It Takes More Than a Recession to End Consumption
The recession has American families cleaning up their balance sheets. Households paid off nearly 1 percent of their debt in the third quarter of this fiscal year. For the year, household debt shrunk nearly 1 percent, the first such shrinkage recorded. Credit card balances are shrinking as well, though perhaps because credit card companies aren't lending so easily anymore, and mortgages certainly aren't growing. This household balance sheet repair is the first such showing in more than 50 years.
Despite January's unexpected 1 percent rise in retail sales, Americans are paying off their debts. Reuters reported in November, "Consumer spending excluding autos fell 3.8 percent last month on a seasonally adjusted basis, steeper than the 1.5 percent decline in October." American families increased their savings to 3.6 percent in December, according to Charles Schwab, up from almost zero a year before.
Consumption goes underground
While the uber-consumption of the last 18 years has ended, old habits are hard to break. While people are spending less because they have less, shoppers are still spending what they have.
During the last recession, it made sense (to some at least) to encourage shopping, traveling, and theater-going. "Get on board [airplanes]," former President George Bush said. "Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed." (The approach apparently continued to have appeal in the Bush White House during the current recession, though Bush's economics adviser admitted that "the president going out and telling people to go shop probably would not get the financial sector back in shape.")
Still, Americans love to shop, and they are finding ways to do so — whether it means cutting back elsewhere or simply avoiding the conspicuous part of "conspicuous consumption." After all, it is addictive (affecting 6 percent of Americans): "We have no money and considerable credit card debt," one parent recently asked financial adviser Suze Orman. "Should we dip into our paltry emergency fund to pay for Christmas for the kids?"
Rather than dipping into emergency savings, some parents are cutting back their spending on themselves. Kristen Hunt didn't want her daughter to think this Christmas was less bountiful than previous ones. "I want her to be able to look back and say, 'Even though they were tough times, my mom was still able to give me stuff.' "
(Years from now, however, children won't be saying the same about their dads, who apparently are still spending on themselves. "In September and October," reports The New York Times, "sales of women's apparel fell precipitously compared with the same months the year before. They were down 18.2 percent in October, for instance, compared with a decrease of 8.3 percent for men's apparel.")
Others, who seem to be doing just fine financially, have restrained their shopping only for appearance's sake. "Shopping is almost embarrassing and a little vulgar right now," said Maggie Buckley, an editor at Allure magazine. Though they may feel a little ashamed by their need to buy, flocks of people have simply hidden their purchasing at "invitation-only shopping events springing up in hotel suites, at private showrooms or in the well-appointed parlors of their peers. Feeling the pangs of conscience, they are shopping on the down-low."
One retail consultant explains, "People don't want to be as public about shopping for luxury goods as they were in the past. It's a feel-good way to buy, and this is a time for feel-good things."