Good deal or no deal. That's how the holiday shopping season went, according to a study.
If Americans didn't find a bargain for that new flat screen, they didn't buy it.
"If you weren't going to get a deal, this wasn't the year to get it," said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst for the personal finance site Bankrate.com:
And when they did find that bargain they were looking for, few shoppers felt flush enough to spend the difference.
More than a quarter of Americans spent less than they had expected in last month's shopping rush, according to Bankrate's study published Tuesday. Just 16 percent splurged and spent more than they had anticipated. "It's a testament to the economic environment," said McBride, "where people don't have the capacity to let loose, and when they do it's in a more measured fashion."
The 28 percent who spent less on holidays is up slightly from last year, when 27 percent failed to spend as much as expected. (Read More: Why Adjustable Rates May Save Us in Housing Busts)
This now-familiar story of halting economic recovery does contain some good news: American consumers by and large are not spending money they don't have. We perhaps have learned our lesson from the debt binge that, in part, brought on the recession. Even much of our recent modest increase in credit-card spending is bolstered by those who are paying off their balances in full each month, or who are spending through rewards programs, according to McBride.
Our more cautious habits, however, seem to be motivated by our general unease about our finances. Though most Americans say their net worth has grown in the past 12 months and 84 percent say they feel as secure or more secure in their job than a year ago, just 13 percent are more comfortable about their how much they have saved, while a third feel less comfortable, according to the study. Only 20 percent feel better about how much they owe.
Bankrate's Financial Security Index, a monthly measure Americans' overall economic outlook, was up this month over December.
If the public senses things are getting better, though, they are not still seeing an improvement in their finances. "Interest rates on savings are low, and wages are not moving," said McBride. "Despite the gains in the stock market, a lot of people are sitting on their sidelines."
(Read More: Good Time to Buy a House, But Wait to Buy a Car)
Few have been encouraged, he added, by the "fiscal cliff" deal on taxes in Washington, which came just days before Bankrate's poll. If the economic picture is further muddled by the politics of raising the debt ceiling, McBride said, the mood could darken.
Not everyone is having equally difficulty, however: In Bankrate's survey, almost 40 percent of those making more than $75,000 a year say they feel better off today than this time in 2012. And younger people, who have had a tough time gaining traction, finally seem to be prospering. A third of younger workers say their jobs are more secure, which may have contributed to their festive gifting: 30 percent of those under 30 in Bankrate's poll overspent their holiday budget.
Even if all of us aren't feeling optimistic, in other words, we can take heart from who is.