This winter's awful weather is already showing up in economic data. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen last week told a Senate panel that the harsh winter has had a chilling effect on consumer spending, which makes up about 70 percent of economic activity.
"A number of data releases have pointed to softer spending, and part of that softness may reflect adverse weather conditions," she said. "It's difficult to discern how much."
The overall impact on the U.S. economy is hard to peg with any accuracy; measuring the growth of a $16 trillion economy is at best a guess under ideal circumstances. But just a one-tenth of a percent drag from missed work, canceled flights or lost retail sales amounts to $4 billion for the three-month winter season.
Still, the chilling effect on the economy has been widely felt. Home sales were hammered—falling to a 19-month low in February—as many would-be buyers stayed put. In turn, car dealers saw foot traffic dry up once the snow started falling.
Bad weather has affected factories, too, according to recent surveys by the Federal Reserve banks in Dallas; Richmond, Va.; and Kansas City, Mo. Nationwide, durable goods orders dropped 1.0 percent in January and were revised lower for December.
Economists note that much of that lost business will likely be made up once the snow melts and better weather arrives, as homebuyers resume their house hunts, and car buyers follow through and replace their aging clunkers.
(Read more: Put down that snow thrower! Home improvement waits for thaw)
Snarled roadways and snowed-in airports accounted for much of the slowdown as those transportation bottlenecks kept workers and consumers from getting where they wanted or needed to be. Each major storm inflicts losses of as much as $300 million-$700 million in lost wages, taxes and retail sales for just a one-day shutdown, according to a study by IHS Global Insight.
Hourly wage earners who can't make it to work are among those hit hardest, accounting for almost two-thirds of direct economic losses, the researchers found. Lost retail sales and income and sales tax revenues roughly double the initial economic impact, they said.
This has been an especially expensive winter for highway departments charged with clearing and maintaining roadways. In some hard-pressed sections of the country, prices for road salt doubled or tripled. Already-stretched state and local budgets were further strained by higher-than-expected overtime for snowplow drivers.
"This is a very unique winter, even talking with some of the old-timers who have been here longer than I have," Houghton County, Mich., highway engineer Kevin Harju, told the Associated Press. "You can get a lot of snow or you can get extremely low temperatures, but not both—except this year."
State and local governments from the Great Plains to the Upper Midwest, from the Deep South to New England, are now scrambling to fill holes blasted in their budgets by one of the fiercest winters in memory. Many spent two or three times as much as they budgeted. Virginia, for example, budgeted $157 million for snow removal; the final bill may be nearly double that amount.
Consumers are taking a hit from a pothole epidemic that is costing drivers an estimated $80 billion in repair costs to fix busted axles and blown tires, according to TRIP, a transportation research and lobbying group.