TIME Fast Food

This Is Exactly How Bad Things Have Gotten for Red Lobster

As Darden Restaurants jettisons the ailing seafood chain, its upscale brands prepare for blastoff

With the sale of Red Lobster, Darden Restaurants said its remaining restaurant chains, including Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and a growing roster of upscale brands, could now focus on reeling in their “core customers.” Darden CEO Clarence Otis Jr. offered a clue as to who those core customers might be. Hint: they’re “more financially secure.”

“At Olive Garden,” he explained during a recent investor call, “we had 11% more visits last year, fiscal 2013, from guests with household income over $100,000 than we did five years earlier.” And that was small potatoes compared with LongHorn Steakhouse, which wrangled 50% growth out of the same income bracket.

“In contrast,” Otis said, “Red Lobster traffic from this income demographic was flat.”

Lodged squarely in the middle-income bracket, Red Lobster’s sales have trailed behind Dardene’s upscale brands, particularly Eddie V’s, a premium seafood restaurant where diners can sip on world-class wines and enjoy live jazz performances at the “V Lounge.” The columns bookending this chart tell a tale of two seafood chains.

Red Lobster

Source: Darden 2013 Annual Report

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times for Darden’s 2013 income statement, and it’s a sign of the times that it seems to be luring upscale diners with promotions that are a little more understated than a never-ending pasta bowl. Olive Garden, for example, has garnished its dishes with more exotic (read: Italian) ingredients, including capers, kale and polenta.

It may be a discouraging, lopsided, sluggish economic recovery, but at least it came with capers.

 

TIME Japan

Japan Is Desperate to Rescue Its Economy from an Early Grave

General Images of Economy Ahead Of Nationwide Quarterly Land Price Data Release
Pedestrians cross an intersection in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, Japan, on Friday, Nov. 22, 2013. Kiyoshi Ota—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Any less than 100 million people would spell doom for the nation's economy, officials warned, while neglecting one glaringly easy fix

Japan’s battle against gray hairs took an unusual turn this week when the Ministry of Commerce set the very lowest acceptable bound for its aging population: 100 million people. Beyond this point, there lays a “crisis.”

Or so warned Akio Mimura, head of Japan’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Mimura urged the government to make 100 million the official population target, backed by policies that would promote childrearing. “If we don’t do anything, an extremely difficult future will be waiting for us,” Mimura said.

His concerns are well founded. Japan has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, with each woman bearing an average of 1.4 children. At that rate, demographers project a plunge from 127 million people today to 87 million by 2060, sapping the workforce of its vital young workers and putting an enormous strain on state finances.

The shrinkage has already begun. In 2013, Japan’s population declined by a record-breaking 244,000 people.

All of which has led to some rather creative policy proposals from the Chamber of Commerce, such as retaining 70-year-old’s in the workforce, doubling government expenditures on childcare and encouraging men to ask working women out on a date.

But once again, policymakers dodged the quickest fix, namely to import workers from abroad. The island nation has an outstandingly small number of immigrants. They form less than 2% of the population, compared with a wealthy country average of 11%. Japan could triple the number of foreigners and still not approach the norm among wealthy nations.

Migrants
Source: UN Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs

Of course there’s a reason for policymakers’ skittishness around the issue. Immigration reform consistently takes a beating at the polls. One recent survey by Asahi Shimbun newspaper asked respondents if they would accept more immigrants to preserve “economic vitality.” Even with the positive spin, 65% opposed.

Japan Immigration Bureau’s motto is, “internationalization in compliance with the rules.” A simple rule rewrite could alleviate Japan’s demographic fix. It certainly would be easier than prodding the nation’s families to have another 13 million babies. But judging from this week’s presentation from the Chamber of Commerce, it remains politically stillborn.

 

TIME Economy

Dow Falls 1% Just Days After Record Peak

Analysts blame poor earnings from retailers and glum economic reports

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down on Thursday, marking the index’s second slump since last week’s record peaks and the worst day since early April.

