The U.S. Consumer Is Starting to Freak Out
The flush savings accounts and cheap credit that helped keep Americans spending at high rates since 2020 are disappearing
The flush savings accounts and cheap credit that helped keep Americans spending at high rates since 2020 are disappearing
The engine of the U.S. economy—consumer spending—is starting to sputter.
Retail purchases have fallen in three of the past four months. Spending on services, including rent, haircuts and the bulk of bills, was flat in December, after adjusting for inflation, the worst monthly reading in nearly a year. Sales of existing homes in the U.S. fell last year to their lowest level since 2014 as mortgage rates rose. The auto industry posted its worst sales year in more than a decade.
It’s a stark turnaround from the second half of 2020, when Americans lifted the economy out of a pandemic downturn, helping the U.S. avoid what many economists worried would be a prolonged slump. Consumers snapped up exercise bikes, televisions and laptop computers for schoolchildren during lockdowns. When restrictions were lifted, they rushed back to their favourite restaurants and travel destinations.
And they kept spending, helped by government stimulus, flush savings accounts and cheap credit, even as inflation picked up. Faced with four-decade-high inflation last year, Americans outspent it. Through most of 2022, consumer spending growth exceeded price increases by about 2 percentage points.
Now the forces that helped keep spending high are unwinding, while inflation remains elevated. The share of monthly income Americans set aside for savings was 3.4% in December, down from 7.5% a year earlier and from a record high in April 2020. Credit-card interest rates have been rising, and Federal Reserve officials have signalled that they plan an additional quarter-percentage point increase to the central bank’s benchmark rate this week. That would bring the rate to between 4.5% and 4.75%, from near zero at the start of last year.
Annual inflation, as measured by the consumer-price index, remained above 5% in December for the 19th straight month, the longest such streak since the early 1980s.
Consumer spending accounts for roughly 70% of the economy. A downshifting consumer is a key reason that business and academic economists polled by The Wall Street Journal, on average, put the probability of a recession in the next 12 months at 61%. However, many economists say, the U.S. might avoid a recession entirely if spending patterns stabilise.
One factor making forecasting more difficult: While unemployment is trending at a half-century low, big companies including Amazon.com Inc., Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and Microsoft Corp. have begun to cut jobs.
“The last bastion of strength is the labor market, but I don’t think it can withstand all these other forces,” said Nationwide Chief Economist Kathy Bostjancic.
Recent layoff trends worry Benjamin DeLong, a 32-year-old customer-account manager at an industrial manufacturer in southern Minnesota. His savings rose to $3,700 during the pandemic, thanks in part to government stimulus. He is now down to about 3 cents.
Mr. DeLong said he had to dip into his savings to cover the rising costs of his groceries, utilities and car insurance. He has found some relief in his grocery bills since he and his partner decided last year to purchase some pigs, jointly with other families, to be raised on a relative’s farm. Their portion of meat yielded nearly 150 pounds, saving them about $500 on groceries, Mr. DeLong estimated.
The possibility of layoffs, he said, is “part of the crunch that I’m having to consider now. What’s going to happen if I no longer have an income?”
So far, jobs have remained plentiful and wages continued to rise in the face of Federal Reserve tightening. Unemployment was a low 3.5% in December. Hourly wages were up a robust 4.6% year-over-year. There were about 10.5 million unfilled jobs available in November, according to the Labor Department, a sign that demand for labor remained strong.
“Households had a ton of comfort they don’t normally have about their job prospects,” said Marianne Wanamaker, an economist at the University of Tennessee. “They knew they could get a job tomorrow if they wanted to, and that remains mostly true.”
Still, there are signs of labor-market weakness. Employers are shedding temporary workers at a fast rate, and people who lose their jobs are taking longer to find new ones. Meanwhile, the number of hours worked a week has declined for two straight months, according to the Labor Department, resulting in a slowdown in workers’ take-home pay.
Mikhail Andersson, owner of First Class Tattoo in New York City, has seen signs of weakening demand. After it was cleared to reopen from lockdowns in the summer of 2020, his business was slammed by customers flush with unemployment insurance payments and stimulus checks.
