Economic indicator: Less cash

Empty wallet

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Let's take a quick look at the economic tally sheet to set the stage: We've got the credit squeeze in the negative column, ditto for the slide in real estate, but so far those two have been balanced out -- barely, it should be said -- by you and me.

Consumers have kept the economy treading water for months now and at first glance, this morning's numbers from the Commerce Department promised more of the same.

If you take lousy car sales out of the equation, retail spending actually increased half a percent in April, but -- and you knew there had to be a but, right? -- there are some signs the big spenders are putting their wallets away.

Wal-Mart said today its sales have started to follow something called the pay cycle -- that is, down as money runs out late in the week before the check comes, up when it's cashed.

Bank of America's seeing another pattern: people paying for basics with their credit cards.

Marketplace's Janet Babin reports now from North Carolina Public Radio on families feeling the pinch.


Janet Babin: Stay-at-home dad Jeff Polish hasn't had to live paycheck to paycheck, but his wife's check seems smaller these days and he's heading back to work.

Jeff Polish: We've been trying to make ends meet and trying to cut back. It's tough; it's not easy.

Babin: What have you been cutting back on?

Polish: I would say the amount that we eat out and the amount that we purchase, although it's hard to say that when we have a newborn coming.

Polish and his wife planned ahead, but the nest egg's getting smaller.

Consumers these days are getting squeezed from all sides. Their homes have lost value, the stock market's volatile and the price of food and gas keeps rising.

Liz Pulliam Weston at MSN Money says it's difficult to cut a budget that's already down to the bone.

Liz Pulliam Weston: Families that have already been getting by on less income, that have already trimmed all the fat, are really in a bind now because there really isn't much more that they can adjust or trim.

Some families may have to rely on relatives or the government for help or try to find more work, but in a faltering economy, that won't be easy. Still, Weston avoids doom and gloom predictions.

Weston: I don't think it's time to draw out the apocalyptic fantasies about the economy going into a hole in which it can't recover.

But she says it's time to start that family emergency fund... if it's not already too late.

In Durham, North Carolina, I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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