Making a good living, but still feeling strapped

Consumers are feeling worse about their personal finances and prospects - far worse than government statistics about the economy would indicate.

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By Tami Luhby, CNNMoney.com senior writer

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The Burris family consider themselves middle class, yet are feeling pinched by high food and fuel costs.
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Newlyweds Chris and Jody Akerman find their paychecks don't go as far as they used to.
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Americans deep in debt are struggling more than ever amid the credit crisis and economic downturn. See how people got in the hole and what they're doing to get out.
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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Only a few years ago, Americans who considered themselves middle class were scrimping to pay for their kids' college education.

Now, many of them are struggling to cover far more basic needs - gas and groceries.

Take Stacy and Chuck Burris. The Pittsburgh, Pa., couple view themselves as solidly middle class. In recent months, however, they've felt anything but.

Burdened by high cost of food and fuel, they are having trouble balancing their budget even though Chuck Burris earns a "comfortable salary" as a software engineer. The parents of five children, three of whom are grown, have essentially stopped eating out and entertaining and are considering canceling the annual family vacation to Maine. They keep to a Spartan shopping list and have planted a larger garden. Instead of buying their 12-year-old daughter summer clothes, they are turning her pants into shorts by cutting off the legs and getting hand-me-downs from family.

Never before in previous recessions have they had to cut back like this.

"We are struggling to stay in the same place," said Stacy Burris, 47. "You don't mind pinching pennies to send your kids to college. You do mind pinching pennies when it's simply to buy some eggs."

Many others nationwide are feeling similarly strapped. Recent consumer sentiment studies and polls show that Americans feel worse about their financial situations and the economy than they have in decades, even as economists debate just where things stands. And people don't expect things to improve anytime soon.

"Consumers are very financially stressed, more than what's indicated by the job and income statistics," said Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics at Moody's Economy.com.

Personal finances worsening

High fuel and food costs, coupled with miniscule raises and shrinking home values, led more people to report that their personal finances have worsened than at any time since 1982, according to a recent consumer survey by Reuters and the University of Michigan.

The future looks grim to them, too. Just one in five households surveyed expect their finances to improve during the next year, the least favorable in half a century. Three-quarters of those surveyed said they expected the nation's economic troubles to continue over the next year, the highest level since 1980. They predict the unemployment rate will jump by one percentage point to 6.0% by year end.

A survey from the Conference Board released Tuesday found that only 13.4% of respondents said they expect their incomes to rise in the next six months, the lowest level since the study began 41 years ago. Their inflation expectation has hit an all-time high.

Consumers' perceptions matter. Their dour view is prompting many to rein in spending and avoid incurring additional debt, with the fewest people planning to buy furniture, appliances and home electronics since the early 1980s, the Michigan survey found. The percent planning to take a vacation in the next six months also hit a record low, according to another recent Conference Board report.

"Consumers are the ones in trouble here," said Paul Ashworth, senior U.S. economist with consulting firm Capital Economics.

Looking at government statistics, however, things don't look that dire, which is one reason why economists are dickering over whether the country is in a recession. Unemployment is at a relatively low 5% and inflation is running at a modest 3.9%. The economy expanded at an estimated 0.6% in the first quarter, weak but still in growth territory.

Most experts are predicting more bad times ahead, but there's still no consensus on whether the economy is facing recession. Federal Reserve officials lowered their expectations for growth, but still kept it in positive territory, according to minutes released last week from a recent board meeting. Moreover, many economists say that if there is a recession, it will be mild and short.

Consumers, on the other hand, don't feel that way. Many are being pummeled by plummeting home values, a weak stock market and soaring grocery and gas costs.

Feeling the pain at all income levels

Hoyt of Economy.com argues that every income strata is feeling it. The wealthy are hurting from the roiling stock market, the middle class from falling home prices and working folks from rising prices.

Food prices, for instance, climbed 5.1% over the past 12 months and April's 0.9% rise was the largest in 18 years, according to the Consumer Price Index. Gas, meanwhile, hit its highest recorded price of $3.937 on Monday, up nearly 21% from a year ago and 9.7% over the past month, according to AAA.

Meanwhile, Americans aren't feeling flush. Home values have plummeted more than 14% in the past year, according to the S&P Case/Shiller Home Price Index, which tracks 20 of the largest markets. That's the sharpest rate in two decades. And wages are basically stagnant, rising only 0.6% between the first quarter of 2000 and the same period this year on an inflation-adjusted basis. Wages have actually fallen behind inflation for the past seven months, according to Jared Bernstein, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal leaning think tank.

"Folks are having considerable difficulty making their personal family budgets given their pay and prices," said Bernstein, who recently wrote Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed? "The prices they face most commonly in day-to-day life are rising faster than both inflation and their paychecks."

Their investment portfolios aren't doing well, either. The Standard & Poor's 500 index is down nearly 9% over the past year. And the value of Americans' stock and mutual fund holdings fell by $186 billion in the first quarter, the first drop since 2003's bear market.

All this financial stress comes at a time when most Americans have the thinnest savings cushion to fall back on. They have been loading up on debt in recent years, drawing on the equity in their homes, in particular. The percentage of their disposable income that goes toward debt payments is at 14.3%, near the all-time high.

"Consumers need to get their financial house in order," Hoyt said.

Uncertainty hard to deal with

Weighing even more heavily on consumers is uncertainty about where the economy is headed, said Ken Goldstein, economist with The Conference Board. It's unusual to have such slow growth for so many months and Americans don't know how to respond.

"What's really pushing consumers into a funk is the fear of what's coming next," Goldstein said. "You can't be sure you know exactly where we are or where we're going. Consumers are afraid that the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train."

That's exactly how Chris Akerman feels. He said that he and his wife, who live just outside Seattle, find that their paychecks no longer cover their rent, student loans and daily living expenses. That is forcing the young couple to turn to their credit cards to make ends meet.

They've already cut out much of their entertainment and trips to visit her family and friends 30 miles away. If gas and grocery prices continue to rise, Akerman, who works for an importer, said he'll have to stop contributing to his 401(k) plan. He doesn't see many other options.

"The worst part is looking to the future," said Akerman, 25. "What if everything keeps getting worse. That's the scariest part. Is my grocery bill going to double again? What will we do?" To top of page

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