The Dow suffered a steep fall on Thursday, dropping 1%, or 167.16 points, to end the day at 16446.81. S&P 500 had a similar fate, falling 17.68 points, or 0.94% to close at 1870.85. Lackluster earnings reports from retailers Wal-Mart and Kohl’s helped bring the Dow down, CNBC reports, as did disappointing outlooks from homebuilders, a decline in industrial production and higher consumer prices in April.

TIME Economy

Timothy Geithner: This Is Why We Didn’t Hang the Bankers

+ READ ARTICLE

In the midst of the financial crisis, anger at bankers (who helped create the crisis) was at an all-time high. Former Secretary Treasurer Timothy Geithner explains why the government had no choice but to bail out big financial institutions.

TIME Economy

Job Growth Good, Labor Market Bad

What happens with workforce participation will determine how you experience the recovery

Midway through the year, how is America’s economic recovery really doing? It’s complicated.

We’ve just gotten what in many ways appears to be a stellar jobs report. The U.S. economy created a whopping 288,000 jobs in April, and the unemployment rate fell to 6.3%, its lowest level since 2008. Unfortunately, it didn’t fall just because tens of thousands of new jobs were created in construction and retail, for example. A bigger reason it fell is that fewer people are looking for work. In fact, the workforce-participation rate–the percentage of people who are actually in the labor market–dropped to its lowest level since 1978.

The question now is whether or not people who are shut out of the labor market for various reasons will be able to return to work as the recovery strengthens. Ultimately, the answer will determine how most Americans experience the next few years–how much it will cost you to buy a new car or home or what you will pay in student loans.

It’s not hard to see why workforce participation is such a hot topic. Over the past five years, the percentage of the population working in America has dropped to the levels of Europe as a whole. Typically in the U.S., about 15% of unemployed people are among the “long-term unemployed,” meaning they’ve been out of a job for more than six months. After the Great Recession, that share reached 45%, and even today it’s still 37%. The long-term unemployed suffer not just economically but also socially: they have higher rates of divorce, depression and suicide.

Will those people ever work again? Many experts say no, because research shows that employers often discriminate against the long-term unemployed and also their skills tend to atrophy. “More than ever before, skill erosion will be a major obstacle for those who wish to return to the workforce,” declared a recent Conference Board report. And then there’s another group: the baby boomers dropping out of the workforce who had likely planned to retire anyway but may have pushed the decision up by a few years because of gloomy work prospects. Historically, few such people ever return to the workforce once they leave.

So what does all this mean for the price of your mortgage or car loan? The amount of slack in the labor market is one of the key factors helping the Fed decide whether to raise interest rates. When markets are slack, or too many people who want work don’t have it, wages and prices stay down. But if labor markets get tight, wages go up, and that causes inflation. When inflation starts to rise, so do interest rates.

But inflation is tricky. It moves fast and often unexpectedly, which means it’s important for central bankers to try to anticipate it. That’s why there are vigorous disagreements about what to make of these latest numbers. Economists who see the bulk of labor-market dropouts as a lost cause believe they don’t really matter with respect to inflation. The short-term unemployment rate, which they believe is a better measure of the true slack in the labor market, is just a little more than 6%, right around where it ought to be historically. And important metrics, like the National Federation of Independent Business survey, show the labor market is as tight as it was in 2005. Whatever the unemployment rate, we may not have enough workers with the right skills. And a tighter labor market implies that inflation could come on sooner rather than later–and that rates could rise as early as 2015.

Plenty of people in the fed believe that could and should happen, but chair Janet Yellen isn’t one of them. Yellen recently said, “My own view is that a significant amount of the decline in [labor] participation during the recovery is due to slack, another sign that help from the Fed can still be effective.” The data on her side include the recent disproportionate declines in the unemployment rate for lower-income workers. The idea is that companies are starting by hiring cheap labor and they’ll eventually hire more workers higher up the pay scale. There’s also the fact that right before the Great Recession, there was a nascent trend toward older workers staying in the workforce longer, in part because of better health and the desire to work but also perhaps out of necessity: the average retirement savings of Americans ages 55 to 64 is about $120,000, not enough to fund anyone’s golden years.

