American consumers are running out of tricks.
As the weak economy has trudged on, they have leaned on credit cards to pay for holiday gifts, many bought at discounts. They are dipping into savings to cover spikes in gas, food and rent. They are substituting domestic vacations for international trips, squeezing more life out of their washing machines and refrigerators and switching to alternatives as meat prices have risen.
That leaves little room for a big increase in spending in 2012, economists say, a shaky foundation for the most important pillar of the American economy.
“The consumer is far from healthy,” said Steve Blitz, senior economist for ITG Investment Research.
Even the seemingly robust holiday shopping season is raising concern. After a strong start on Thanksgiving weekend, a pronounced lull followed, causing retailers to mark down products heavily in the week before Christmas. While final numbers for the season are not in, analysts say they are worried that retailers had to eat into profits to generate high revenues.
Consumer spending makes up 70 percent of the economy, so until it ignites, general growth is likely to be sluggish.
Macroeconomic Advisers, a forecasting company, projects growth of around 2 percent for the first half of this year, down from an estimate of 3.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011 and just 1.8 percent in the third quarter.
For consumers, the reasons for the sluggishness are clear: incomes are essentially flat, job growth is modest, and more than 40 percent of the new jobs in the last two years have been in low-paying sectors like retail and hospitality.
While consumer spending is not “going to collapse,” said Joel Prakken, senior managing director at Macroeconomic Advisers, “there are some headwinds there.”
Sarah Manley, a marketing consultant with two young sons in Waconia, Minn., has developed coping strategies in the last few years. Laid off in 2008, she started a business. She and her husband can make their mortgage payments and are paying off debts from when a storm damaged their roof.
“It’s not necessarily that I’m saving more money, but I’m paying off some of the debts that were amassed during the last three years, just trying to make headway,” Ms. Manley said.
To do that, she has changed habits. She uses the app GasBuddy to check prices at nearby stations before she buys gas for her car. She buys seasonal food on sale and freezes it — for Valentine’s Day, she plans to prepare crab legs she bought and froze last summer — and she is stocking up on holiday hams. She has switched from buying milk in gallon containers to buying it for less in plastic bags from the local gas station.
For big purchases, like the laptop she bought last summer, Manley still relies on credit, but is careful. She opens credit card accounts offering an introductory rate of no interest, then closes them just before the annual percentage rate kicks in.
“Everybody’s learned how to be frugal in the last two or three years,” she said.
Economic indicators suggest that, while things may not get worse for consumers this year, they will not get much better. In the third quarter of 2011, the most recent period for which figures are available, consumer spending rose slightly more than 1 percent, according to the Commerce Department.
Although housing sales have recently shown signs of recovery, prices are still falling and mortgage lenders are cautious. In November, contracts represented by 33 percent of members of the National Association of Realtors did not close, up from just 9 percent a year ago.
And with more than one in every five borrowers still owing more than their homes are worth, many homeowners feel too pressed to spend on much more than the essentials.
The stock market did not help consumers, either. Because of turmoil in the markets in the late summer and early fall, household wealth declined by $2.4 trillion in that period, a contraction likely to make people think twice about big purchases.
Adding to the uncertainty, financial weakness in Europe, and the potential expiration of the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance benefits in two months, could further soften spending.
“I used to say people will always beg, borrow or steal to spend,” said Allen Sinai, chief global economist at Decision Economics, a consulting firm. He has changed his mind. He is forecasting “firmer” spending in 2012, but said the economy would “not grow anywhere near our growth in previous postrecession periods.”
Some signs suggest borrower distress. Credit card delinquencies increased for the first time in almost two years in the third quarter, according to credit bureau TransUnion, though the delinquency rates are still very low. And mortgage delinquencies were about 6 percent at the end of 2011, down a little from a year ago but higher than earlier last year, compared with the prerecession rate of 1.5 to 2 percent.
“That’s a long way to go to get us back to a steady state,” said Steve Chaouki, group vice president for financial services for TransUnion.
Another crucial factor holding back the American consumer is that many people who borrowed heavily during the boom to buy cars or appliances, or take vacations, are still repaying debt and cannot win approval for new loans, so they must find other ways to pay for things.
Though shopping has remained relatively strong, the level of consumer debt in October was at its highest in two years, meaning people are buying on credit rather than with income. And the savings rate in November was 3.5 percent, the lowest since 2007, which suggests shoppers are also buying with savings.
“We don’t think this is sustainable and expect slowing spending growth going forward,” Colin McGranahan, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, wrote in a note to clients that reviewed numbers for November.
In Copley, Ohio, a suburb of Akron, Lynette Paudel, 39, said that some things are looking up: her husband, Govind, received a raise in September when he was recruited to a mechanical engineering job in Akron at a French company.
But she said she was likely to use that extra income to establish a cushion in their savings account and pay off credit card balances. She said it would also ease the strain of sending money to her husband’s family in Nepal each month.
“I know we’re lucky,” said Paudel, a high school English teacher who said neither she nor her husband lost their jobs in the downturn or its aftermath. But, she said, “we’re naturally fairly frugal” and plan to remain that way. She said the family will camp during summer vacation and will not replace her 2003 minivan “until it breaks.”
Even some growth areas in the economy can be explained by tapped-out consumers. Take auto sales, which rose about 10 percent nationwide in 2011 from a year earlier.
“People can only hold onto their cars for so long,” said Romolo Debottis, new-car sales manager at Mike Bass Ford in Sheffield Village, a suburb of Cleveland. He said sales at the dealership should increase this year to 2007 levels, the prerecession peak. “A lot of them have done that above and beyond what they normally would, and they’re just ready to spend money and buy a new vehicle.”