COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | GEORGE CHAMBERLIN

Consumers optimistic, but are spending habits altered for good?

A new survey of California consumers finds that they are optimistic about the future of the state and their own personal finances, despite all of the economic problems facing the Golden State.

The Citi California Pulse survey doesn't try to ignore the situation, in fact, 93 percent of Californians believe the state's economy is either poor or fair. Yet, 62 percent believe that conditions in California will be much or somewhat better in the next 12 months.

And while 89 percent of the people looking for work feel things are difficult now, 58 percent anticipate the job market will improve in the next year.

"In a state that is constantly reinventing itself, Californians are already looking toward a bright future," said Rebecca Macieira-Kaufmann, president of Citibank California.

While people here may be optimistic about the future, they aren't in a big hurry to make major purchases. The survey found that 62 percent say a year from now will be a better time to buy big-ticket items, such as furniture or automobiles.

Macieira-Kaufmann also acknowledged that the recession "appears to have triggered long-lasting changes in consumer behavior."

The Citi survey found that 58 percent of Californians have reduced the amount of money they owe and 63 percent are saving and investing more.

"We may now be at a point when many consumers have taken stock of their financial situation and have a better handle on what their spending and savings plans are in the current economy. I don't think anyone expects the American consumer to quickly return to spending levels of the last few years. But amid their cautiousness we are seeing some areas where people are willing to increase spending," said Pamela Codispoti, senior vice president at American Express.

The company's recent survey found that car maintenance is one area where consumers are willing to increase spending. One year ago only 5 percent of those surveyed said preventative maintenance on the vehicles was a spending priority. Today that has increased to 42 percent.

Add it all together and most Americans feel pretty good about things. The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index -- a comprehensive reading of how Americans are faring physically, emotionally, socially, financially and professionally -- finds that most people (51.1 percent) consider themselves to be "thriving" rather than "struggling" and only 3.3 percent believe they are "suffering," down from 4.4 percent a year ago.

But, with that said, some reports suggest things are not so positive. The Conference Board's most recent reading of consumer confidence released last week found a measurable decline in September.

"While most as pessimistic as earlier this year, consumers remain quite apprehensive about the short-term outlook and their incomes. With the holiday season quickly approaching, this is not very encouraging news," said Lynn Franco, director of the Research Center at the Conference Board.

Despite the Conference Board report, many retailers have a sense that many consumers are feeling pretty good right now and realize that could change at any time. So, as is obvious if you have been in any major retailer lately, the holiday stuff is already on the shelves. One report finds that two out of 10 consumers will have completed their holiday shopping before Halloween.

Always quick to put a damper on any sense of good economic news, the most recent UCLA Anderson Forecast for California in 2010 suggests that the state will hesitantly participate in the economic recovery. The problem, more dramatic here than elsewhere, is the effect of the recession on consumers.

"Credit-impaired, lower-income consumers can't spend the way they used to and wealth-impaired affluent consumers won't," said economist David Shulman.

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