If that’s the case, we may see many of those longer-term unemployed people come back into the workforce, keeping inflation (and rates) lower for longer. In economics, three’s a trend. The next two months of data will be crucial in understanding where labor markets, interest rates and the price of your debt are headed.

TIME Asia

China’s Great Property Boom May Be Coming to a Desperate End

A laborer works on the scaffolding of a construction site for a new residential building in Beijing on May 8, 2014 Kim Kyung-Hoon—Reuters

Analysts have warned for years that China is in the midst of a gargantuan property bubble and the inevitable reckoning may have finally arrived as massive oversupply and a tightening of credit appears to be crushing the market—with consequences for the global economy

You know a property market is in trouble when developers stage long-jump contests to attract buyers. That’s what happened earlier this month in the eastern city of Nanjing. Looking to sell apartments in a new residential complex, a local newspaper reported that agents from the developer, Rongsheng Group, lined up potential customers behind a queue and asked them to leap forward. Those who jumped the farthest got the biggest rebates — up to $1,600.

Chinese newspapers these days are riddled with such tales of desperation. On May 9 in the central Chinese city of Changsha, pretty girls were enlisted to hand out 50,000 tea eggs to lure people into a housing fair. Developers in Shenzhen and Fuzhou are offering to sell apartments with no down payment. In Hangzhou in April, two real estate agents competing for buyers got into such a vicious fistfight that the police had to intervene.

Are we witnessing the end of China’s great property boom? For years now, some analysts have warned China was in the midst of a gargantuan property bubble, ready to burst at any moment, with dire consequences. But Chinese real estate defied the naysayers and continued to soar. Both developers and customers, bypassing restrictions imposed by policymakers to constrain the industry, continued to build, invest and propel prices higher.

Now, though, the inevitable reckoning may have finally arrived. Massive oversupply combined with a tightening of credit orchestrated by the government appears to be crushing the market. Government statistics show that the amount of unsold commercial and residential property hit an all-time record in March. “We are convinced that the property sector has passed a turning point and that there is a rising risk of a sharp correction,” analysts at investment bank Nomura commented in a May report.

Falling apartment prices spell bad news for China’s economy. Real estate is one of the main drivers of China’s growth, with property investment accounting for 16% of GDP by Nomura’s calculations. A downturn could dash hopes for a recovery of the world’s second largest economy, already suffering through its worst slowdown in more than a decade, and the impact would be felt across the world. Real estate investment in China affects global prices of commodities like iron ore, so a slowdown can send shockwaves from Australia to Brazil. Falling property prices could also subvert the wealth of the Chinese middle class, dampening consumption of everything from cars to coffee. That could hurt companies like General Motors, McDonald’s and Starbucks.

Beijing’s leaders got themselves into this mess with their go-slow approach to reform. In the country’s tightly controlled financial markets, the average Chinese citizen has few options when investing his or her newfound wealth. That has made property option No. 1 for investors, pushing up the market to dizzying heights. Now the declining market presents some tough choices for policymakers. A sharp downturn in property could lead to serious financial problems at the nation’s indebted developers, causing bad loans at the banks to rise. Developers that borrowed from the country’s poorly regulated shadow-banking industry could cause even worse problems for the financial industry. Depressed property could also present the government with a major social issue. With so many Chinese families having invested their savings in apartments, falling prices could lead to widespread discontent.

There is ample evidence to suggest that the deflating of Chinese property could turn very ugly. A Barclays economist warned that the “risks of a disorderly adjustment are real and rising.” Nomura points out that new housing starts, an important indicator of where the market is headed, plunged in the first quarter of 2014. Property sales declined too in 2013. “It is no longer a question of ‘if’ but rather ‘how severe’ the property market correction will be,” the investment bank asserted.

