Spending overwhelms saving

Posted: Thursday, March 15, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) -- If future Americans are prepared to rely more on their savings and less on Social Security to support them in retirement, you couldn't prove it by their recent actions.

Amid the greatest prosperity ever, consumers have continued to demonstrate a fondness for spending and a disdain for saving. Good times didn't change habits, and neither did the fear of bad times coming or consumer confidence reports that plunged to some of the lowest levels in several years.

Amid the latest news of mass layoffs, deteriorating manufacturing jobs, and collapses in prices of once high-flying tech stocks, consumers managed to buy cars and homes rather than lift the savings rate above zero, which can be achieved only by spending more than is earned.

Consumer credit rose at an annual rate of 12.6 percent in January, the fastest pace in two months and more than double December's rate. Credit cards were worn thin with use. Cars and vacations were high priority.

The persistent low savings rates and high credit use, some suggested, represented spending to cover needs rather than to sport on luxuries, but other economic statistics and studies cast doubt on that notion.

The jobless rate, for example, remained at 4.2 percent in February, little changed from the record-lows achieved during the strongest months of the great expansion. Payrolls rose by 135,000 jobs in February. And the number working part-time, unable to find a full-time job, failed to rise.

The annual rate of car sales remained near 17 million, just below the record-high rates achieved in 1999 and 2000. And existing home sales, first reported to have fallen, actually rose 3.8 percent in January.

All this has taken place while consumer surveys have indicated people were fearful, insecure and down in the dumps about the future, raising the question of what kind of spending might be expected when the economy recovers.

More than half of Americans families live from paycheck to paycheck, said the Consumer Federation of America.

The typical American household, according to a Federation report, has net financial assets, including retirement savings, of less than $10,000. Many families, it stated, lost wealth in the late 1990s as debts rose.

During this time the necessity of individual savings was highly publicized, especially as the debate over Social Security's future solvency was debated, not just in Congress but in various other forums.

The Federation hopes to change attitudes with an ''America Saves'' campaign, which it said will be targeted at people of low and moderate incomes, many of whom must allocate higher percentages of incomes to paying debts already incurred. And doing so as the economy slows.

The Federation has a big job ahead of it. The evidence of the past decade and right up to the year 2001 suggests that while Americans talk about saving, especially for retirement, their love of spending is greater.

End Adv PMs Tuesday, March 13.

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