Keeping up with the Joneses now means one-upping a neighbor with bargains you got at the consignment shop and bragging "my coupon is better than yours."
But will it stick? Will our frugal ways remain after the Great Recession fades? Or will a pent-up wave of consumer spending eventually break through the dam of restraint and flood shopping malls like a Black Friday crowd on steroids? More important, if we're worried about financial backsliding when good economic times return, what can we do now to make sure we stay on track?
Recent reports suggest we have good intentions to maintain our fiscally responsible ways.
About half of Americans report they either avoid shopping altogether or shop only for those things that are absolutely needed, according to a survey sponsored by Citi. And 72 percent of Americans say they have cut back on everyday expenses."Only time will tell, but my hunch is we're entering a new era of frugality," said Jonathan Clements, director of financial education with Citi Personal Wealth Management. "We are 15 months into the economic recovery ... and yet consumers are telling us that they are continuing to cut back on their spending.
"This recession will be like the Great Depression was to our grandparents."
In addition, 80 percent of people claim to have at least a general plan for income and expenses, up from 47 percent in 2006, according to a survey by Synovate commissioned by personal finance author Matt Bell.
"Budgets have always been the Rodney Dangerfield of personal finance tools," said Bell, who writes the MattAboutMoney.com blog. "But just as we've seen the recession bring about other changes in people's financial behavior, such as more frugality, the lowly budget finally seems to be getting some respect."
But Bell said he knows from working with financially distressed people that a "general" budget plan can mean simply balancing a checkbook or having a rough notion of what a consumer is spending on things. "My fear is that if and when the economy improves, those general plans will become even more general," he said.
Since consumer debt peaked in 2008, Americans have chopped $922 million from their debt, or 7.4 percent, according to the Federal Reserve. Americans are reducing debt at a pace unseen in at least a decade, according to a recent Fed report, "Have Consumers Become More Frugal?" Unclear, say researchers, is whether that new frugality stems from borrowers being forced to pay down debt as credit standards tighten, or whether it's a voluntary -- and permanent -- shift in behavior.
Farnoosh Torabi, author of the new book "Psych Yourself Rich," said she thinks the most recent recession, though technically over, affected people more than the tech bubble of 2001 and other minor economic recessions because its effects have persisted for so long. Young people, especially, are likely to benefit.
"They got to see early on in their lives how overspending can derail you and divert you from your goals," she said. And they saw it from a variety of directions, whether parents getting laid off or graduating school to enter a lousy job market, she said. "They had a 360-degree wake-up call about how money is the foundation of your livelihood. That's a valuable lesson for this stage of life."
The trick is moving from the descriptive to the prescriptive: "How do we make these frugal behaviors last?"
** Change your words (and attitude): Instead of viewing your newfound financial responsibility as a temporary exercise in deprivation, view it as a lifestyle and make peace with it. Author Jeff Yeager, dubbed the Ultimate Cheapskate, calls it slaying your Enoughasaurus, knowing when you have enough and being content with it.
"I would ditch the word 'frugal,' " Bell said. "It sounds like someone who obsesses over saving a nickel on every can of tuna they buy. In my workshops, I never talk about being frugal. I talk about spending smart."
** Have goals: The easiest way to say no to the tempting purchase in front of you is to have a specific reason to reject it.
"You need a reason for doing whatever it takes to spend smart, a goal that motivates you," Bell said. "Getting out of debt. Taking a great vacation. Whatever you're trying to achieve financially." In your head, the monologue sounds like, "I'll pass on buying this sweater because I really want to go to the Bahamas in February."
** Track your progress: "Monitor your decreasing debt or your increasing vacation fund," Bell said. "When you see that spending smart is getting you closer to the accomplishment of your goal, that'll motivate you to keep going."
** Make savings automatic: The easiest way to save is to do nothing. Put your savings on autopilot with automatic paycheck contributions to a retirement plan or direct debits from checking to savings. "If people are saving diligently now and want to keep it up, harness the power of inertia and make it automatic," said Clements, a former financial columnist and author of four personal finance books.
** Make a windfall rule: Most people periodically receive sudden inflows of cash, whether a tax refund, a year-end bonus, an insurance reimbursement or a gift. Make a rule that all windfalls are used for paying off high-interest debt or for savings, Clements said. That way, you improve your finances without affecting your daily lifestyle. A less-rigorous rule would be to blow 10 percent of the money on something fun so you don't feel deprived.
"People have been shocked into better financial behavior," Clements said. "The trick is to make sure they stick with it."