In mid-November of last year, Mr. Andersson started getting calls from clients who had booked daylong tattoo sessions, saying they could only afford shorter ones or pulling out altogether. Mr. Andersson, who specializes in tattoo projects that often take five or six all-day sessions to complete, had 15 cancellations for full-day slots in December.
“In my 15 years doing this, I’ve never seen that—people calling up and saying they don’t have the money to spend right now or can only afford an hour because their current situation is pretty bad,” he said.
For now, First Class Tattoo isn’t likely to slash prices because the baseline level of demand remains strong. Some 250 clients are still on the wait list.
Also weighing on many consumers: The rapid increase in rates in the past year, tied to Fed tightening, has pushed the cost of all types of debt higher.
Mortgage rates reached a 20-year high last fall. Some 57% of consumers were concerned about making housing payments in the fourth quarter, according to a survey by Freddie Mac, up from 48% in the third quarter.
The increases are gradually starting to slow down consumer spending, though it might take a while before the effect is fully realised.
“We’re probably going to have higher interest rates around for quite a while. You would think eventually that would dampen consumption, although that we haven’t had the full effect yet,” said Harvard University economist Kenneth Rogoff.
Credit-card balances were up 15% on the year in the third quarter, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the largest increase in more than two decades.
Additionally, tens of millions of Americans are set to start or resume making payments on student loans later this year, after the Supreme Court rules on President Biden’s student-debt cancellation plan. Payments have been frozen since March 2020, and are scheduled to begin again 60 days after litigation is resolved or the program is implemented.
Many taxpayers will get smaller refunds when they file their returns in the coming months because Congress didn’t extend the breaks put in place at the height of the pandemic.
Most Americans who lose their jobs can expect unemployment payments for six months or less, at a fraction of their former paychecks, the same as before pandemic programs kicked in. Pandemic programs allowed Americans to receive unemployment payments for as long as 18 months, and in some cases paid workers more than their paychecks.
The previously generous jobless benefits and direct federal payments to households caused the share of income Americans save every month to hit new highs in 2020. Since then, the saving rate has fallen to roughly 3% of monthly income, from more than 30% at the start of lockdowns. In 2019, the year before the pandemic, the rate was 8.8%.
The large stock-market declines over the past year also alarmed consumers, including Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Sara Laor, who is 57 years old. Ms. Laor said the declines depleted the holdings in her 401(k) and IRA accounts by nearly 40%.
Over the past year, her family has had to dip into their savings to pay for essential car and plumbing repairs. They are putting off other expenses, like buying a new car, and have given up ordering in meals.
She’s trying to spend more cautiously, shunning recipes involving pricey eggs and buying more canned food.
“Everything I do just feels like I’m a lot poorer: Can I do this or can I do that?” she said.
U.S. factories, shippers and importers are pulling back, a sign they anticipate less demand from Americans in the months ahead.
Inbound volumes at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in California were down 20.1% in December from a year earlier, and have been behind 2019 levels since August. A little over a year ago, backlogs at ports were drawing President Biden’s attention.
Nicholas Hobbs, chief operating officer of J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc., which manages truck and rail shipments, said the company has seen demand fall off for big and bulky products, including appliances, furniture and exercise equipment—although off-price retailers with discounted inventory are shipping more.
Jazzlyn Millberry, 33, has been looking for big ways to make cuts. One day last fall, her banking app informed her that the cost of one month’s groceries and household goods for her family of four had risen to $900, from about $600 or $700.
“I find myself now going to three or four different grocery stores just to get the best deals on things to save on costs,” said Ms. Millberry, a health-insurance claims analyst in Pickerington, Ohio.
On one recent outing, she stopped at Kroger for eggs and meat, Aldi for produce, Sam’s Club for her children’s snacks, and Target for toilet paper.
Even as she has cut back on groceries, restaurants, hairstyling and facials, her credit-card balances have grown in the past several months. She said she started making only the minimum required payment on her credit cards.
