets have built to a tsunami for a national economy that is overwhelmingly dependent on consumer spending.
Consumer confidence was growing at the start of the year but turned in the spring as oil prices spiked, job growth fell off and home prices sagged. And the public’s mood has only darkened since with the political turmoil over the debt ceiling, the downgrading of U.S. debt by Standard & Poor’s and the volatile stock markets.
Based on the latest survey by the University of Michigan, released Friday, consumer confidence tanked in early August to levels even lower than during the recession. There were widening fears about the conditions, but people’s expectations for the future were the gloomiest since 1980.
And in June, the most recent data available, spending shrank — by 0.2 percent — for the first time since the fall of 2009. Rather than hit the stores, government data show, more families were squirreling away more money.
But analysts and merchants haven’t given up on the American consumer. For one thing, many figure that people can’t keep holding off on buying or replacing basic needs. The average car on U.S. roads, for example, now is more than 10.6 years old. Many homeowners are making do with clanking washing machines and dishwashers.
In one sign of pent-up demand, even amid the dreary consumer sentiment, the Commerce Department said Friday that retail sales in July edged up 0.5 percent from June. Sales rose for cars, appliances and clothes.
Still, if middle-class incomes don’t grow, the only way consumer spending can increase is if buyers use credit cards or borrow. Consumer debt has started to rise again, but the recession and its aftermath offer grim evidence of what that kind of growth leads to.
Just a few years ago, Leesburg was the land of plenty. Four of the fastest-growing and wealthiest counties in the nation are here in Northern Virginia about an hour west of Washington, fattened by government contracts and home to well-to-do lobbyists, lawyers and consultants.
Loudoun County, where Leesburg sits, is one of those counties, set amid rolling grassland on the outskirts of the Civil War battlefield of Bull Run. The median household income is $114,000. More than 80 percent of the residents own a house. The unemployment rate is a low 4.4 percent — less than half the national rate and down from 4.9 percent in 2010.
For most Leesburg residents, the recession did not spell hardship. Whereas people in harder-hit parts of the country had to choose between mortgage payments and food, sacrifice here meant holding off on a new living room set.
Even so, the climate of economic anxiety is palpable. One major problem is the lack of income growth. In the second quarter of this year, workers were pulling down median weekly earnings of $756, the Labor Department says.
After adjusting for inflation, that’s down 1.5 percent from a year earlier and essentially unchanged from a decade ago, according to Labor Department numbers.
The lack of income growth in places such as Loudoun County has painful consequences for middle-class Americans everywhere whose own incomes, jobs and businesses are dependent on spending by their fellow citizens.
Lack of income growth among the more affluent has translated into trouble for scores of small service businesses and thousands of workers — including an expanding immigrant population — in construction, landscaping, retail sales and other sectors.
That trend can be seen in the case of Jim Campbell, 51, who owns a law firm in town, and his wife, Linda, who has a quaint shop that sells affordable antiques.
Their businesses suffered in the recession and though they still are among some of the highest wage earners in the country, they’ve cut back. No more vacation cruises. The living room furniture she had her eye on won’t be ordered. And when their country home on four acres — renovated three times in recent years — needs repair, they do it themselves.
“We are now DIYers,” Linda Campbell, 50, said from behind the counter her shop. “We are doing our own painting, our own mulching, where we would not hesitate to hire out before.”
As a result, contractors and gardeners have received less work; the furniture store has sold one less couch. The furniture factory took a hit. Jobs vanished or were put in jeopardy, and on it goes.
Linda Campbell’s shop was unusually quiet on a recent sunny afternoon as business has slowed to a crawl. Even though most of her customers are well off, the Cottage is a victim of exactly the same cutbacks in consumer spending that the Campbells are engaged in.
“I see people really thinking about their purchases, coming back three or four times before they buy. That didn’t happen before,” she said.
That puts Campbell at dead center of the economic ripple effect: When her well-to-do patrons stopped spending, so did she and her husband, whose law firm has had to cut back too.
Nationwide, if it weren’t for government social programs such as unemployment benefits, the picture would be a lot worse in terms of the consumer spending that accounts for 70 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, the fullest measure of economic activity.
“We need jobs for incomes to improve and consumers to feel better about spending,” said Michael Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers in New York. “That’s the weak link.”
It’s not all bad in Linda Campbell’s view — or in the view of many economists, who say less spending and more saving could help the economy in the long run.
“Maybe things just came too easy before,” she said, noting that her three nearly grown children don’t take life’s indulgences for granted anymore. “We needed to take a step back.”
Will things ever be the way they were? Will the Otts take a vacation next year or go back to buying meat without looking at the price per pound? Not in the near term, Barbara Ott believes.
“I think it is going to be a long time before things get better,” she said. “I’m not depressed; I’m cautious and frightened. At this age, how would we start over again?”
As long as she and millions of others feel too scared to spend, their gloom could prove to be a self-fulfilled economic prophesy.
Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.