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Release Date: 01/15/2013

CR Index: Middle-Income Americans Remain Cautious Spenders, While Facing Lackluster Employment Outlook

YONKERS, NY — The Consumer Reports Index, an overall measure of Americans’ personal financial health, reports that middle-income Americans pulled back on spending this past holiday season.

Modest gains in consumer spending, however, were posted among both the upper-income and lower-income households. Overall, the Consumer Reports Index’s past 30-day retail measure, reflecting December activity, was down 0.6 points, but statistically flat from a year ago.

Among larger retail purchases made in the past 30 days, used cars purchases were up, while new cars purchases softened and homes were unchanged from the previous month. 

The Consumer Reports Index employment measure declined for a second month, falling to 48.8 from 49.7 a month earlier and is now at its lowest level since March 2010. Job losses are outpacing new job starts. Job starts in the past 30 days fell to 3.4 percent from 5.4 percent a month earlier, while job losses remained elevated and unchanged from last month at 5.8 percent.

The Consumer Reports Index’s trouble tracker measure, which looks at the financial difficulties Americans face, was stable overall, but improved dramatically for those wealthier Americans earning $100,000 or more (dropping to 19.6 from 33.2 a month earlier). Financial troubles were on the rise for lower-income Americans earning under $50,000, climbing to 65.8 from 59.6 the prior month.

The most prevalent consumer troubles overall included: the inability to afford medical bills or medications (12.7%), lost or reduced health-care coverage (8.2%), and missed payments on a major bill – not mortgage (6.6%).

“These indicators make a poor case for anyone claiming a majority of Americans are ready to reengage in the economy,” said Ed Farrell, director of consumer insight at the Consumer Reports National Research Center. “This month, middle-income families will be confronted by a pay check that is lower than last month, and for some lower than last year, due to expiration of the payroll tax cut. If they are already not interested in spending, having less money to spend isn’t going to help.” 

Despite the personal financial headwinds, the Consumer Reports Index’s sentiment measure edged up slightly from last month, with modest gains across all income groups. Sentiment stands at 51.2, up 1.3 points from last month. The level of stress that consumers feel was down, to 54.4 from 59.1 the previous month. 

The Consumer Reports Index report, available at www.ConsumerReports.org, comprises responses directly from consumers on five key measures: the Sentiment Index, the Trouble Tracker Index, the Stress Index, the Retail Index and the Employment Index.

The Consumer Reports Index, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, is a monthly telephone and cell phone poll of a nationally representative probability sample of American adults. A total of 1,002 interviews were completed (652 telephone and 350 cell phone) among adults aged 18+. Interviewing took place between January 3 and 6. The margin of error is +/- 3.2 percentage points at a 95% confidence level. The complete index report, methodology and tabular information are available. Contact: C. Matt Fields, 914-378-2454, CFields@consumer.org

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