ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
With the economy in crisis, there is growing evidence that Americans are making some significant lifestyle changes. And it's not just people who've lost a job or people who've lost a house, even families with the resources are choosing not to spend them.
NPR's Debbie Elliott has been out learning how some people are adjusting to the new economy.
Debbie, I should say right now, we're having some technical difficulties. So the recordings of the people you spoke to are not accessible to us right now.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Right.
SIEGEL: But what you heard from them is accessible. What did you find?
ELLIOTT: You know, it's interesting, you know, we all know that people who have been laid off or lost a job or have had their homes foreclosed on, those are the people who have no choice but to save money and who are making some drastic cutbacks in lifestyle changes.
But what I found in just a survey of mostly families; mothers in my circle and circles of friends, I sent out lots of messages on Facebook and on e-mail, trying to find out what people are doing. People maybe who have not lost a job, who are still employed, and what they're doing to cut back. And I found that everybody is cutting back.
And this is something that was reflected in the latest Commerce Department figures, which showed that Americans are saving more money than they have in 14 years. But what's interesting about that is that it's somewhat of a double-edged sword in this economy.
SIEGEL: You mean because saving, of course, means not consuming, not spending. And at some level, Americans are being urged both to save to improve a chronic lack of savings in this country…
SIEGEL: …but also to spend to get the economy moving. I want to know, when you spoke to people about the changes they're making in their lives, first of all, what sorts of things are they cutting back on or not spending on?
ELLIOTT: Well, one of the first things that people will talk to you about is the grocery bill. Lots of coupon clippers, people who normally maybe just went into Whole Foods and would buy whatever was there, not thinking so much about prices, are now going to three or four different grocery stores, only buying what's on sale, using what, you know, the specials are, clipping coupons, maybe passing up on the $7 organic strawberries in this trip.
People are eating in. They're not going out to eat. You know, I visited with a family in Northwest, Washington, D.C., they're not going to go on their spring break trip. They had planned to travel overseas to see family and they're no longer going to do that.
SIEGEL: Which did you find to be more true, I'm curious, Debbie, that people regard this as the way it's going to be from now on? Things have changed. Or this is a tough stretch that we'll have to get through, and we'll have the organic strawberries and the spring break in a couple of years, but just not this year?
ELLIOTT: I think in some ways, both. Just not this year, certainly is the thing. You know, we're postponing this vacation. We're postponing this home improvement project, which makes you think that you're going to be able to do that somewhere down the road.
But, at the same time, there was a conversation going on about a new mindset; that maybe consumerism had gone off the tracks. Maybe they don't want to pass these values on to their children. Maybe there's a new normal that folks need to find.
You know, for so long people weren't saving. They were living off the value of their escalating home prices, the escalating home values. They maybe took equity out of their homes to do some things that they otherwise couldn't afford. Well, now that they're seeing their stock market portfolios plummet, they're seeing their homes values plummet, they don't have that freedom to spend that money and not worry that it's not going to be there.
So I think, you know, it's a sense of it's time for us to build up a cushion, build up a safety net. Hopefully, things are going to get better. But I don't think it's ever going to go back to the point where people were living beyond, or at least for the families that I spoke with. They don't see themselves living beyond their means, like maybe they have in the past.
SIEGEL: Well, thank you, Debbie.
ELLIOTT: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott talking with us about how people are making do. We have to make do without hearing from some of those people because, at the moment, we're experiencing some technical difficulties here at NPR.
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