The question now is: What will Beijing do? So far, the country’s top leaders have been (wisely) allowing China’s overall growth to slow while they focus on controlling debt and reining in the out-of-control financial sector. A tumbling housing market, however, will put more pressure on the government to reverse course by loosening credit to pump up growth — a strategy that might alleviate pain in the short run, but only intensify the economy’s long-term problems of debt and excess capacity. The central bank this week already issued guidelines encouraging banks to speed up mortgage approvals and offer reasonable rates of interest for some home buyers.

China’s problems with property shine a spotlight on how the country’s continued foot-dragging in liberalizing and strengthening its financial sector and altering its investment-obsessed growth model are creating major threats to its stability. And it is yet more evidence of how China’s role in the world has jumped from being a critical support for growth amid a disastrous downturn in the West, to becoming a primary risk to the health of the global economy.

TIME Markets

Dow Jones, S&P 500 Reach New Peaks

It was the fourth straight day of gains for the Down Jones

The Dow Jones Industrial Average and Standard & Poor’s 500 Index reached record highs Monday thanks to investors looking for bargains on shares that lagged last week.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose by 112 points, about 0.7% to close at 16,695.02, after peaking at 16,704.84 earlier in the afternoon. The S&P 500 gained 18.13 point, or 1%, beating its previous record to close at 1,896.65.

The Dow’s Monday close surpassed the record 16,583 hit on Friday. Monday’s boost follows an uptick in shares for Internet companies including Twitter, Yahoo, and Facebook, according to CNBC. Hillshire Brands’ acquisition of Pinnacle Foods, which owns Aunt Jemima among other brands, helped push the company’s stock 13,4%, according to the Associated Press.

TIME Economy

The World’s Mania for Economic Data Is Pretty Silly

481347175
Getty Images

Want to double your GDP? That's easy. Just calculate it differently

In early April, Nigeria achieved an amazing feat. Overnight, its economy swelled by 89%. Just like that. The West African giant has been posting pretty impressive growth rates recently. But it wasn’t fresh investment, surging consumer spending or high oil prices that generated the GDP windfall. Nigeria can thank its statisticians.

Nigeria’s bookkeepers made a few changes to how they calculate GDP, updating the base year for determining prices and improving data collection. And voila! GDP almost doubles with a few clicks on a spreadsheet. This isn’t an economic magic trick or some kind of corrupt shell game. Economists have more confidence in the new figure than the old. Nigeria had not been refreshing the way it measures GDP as it should have been.

Confused yet? Global financial markets thrive upon data. Every new figure or percentage gets analyzed, reanalyzed, debated, discussed, dissected and analyzed some more. The reality, though, is that many important economic statistics aren’t as hard and fast as we tend to treat them to the point where we have to wonder how much use they are to understanding the world economy.

Take a look, for instance, at China. Much praise (or concern, depending on where you sit) has been lavished on China’s rapid ascent. But the Chinese data we use is riddled with question marks. Its GDP figures, for instance, just don’t add up. A recent report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch commented that the sum of the GDPs of China’s provinces doesn’t match national GDP, though the investment bank also noted that the discrepancy has narrowed recently, “perhaps due to less data rigging.”

China’s current trade data is also screwed up because companies were caught last year fabricating exports as a way to evade the country’s capital controls. Perhaps we should take the advice of China’s Premier, the No. 2 policymaker in the nation, who, earlier in his career, said Chinese GDP figures are “man-made” and “for reference only.”

Nevertheless, these statistics are taken as official. Then they are put through another round of numerical aerobics. Headlines turned heads in April when new figures from a World Bank report estimated that China’s economy was much larger than originally thought. The data suggested that China would overtake the U.S. as the world’s No. 1 economy as early as this year, much more quickly than anticipated. This prompted all sorts of talk about the decline of the West and a new world order led by China.

But again, we find ourselves in a statistical conundrum. To compare GDPs from country to country, the figures are usually converted from their national currencies into U.S. dollars using exchange rates. But some analysts believe that this method is flawed. Exchange rates, the thinking goes, fail to properly measure GDP since they fluctuate and can’t fully account for different prices in varied countries. So the International Comparison Program, coordinated by the World Bank, offered an alternative using “purchasing-power parity” (PPP), which adjusts for the prices of goods and services across economies.

