Last week's report by the Federal Reserve on the country's flow of funds focused on the fact that consumers were poorer in the second quarter of the year than they were in the first. But the report also contained data suggesting consumers are digging out from beneath their mountain of debt.
With an unemployment rate stubbornly hovering between nine and 10 percent, consumers have cut their debt and increased their savings. While that's good for consumers, it's putting stress on the economy.
One of the reasons the economy is slow to recover is consumers aren't using credit like they used to. Borrowing for mortgages fell at a 2.3 percent rate from April through June, while other forms of consumer credit declined at 2.5 percent rate, the Feds report showed.
Household spending is increasing gradually, but remains constrained by high unemployment, modest income growth, lower housing wealth, and tight credit, the Fed noted last month.
While economists tend to worry about consumers' thrifty new habits, at least one group sees it as a positive sign. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a 50-year old organization seeking to match consumers with qualified and honest money advisors, cites its online poll showing that, since the economic crisis hit with full force, 51 percent of respondents to the poll said they had taken steps to reduce their debt.
Recession's silver lining
If there is a silver lining to the recession, it is that it has served to refocus consumers attention on their personal finances, said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the NFCC. When times are good, we tend to put our finances on auto-pilot. The recent financial wake-up call has been harsh, but may have been the splash of cold reality many Americans needed to regain control of their finances.
Cunningham says consumers have apparently become uncomfortable carrying debt, realizing how detrimental it can be to their overall financial well-being, and have gotten serious about doing what it takes to pay it off.
Reducing debt was by far the most frequent response to the August poll, when queried on how consumers used the economic crisis to improve their financial situation, followed by 20 percent saying that the crisis has inspired them to begin tracking their spending and develop a budget.
March survey less encouraging
The NFCCs 2010 Financial Literacy Survey (FLS) conducted in March, showed that only 37 percent of Americans have somewhat of a good idea about how much they spend or keep close track of their spending, thus having 20 percent make this positive adjustment to their financial behavior is indeed a step in the right direction.
Ten percent of those responding indicated that the crisis caused them to review their credit report.
In spite of the report being free, the NFCCs FLS found that only 34 percent of Americans had ordered their report in the past 12 months. Cunningham said reviewing the credit report is a critical component of good financial habits.
Overall, the results of the poll are encouraging, Cunningham said. Theres still plenty of room for improvement, but Americans appear to be taking positive steps toward financial stability. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen if these changes will be embraced once the economy recovers, or if consumers will have short memories and revert back to financially destructive behavior.