That meant thinking deliberately about what I had to do that day and structuring my schedule so that meetings and errands took place in the same part of town and that I did as much as I could in as short a time as possible and in as compact an area as possible. If it was not something I absolutely had to do that very day, I did not do it.
I think millions of Americans are thinking exactly the same way.
The last time gasoline was hard to come by and dear as well was in the 1970s, and I was a single working person living in Raleigh with a very modest paycheck.
My friends and I ate lots of spaghetti and canned tuna, but we got by. Life went on, of course, and hard times eased. Most of us eventually slipped into laxer habits, with vehicles morphing over time into the seemingly steroid-enhanced SUVs we drive today. Times were good in the 1980s and 1990s, and we took to drinking expensive cups of coffee cuddled in fancy insulators that would have shocked my parents who were perfectly satisfied with the grocery store brand in a kitchen mug. Magazines told us all about designer everything, and even though most of us could not afford such luxuries, we looked anyway and perhaps wished we could or we bought knock-offs manufactured in foreign countries under who-knows-what conditions. Vacations to far-flung corners of the earth became reality for some middle class Americans. The notion of saving for a rainy day slid to the back burner for many of us.
This time may be different. This may be, as economists say, a true “correction.”
Analysts say we Americans may be learning a real lesson in personal economics, not unlike the one our parents and grandparents learned during the Great Depression. Many Americans have watched with growing dismay and feelings of helplessness as our expenses have risen relentlessly and our resources, such as the values of our homes, have shrunk.
Here are a few statistics to illustrate how we are reacting to what is happening:
Nielsen, a market research firm, reported earlier this month that almost two-thirds of us are cutting spending because of rising prices of gasoline, dairy products and other consumable goods we use often. That is an 18 percent increase from one year ago. Almost 80 percent of us are doing exactly what I find myself doing — organizing our daily schedules to be economical and efficient, and more than half of us are eating out less frequently. The International Council of Shopping Centers reports that sales at various discount operations and wholesalers are rising while sales at traditional retailers are dropping. Likewise, grocery stores report that sales of their house brands are up by more than 9 percent, and sales of branded products have risen by less than half that percentage.
Vehicle sales tell a similar story.
Large trucks and SUVs are being heavily discounted, with sales remaining grim. Toyota plans to shut down production of such large gas guzzlers. What vehicle sales that are taking place revolve around smaller, more economical models, and once again there are waiting lists for hybrids.
The National Bicycle Dealers’ Association reports increased sales, though not of recreational bikes. They are selling traditional utility bikes and offering refresher training for folks who may not have ridden a bike in years.
The question in everyone’s mind now is how long these changes in American buying habits are going to last. Are we Americans merely reacting to a challenging economy or are we truly changing our habits as consumers?
Whether we all continue shopping at wholesalers and discounters and foregoing our cherished lattes is an open question, but my own take is that the changes associated with petroleum products and all they go into are permanent.
I do not expect in my lifetime to see gasoline prices come back to where they were at the beginning of this decade, and even if by some miracle they do, we now understand that we must conserve our oil resources. Never again can we take any energy resource for granted — they are commodities, finite and precious ones. The American age of consumable and disposable everything ended in 2008.
Analysts may debate the lessons of the current American economy for years, but one does stand out to me. We are learning that the great economic forces which surround us and which buffet the world from time to time are out of our individual control. What is within our control, however, is how we react to them. If what we are learning is to economize, conserve and save within our own little spheres, then we may well be returning to traditional American virtues of thrift, saving and planning for whatever lies ahead.
That, to me, is not a bad lesson for us and for our children.