The result: China’s GDP practically doubles, from $7.3 trillion in 2011 using exchange rates, to $13.5 trillion based on PPP. How’s that for different? (China’s economy is far from the only one inflated in this way. India’s tripled by the ICP’s calculations, to nearly $5.8 trillion.)

Which number is right? Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute blasted the ICP, saying the PPP method “makes no sense.” PPP comparisons were devised to better understand personal incomes and consumption, and using them to compare economic size “stretches the idea of PPP beyond the breaking point.” Instead, Scissors recommends comparing economies not on GDP at all, but on a measure of national wealth.

Obviously, the experts don’t agree on which statistics to believe. That would be of purely academic interest if data weren’t taken so seriously. Economists and investors make all sorts of choices based on statistics that can change radically depending on who is doing the calculating.

It isn’t just GDP data that suffers in this way. U.S. financial markets gyrate wildly based on jobs data released by business-services firm ADP, since it is widely seen as an indicator for the official report from the U.S. government released at a later date. Yet ADP has proved a poor forecaster, even after an overhaul of its methodology, inspiring one economist to call the report “a joke.”

Policymakers are also stuck trying to make decisions based on conflicting data. William Galston, once an adviser to President Bill Clinton, recently argued for action to ensure workers are properly rewarded for their increased efficiency. Based on the stats he was using, workers were producing more, but wages haven’t been rising to properly compensate them for that extra contribution and that was widening inequality and creating a major economic headache.

“For the sake of economic growth, social mobility and political stability, we must think more boldly about reforging the connection between compensation and productivity,” he wrote. That led the Cato Institute to condemn Galston for employing “statistical fog” to promote “the worst economic policy idea of the past 40 years.” Cato argued that data upon which Galston based his argument was faulty, and by using supposedly superior methods, the imagined gap between wages and productivity vanishes.

What can we do? Economic statistics are what they are imperfect numbers based on imperfect data and twisted further by contending methods of analysis. Just keep that in mind next time you dip into a database.

MONEY Economy

What’s Your Money State of Mind?

Money magazine's exclusive poll reveals both improved confidence and lingering anxiety about our financial well-being.

Money's exclusive survey reveals mixed emotions when it comes to our personal economy: We're feeling pretty good today, but worried about our prospects for the long run.

At first glance the Brough family of Dallas seems to have emerged from the tumultuous economic events of the past six years unscathed.

Sole earner Richard, 44, a project manager in software consulting, worked steadily throughout the financial crisis — even landing a new job that pays $45,000 a year more than his old one, which pushed his salary comfortably into six-figure territory. The value of the home he shares with wife Kelley, 46, and two of their four children (ranging in age from 15 to 27) has rebounded to pre-2007 levels, and so has his 401(k).

Yet five years after the official end of the downturn, Brough feels anything but confident about his finances.

“I’m more obsessed with security and worried about the future than I was during the recession,” he says. “Even though I was making less then, our money seemed to go further. I’m anxious about being able to pay for everything we need, anxious about our savings, anxious about staying out of debt.”

The results of MONEY’s new national survey of more than 1,000 Americans age 18 and older reveal that most people share Brough’s concerns: The Great Recession may be over, but a Great Insecurity seems to have emerged in its wake.

True, the majority of respondents acknowledge that their finances are better now than they have been in some time. About three-quarters report that their situation has stabilized or improved compared with a year ago; less than half felt that way when MONEY posed that question in 2009.

Indeed, in that earlier survey, only about 10% said they were doing better than the year before, vs. 30% now. And far fewer folks seem to feel as if they’re teetering at the edge of a financial cliff: Just 24% say their circumstances have gotten worse over the past year, vs. 51% in 2009.

Meanwhile, people are even more optimistic about the year ahead: Almost nine out of 10 expect that their finances will be the same or better 12 months from now.

