You aren't spending enough to boost economy

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Retail sales rebounded in March ... but the increase wasn't as big as economists were expecting.

Consumer spending finally rebounded in March after three straight months of declining retail sales.

But don't get too excited just yet. The increase was not as strong as many economists had hoped for ... another sign that many average Americans may still not be convinced the economic recovery is for real.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported Tuesday that overall retail sales were up 0.9% from February. Analysts were expecting a 1% jump.

That might not sound like a big miss. But dig deeper and you'll see more evidence that consumers may be wary.

If you exclude the 2.7% jump in sales for motor vehicle and auto parts dealers from the overall number, retail sales were up just 0.4%

Related: Atlanta Fed is predicting no economic growth for the first quarter

Sales at grocery stores, electronics and appliance retailers and gas stations were down as well in March.

The drop in gas station sales is a bit of a surprise given that oil prices started to stabilize last month.

Americans pocket extra gas money
Americans pocket extra gas money

Some economists have cited lower gas prices as one reason that retail sales fell earlier this year. Because gas cost a lot less, that reduced the dollar amount of gasoline purchases.

But super-cheap energy prices should no longer be depressing the value of gas station sales. What's more, consumers still don't appear to be taking the money they're saving at the pump and spending it elsewhere.

"The belief that the savings from lower gasoline prices were going to be spent on everything else at the local store is not coming to fruition," wrote Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst with The Lindsey Group.

Cold weather is a convenient excuse for soft retail sales. It's also getting harder and harder to dismiss the weakness in retail sales as weather-related.

Sure, it was still pretty cold in March -- especially in the densely populated Northeast.

But that didn't stop consumers from buying more cars, going to Home Depot (HD)and Lowe' s (LOW)and heading to restaurants and bars.

GM, (GM) Ford (F), Fiat Chrysler (FCAM) and Toyota (TM) appear to be benefiting from the drop in energy prices. Consumers are more willing to buy SUVs and trucks when gas is cheap. That is good news.

There were other pockets of strength in the report too. A solid increase in building materials bodes well for the housing market.

Consumers are also eating out more, which may help explain the decline in supermarket sales.

Related: Cheap gas is saving Americans $750 ... and they're not spending it

The amount of money spent at what the Census Bureau dubs "food services and drinking places" was higher than what consumers spent at grocery stores.

That's the first time that's ever happened according to Mark Perry, a scholar at The American Enterprise Institute and professor of finance and economics at the University of Michigan-Flint.

It's noteworthy that consumers are willing to indulge a little bit by going out to eat ... but it also suggests that the cold weather is being used too often as an excuse for weak overall spending.

Wouldn't people be more likely to stay home if the frigid temperatures were really that bad?

Related: IMF says U.S. on track for best economic year since 2005 -- despite weak first quarter

GDP growth in first quarter should be sluggish. So what does this all mean for the economy?

Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist for Capital Economics, wrote in a report Tuesday morning that gross domestic product for the first quarter may be just 1.5%. Economists at Barclays are forecasting growth of only 1.2%.

That is, to put it mildly, a subpar level of growth. The economy would need to pick up some serious steam later this year for GDP to wind up growing by 3% annually as many economists are predicting.

Fortunately, Ashworth thinks that consumer spending in the second quarter should be a lot stronger.

Others aren't so sure. Consumers appear to be more frugal these days. The personal savings rate is at its highest level since December 2012.

And even though wage growth has been sluggish, the gains in personal income have outpaced spending.

Related: The speed and size of Fed rate hikes matter more than the month of the first increase

Interestingly, Boockvar said the Federal Reserve may be one of the main culprits. He wondered if the Fed was actually hurting consumer spending by keeping rates near zero for so long.

"Maybe an extended period of zero rates has encouraged people to spend less knowing they need to save more?" he wrote. "Would higher interest rates actually encourage greater spending because the billions of interest income that would be put into consumer pockets?"

It's a fair question to ask. Anyone that has been saving money for the past six years has been penalized. You've earned bupkis by putting money in the bank.

But that could soon change if the Fed finally begins to raise rates later this year.

-- CNNMoney's Matt Egan and Logan Whiteside contributed to this report

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