Despite Energy Savings, Consumers In Vermont Remain Cautious
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
It's not only gasoline that's getting cheaper. Natural gas prices are down too. Add in the unseasonably warm weather in much of the country and it's costing a lot of people less to heat their homes than it did last year. So what's everyone doing with these energy savings? That's what reporter Nina Keck asked people in Vermont, where they're still waiting for snow.
NINA KECK, BYLINE: December has been just plain weird here for a state famous for its white Christmases. This week, it's raining and nearly 60 degrees. While ski resort owners are cringing, Kami Buck of Rutland, Vt. says the warmer temperatures and lower energy prices are making it a lot easier to heat her home and gas up her SUV.
KAMI BUCK: Yeah, absolutely. Driving a Tahoe, it's half the cost. It was $80 last year and not even $45 this year to fill the tank. And it's nice just - you don't feel like you're going broke paying for gas or paying for heat. It's huge.
KECK: Paulette Welch of Brandon, Vt. tries to stay out of the rain as she fills her SUV. While it's nice paying less for fuel, she says she's not running out and spending more.
PAULETTE WELCH: Because there's always the fear that it's going to happen again, that gas prices are going to jump. So we try to save up as much because just in case.
STEVEN RICK: Basically, people are saving this money and also maybe paying down a little bit of the debt.
KECK: Steven Rick is chief economist with CUNA Mutual Group, which provides financial services to credit unions. He says rates of deposits are up 6.5 percent. While saving money may be good for individuals, it's not necessarily ideal for the broader economy. Consumer spending growth has actually slowed this year. Commerce Department statistics released today show that as of November, personal spending is up only 2.5 percent from the previous year. That doesn't sound too bad until you look at the comparable gain of 3.2 percent in 2014. And that energy windfall that's put a couple extra 20s in your pocket, it's caused job losses in North Dakota. Here in Vermont, the balmy weather that's made it cheaper to turn up the thermostat has taken a big bite out of winter tourism. Meshach Tourigny owns a jewelry store in Rutland, Vt.
MESHACH TOURIGNY: As a business owner in the area, we see lack of snow actually hurting our business because a lot of people rely on those mountains for income, snow plowing for income. So it definitely has a negative effect as well on our business.
KECK: Jennifer Hart, of Wallingford, Vt. says she's not sure what the coming year will bring and admits all the news of terrorism is unsettling. But she calls the lower energy prices a godsend.
JENNIFER HART: Absolutely wonderful. I'm so thrilled. This winter's going to be so much easier with the low prices. And I'm shopping (laughter) - spending money.
KECK: The latest consumer surveys show more Americans are starting to share her optimism, which could mean a stronger economy in 2016. For NPR News, I'm Nina Keck in Chittenden, Vt.