Consumer sentiment has remained relatively positive through 2019, even as economic uncertainty and recession risk have increased. Continued strength in consumer spending is largely keeping the decadelong expansion alive.
Consumers’ willingness to spend is determined in large part by how they feel. Marketplace recently spoke with shoppers at an Ikea store in an outdoor mall near Portland International Airport in Portland, Oregon.
Laurie Holten is 50 and lives with her husband in Cowlitz County, Washington.
“We joke that I’m retired,” she said. “I used to be a substitute teacher, but we have grandkids now, so I’m a stay-at-home grandma.”
Holten’s husband works for a steel fabricating company. A couple years ago, the Trump administration’s steel tariffs created problems for the business. But Holten said that “they’ve weathered that well.”
Which means Holten feels like her family is doing well, too. She’s like most consumers: A good economy means, first and foremost, having a good job with reliable income. Still, Holten is cautious. She said that saving for retirement comes before shopping sprees.
“If you spend big, can we manage to pay our house off and make our kids comfortable when we’re gone?”
The financial crisis and recession a decade ago weighs on Holten’s mind, even though no one in her immediate family lost their job or home.
“Do I believe it could happen again?” she asked. “Yes. As I’ve watched the stock market rise and rise and rise, and the housing market. We could get that bubble again.”
Anthony Sezer, 38, was shopping for his 2-year-old son in the children’s furniture section at Ikea. He works at a local metalworking shop; his wife, Ashley, is a stay-at-home mom.
Sezer said the economy “could be treating us better, that’s for sure.”
Sezer makes $18 an hour — “above minimum wage, fortunately, but it’s not an exorbitant amount or anything.” The couple recently bought their first home.
“To the overall economy, we’ve been fortunate, we really appreciate that,” Sezer said. “But we’re just paycheck to paycheck, trying to make ends meet. If something were to happen to me right now, I don’t have any health insurance. A couple of missed mortgage payments, and we could be out on the street with nothing.”
“I do worry about the future a lot,” Sezer continued. “It’s the security thing. With no savings or anything to fall back on, the systems and institutions that we have to help us don’t necessarily help. What is there besides food stamps? We’ve had that before. It’s not that big of a help.”
Patty and Michael Stewart
Patty Stewart, 59, of Petoskey, Michigan, was in the checkout line at Ikea. She was in town visiting her brother, Michael Stewart, 57, an architectural designer in Portland. They were shopping for fixture samples for a home-renovation project.
Patty makes furniture and restores antiques, such as dining room sets.
“My business is absolutely booming, and I’m totally swamped,” she said. “It’s a lost art, and nobody’s doing it. It doesn’t pay well, and it takes high skill, so I’m totally buried till I die.”
Patty said she’s doing fine right now, with enough income and savings to make her feel secure in her personal economic situation.
But when asked how much confidence she has in the national economy and future prosperity, she said: “It may be OK now, but I don’t have a whole lot of faith that it can continue. And that’s really scary.”
Michael said he’s seen business “slowing down compared to what it’s been recently. It feels like the bottom may drop out at any moment.”
Asked how persuasive he finds economic statistics that show the U.S. economy is still growing and consumer confidence remains relatively high, he said: “I guess I’m pretty skeptical about that. I don’t think we’re getting the fair story — the truth — anymore.”
There’s a lot happening in the world. Through it all, Marketplace is here for you.
You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible.
Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.