Are Americans saving or spending?

Gallup reports on its latest findings: What Americans are doing with their money.

Kai Ryssdal: Retail sales numbers came out this morning. Consumers did indeed spend more last month, but just a hair. It was, in fact, the worst showing for retail sales since 2009 -- back in the dark days of the recession.

The numbers obviously come from retailers -- big chains like Target and Costco. We thought we'd ask about consumers. Frank Newport is the editor-in-chief Gallup. He's here every week to give us a little Attitude Check, some perspective on what Americans really think. Frank, welcome back.

Frank Newport: Good to be with you, Kai.

Ryssdal: So are we, are Americans people who like to spend money? I know that's kind of an amorphous question.

Newport: Well actually, it's a question we ask. We love amorphous questions, what can I say? The question we ask is: Are you the type of person who enjoys spending money more or the type of person who enjoys saving money more? We thought that would be interesting, so we started asking it back in the beginning of the last decade. And when we started out, it was about split. Americans were evenly split with a slight tilt towards the kind of person who likes to save. Along came the recession in 2008, and after that, the percentage who said they enjoy saving zoomed way up -- and we just re-asked it, and it's still significantly higher: 58 percent of Americans say I'm the type of person who enjoys saving, and 39 percent say they're the type who enjoy spending more.

Ryssdal: Yeah, how about this though: Is it that we like to tell people that we're the type of people who like to save? How much of this is wanting to be seen as thrifty in tough economic times?

Newport: Ah, excellent question, and a lot of our indicators, Kai, do indicate that Americans like to think of themselves as savers. They don't like to think of themselves as libertines who enjoy spending. Whether or not that keeps them from buying the new BMW, I don't know.

Ryssdal: That is the puritanical streak in us, right? We like to be seen as doing the responsible thing. Draw the bigger picture now for me, though -- and you've heard this I'm sure on Marketplace and many other places that consumer spending is a huge proportion of the American economy. As we try to get the economy going again and not stuck for the third spring in a row, what inferences can we draw from actual behavior?

Newport: Well we ask Americans every single day -- believe it or not -- how much did you spend yesterday in dollars?

Ryssdal: You ask every day?

Newport: Every single day. We see it spike up in December, we see Americans who spend more on Saturday than they do on Monday. Really fascinating data. And then we average that, and that has inched back up. The last couple of months, it's higher -- it's $73 a day, in that rough range -- now that it has been previously, so that's good news. But in answer to your question, when we first started doing this back in 2008, it was significantly higher. So we don't have Americans' self-reported spending back up to the level that it was in 2008.

Ryssdal: Hence an economy that's plodding along. Frank Newport is the editor-in-chief at Gallup. The partnership that we do with them every week is called Attitude Check. Frank, we'll talk to you in a week.

Newport: OK, looking forward to it.

About the author

Frank Newport, Ph.D., is the editor-in-chief at Gallup and appears regularly on Marketplace.

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