Anxious consumers saving more than spending

Outside Costco in Mount Laurel, Laurie Ianucci packs her car with bulk items for "The Tender," a social-setting, adult day-care center for frail seniors and people with Alzheimer's.

Alison Krywucki took along her brother yesterday when she went to Best Buy in Plymouth Meeting to buy a 32-inch high-definition television as an anniversary gift for her boyfriend.

She may have needed moral support as much as muscle. After all, Krywucki didn't just have to carry the television. Like other American consumers, Krywucki also bears the weight of today's pervasive economic anxiety - a burden that analysts say is still dragging down the U.S. economy despite the "green shoots" of recovery that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said were already evident two months ago.

Recovery may well be under way. But every little blip, including yesterday's Commerce Department report that U.S. retail sales had slipped 0.4 percent in April, causes renewed anxiety.

Forecasters had expected slightly better numbers. So market-watchers quickly blamed the decline, following a larger drop in March, for a pullback in share prices. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 184.22 to 8,284.89, or 2.18 percent.

Krywucki, 23, is well-versed in the big picture. A broker for a mutual funds company, Krywucki said she had been keeping a lid on her spending since the economy softened, which includes most of the time since her 2007 graduation from Villanova University.

She moved back home with her parents in Lafayette Hill. When her car broke down, she bought another used one to replace it.

"I haven't been making any big purchases - I definitely have been focusing more on saving," Krywucki said. "Because of where I work, I can see how it affects everyone."

Still, Krywucki took a break from what economists since John Maynard Keynes have called the "paradox of thrift": the fact that when individuals respond rationally to economic downturns by saving more, their frugality worsens the problem for the broader economy.

Krywucki passed up the $5,000 Pioneer 60-inch plasma TV, marked down from $6,500, and a Samsung 46-inch LED version on sale for $2,500. Instead, she chose a $500 model, complete with built-in DVD player. She hoped she had struck the right balance to honor her year-old relationship.

"Everybody's concerned about how certain things are, how confident you are you'll still have a job," Krywucki said. "Sometimes you just have to indulge."

Consumers' newfound reluctance to indulge may be better for them in the long run, said Ryan Sweet, senior economist at Moody's, in West Chester. But in the short run, it acts like an anchor - slowing the economy's progress as the federal stimulus plan should be starting to take effect.

"You don't want to make too much out of one month of data," Sweet said. Still, he said April's decline was discouraging to those hoping for a quick lift.

"People have cash in their pockets because of the government's action. But consumers are extremely nervous about their jobs and incomes, so they remain very hesitant to spend," he said.

Sweet said the national savings rate topped 4 percent throughout the first quarter of 2009, up from less than 1 percent in August and 3 percent in November. Earlier in the decade, the rate had been negative - households were spending more than they earned.

"This recession has shown that was unsustainable," Sweet said. "Consumers are attempting to repair their household balance sheets."

It is unclear how long that trend will last, though Sweet said there might be hints in the monthly consumer-confidence surveys published by the Conference Board.

The business group's broadest confidence index jumped more than 12 points last month, led by a sharp improvement in expectations for the future.

But so far, there has been no similar rise in consumers' specific plans to buy big-ticket items such as cars, houses, or appliances. The numbers are stabilizing, Sweet said, "but at very low levels."


Contact staff writer Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or