—Gwynn Guilford and Paul Page contributed to this article.
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Many people are spending more than they think as inflation stays elevated
Many people have a gap between what they think they spend and what they actually spend. This gap has widened recently as the financial and psychological effects of higher prices further strain people’s budgets.
Elevated inflation has rippled through American’s wallets for more than a year now. Some have cut back, while others have increased their spending to keep up. Credit-card balances were staying relatively flat for a while, but have jumped higher recently.
In the fourth quarter of 2022, the average household’s credit-card balance was $9,990, up 9% from in the fourth quarter of 2021, according to WalletHub, a consumer-finance website. Meanwhile, the average credit-card interest rate rose to a record high of about 20% last week, according to Bankrate.
Financial advisers say the larger amount of credit-card debt while rates are higher is one indication that some Americans are spending more than they think they are. This type of spending can reduce people’s ability to pay for important items down the road, such as college for a child or even fund their own retirement. More immediately, it will put people in costlier debt.
“If people spend too much on credit, they could end up trapped in a cycle of debt,” said Courtney Alev, consumer financial advocate at Credit Karma.
Spending less isn’t always possible when everything from groceries to travel is generally more expensive. Still, people can find ways to cut back if they understand more about why they are overspending and take a closer look at their finances.
The power of compounding is a boon to investors, but not to shoppers.
Money grows much faster than most people expect because interest is earned on interest, said Michael Liersch, head of Wells Fargo & Co.’s advice and planning centre. A similar concept applies to inflation: Prices rise, and if inflation remains high, prices continue to grow on top of already-inflated prices, leaving people off guard.
“People get constantly surprised that their money isn’t going as far as they thought it would,” he said.
The cost of eating out and going for drinks continues to take Dina Lyon aback. Even though the 36-year-old married mother of one is dining out and ordering in far less than she did a year ago, some prices still give her sticker shock.
“The difference between cooking at home—about $10 for nice pasta and quick sauce from canned tomatoes—versus Italian takeout of $50 is astronomical,” said Ms. Lyon, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
People tend to underestimate their future spending in large part because they base their predictions on typical expenses that come to mind easily, said Abigail Sussman, a professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
She and other researchers found that when people are coming up with predictions, they tend to think about what they usually spend money on—such as groceries, rent and gas—and base their predictions primarily on these expenses. They are less likely to consider atypical expenses, such as car repairs or birthday presents, the researchers found.
This pattern is particularly problematic when inflation is high, said Prof. Sussman. When the price of the same basket of items rises, people might not account for these price increases in their future budgets, she said.
Further, times of stress cause people to be less intentional about tracking their money, said Mr. Liersch. They might also spend more than they know they can afford to soothe feelings including anxiety and depression.
According to a recent survey by Credit Karma, 39% of Americans identify as emotional spenders (defined by the study as someone who spends money to cope with emotional highs and lows.)
You have a better chance of staying under budget if you become more aware of your spending instead of sticking your head in the sand, financial advisers said.
One thing Adam Alter, a professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, does is create a line item in his monthly budget for one-off expenses, such as an unexpected medical bill. This gives him a cushion in his budget and enables him to more fully examine how much he is spending each month, said Prof. Alter, who has studied overspending.
People might also wish to include an escalating buffer into their budgets of say, 2% to 5% a year, to account for inflation, he said.
Jay Zigmont, a financial planner in Water Valley, Miss., looks at clients’ total take-home income from the year, subtracts everything they must spend money on such as their mortgage and how much they saved. The remaining number is how much they spent on discretionary spending.
In most cases, clients are surprised they spent so much, he said.
Once people know how much they spend, Britta Koepf, a financial planner in Independence, Ohio, suggests they practice mindful spending. Before any purchase, ask yourself if you really want or need what you are buying. Frequently, the answer is yes, but sometimes waiting five seconds will prevent you from overspending, she said.
You can also practice mindfulness by delaying purchases further.
“A lot of the time, if I tell myself that I will purchase it next week, I find that I am no longer interested a week later,” she said.
An influx of people could calm future volatility.
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