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Consumers pinching their pennies

  • Story Highlights
  • Survey: 64 percent plan to cut indulgent spending
  • Less shopping and turning to lower priced stores
  • Analyst: Consumers searching menus for value
  • Travel and pets are places spending expected to rise
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Jen Haley
CNN
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- New Yorker Evelyn Molina used to spend a lot of money eating out, buying her lunch and going out to dinner with friends about three to four times a week.

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"I just wasn't conscious of it," she says.

But times have changed for the 25-year-old marketing analyst. Now she brings a sandwich to work and she's looking to cut her spending.

"I could be saving more," she says. "Do I need that extra muffin? No. Do I need scrambled eggs? No."

Molina, like many other Americans, is concerned about how fast money is flowing out of her wallet.

Consumers are painfully watching their money drain away as they fill up their car's gas tank. They're handing over more money for the same items at the grocery store. If pink slips haven't appeared on their desk, they may have appeared in their dreams. And who can't help but feel nervous as home prices fall?

"When they turn on the TV or pick up the paper and they read about values of homes declining -- that's the news. But the fact is, people are experiencing it," says Gary Drenik of BIGresearch, a marketing information company.

"They are putting gas in their cars. They're going grocery shopping and they're paying more. They're being hit with all these things that weren't there a year ago," he says.

Consumers are responding by tightening the purse strings. Sixty-four percent of people intend to cut indulgent spending this year according to a new survey by HSBC Bank USA. Another survey by Discover Financial Services confirms that sentiment. This month, half of consumers plan to cut down on non-essential spending like eating out, going to the movies and remodeling, according to the report.

Analysts are a little surprised at some of the ways consumers are changing their spending habits, especially in retail.

"It's a whole new ball game," says Fred Crawford, a managing director at AlixPartners, a global consulting firm. "This year, consumers are saying it's all about price, price and price."

According to the 2008 AlixPartners Consumer Sentiment index, consumers are bargain shopping. If you shopped at Nordstrom and Macy's, you're now shopping at JC Penney or Kohl's. If you were shopping at JC Penney, now you're shopping at Wal-Mart. And those people who were shopping at Wal-Mart, they're at the dollar stores.

Crawford predicts, "You're going to see a lot more Lexuses and BMWs in Wal-Mart parking lots."

Stores can see the trend in their bottom line. JC Penney and Nordstrom had falling sales numbers while Wal-Mart reported strong sales last month.

Jody Derevenko, 30, works in retail. To curb her spending, she has decided to quit Starbucks for a week. "I used to go to Starbucks every day," she says, "but I'm trying to drink coffee at work, even though it's horrible."

Derevenko says for the past three to four weeks she has really been keeping track of her spending. Now she buys bananas instead of breakfast sandwiches. She goes grocery shopping and makes more meals at home. And when she does go out, she splits dinner entrees with friends.

Trimming the eating-out budget is a common consumer step. Casual chain restaurants, like Applebee's, TGI Fridays and Chili's, are really hurting, says Darren Tristano of Technomic, a food industry consulting firm. In 2006, major chain restaurants had sales growth of 6 percent. That's dropped to 4.2 percent in 2007.

Instead, consumers are gravitating toward fast-casual restaurants, like Panera Bread, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Zaxby's.

In a down economy, people look for better value, according to Tristano. In fact, he thinks we'll see more dollar or value menus in the future.

"This is something all chains should consider if they want to stay competitive," he says, adding, "price is king right now."

It would be expected that during tough economic times, beer and spirits would be king. But it just ain't so, according to David Henkes of Technomic. The percentage of people that ordered a drink at a bar or restaurant declined from 63 percent in the fall of 2007 to 44 percent during the holidays.

Henkes says that's pretty dramatic. "That's a season when you would expect to see more people going out and having a drink," he says. "It's a bit of a shock to see that much of a drop."

But for some folks, scaling back on non-essential spending is a good thing.

Angela Jones is a single mother with three kids. She says the end of decadence is a good thing. "We're all more aware of our spending. I've been meaning to make these changes," she says.

She is planning her 5-year-old's birthday party, which she says will take place in a park rather than at a party venue.

But, there are some places where people are still willing to part with their money. Travel spending is forecast to increase a little over 5 percent compared to last year.

"The airlines are saying how well late spring and early summer booking is looking," says Terry Trippler of Trippler Travel, a travel club.

"It's almost as if travel is no longer discretionary spending. Americans are working harder, longer. They may not like their jobs, and they don't get a lot of time off. So when they get a vacation, they're going," he says. "Maybe the new car or the new lawn mower will take a backseat. Maybe people won't eat out as much. But they're going on vacation."

There's another hot spot in the economy -- the four-legged family member. Spending on pets and pet products is expected to increase 6 percent this year to $43.4 billion, according to the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association. Compare this to annual retail sales, which are expected to grow 3.5 percent.

The Fido phenomenon isn't surprising news to some folks out there.

"It seems like the dog always takes preference. I can do without ... but the dog can't," Drenik jokes. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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