Yet while the outlook for today and tomorrow has brightened, the day after tomorrow appears decidedly grayer. Six out of 10 respondents own up to being worried about their family’s long-term economic security, and even greater numbers register anxiety when getting down to specifics; they’re really worried about having enough money for retirement, how they’d manage if a financial emergency arose, whether safety net programs such as Social Security and Medicare will be intact when they need them, and how they’ll pay for health care.

Moreover, that undercurrent of anxiety cuts across virtually all groups: Young and old, men and women, married couples and singles, even the affluent — all shared the same concerns.

Related: How we feel about our finances

Some of the fretting may be the result of a lingering hangover from the financial crisis. “People are influenced by what is more recent and most vivid, and that is still the recession,” says behavioral finance expert Meir Statman, a professor at Santa Clara University in California. “We fear that what happened in 2008 will happen again.”

The current state of the economy is also cause for continuing concern. “The unemployment rate is still pretty high, and there are a lot of questions about what the government is going to do,” says Olivia S. Mitchell, a Wharton economics professor who has studied the impact of the financial crisis on U.S. households. “We’re in an environment of pervasive uncertainty that’s not going to go away for years.”

What is causing the most agita about our financial future — and why? How has that affected the way we manage money? And what are the best steps to alleviate our anxiety and move forward? The answers follow, along other insights from the 2014 Americans and Their Money survey.

We’ve regained some stability — and faith

When MONEY polled Americans about their finances in 2011 and 2009, the nation was hunkered down and wrestling with post-recession panic. Families had pulled back drastically on spending, postponed vacations and major purchases, and even curtailed giving to charity. People were deeply worried about losing their jobs or getting a pay cut, concerned about the eroding value of their homes, and anxious about big losses in the financial markets.

Five years ago, when asked whether they’d be better off putting money under the mattress or in stocks, half of the respondents chose the bed.

Now that home values and stock prices are up and unemployment is modestly down, a lot of that fear has abated. This year, for instance, 71% of those surveyed opted for stocks instead of the mattress. Folks are once again comfortable tuning out the daily movements of the market: Only about a third of those surveyed said they were laser focused on financial news, vs. two-thirds in 2009.

There’s also a greater willingness to stretch for risk: In the most recent poll just over half of Americans said it was more important to keep investments safe than to aim for a higher return. While that’s a substantial number, it’s down from 64% three years ago. In general, concerns about losing money in the market, declining home values, and being laid off have dropped to close to the bottom of the collective worry list.

Related: 5 ways to reduce your financial anxiety

Other signs bolster the notion that Americans are backing away from the financial bunker mentality that swept the nation after the recession. A Challenger, Gray & Christmas analysis of employment data, for instance, found that more Americans are quitting their jobs, reflecting growing confidence in their ability to find a better position elsewhere.

After years of relative frugality, Americans are loosening the purse strings a little. Sales of big-ticket items such as cars and new homes recently hit six-year highs, and the fourth quarter saw the largest quarterly increase in outstanding credit since before the recession.

Among those feeling calmer is Ralph Schmitt, 69, of Fortson, Ga., whose savings fell by a third in the crash.

When the recession arrived, Ralph, who had planned to retire in 2008, decided to postpone that step. He and his wife, Kathleen, did not sell any investments, however, and by late 2009, with their portfolio growing again, Ralph felt confident enough to quit for good.

“I was still worried about the uneven recovery and our retirement savings,” he admits, “but I believed in the resilience of the U.S. economy and the momentum of the stock rebound.”

Besides, he says, he and Kathleen, 67, who stopped working in 1993, felt they could live on less, having drastically cut back on their spending for travel, fine dining, and theater.

Today the Schmitts’ portfolio is back to where it was in 2007, and the couple have “kicked up” their spending accordingly. “I wanted to travel extensively with my wife while we still had our health,” says Ralph.

Good habits have held

We may be opening our wallets again, but that doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned the fiscally prudent practices adopted after the crash. Nearly three-quarters of those in the MONEY poll reported that over the past three years they’ve been cutting back on luxury purchases and eating at home more often — a modest drop from 2011, when consumers were still shell-shocked from the financial crisis, but a big increase from the 2009 survey.

Nearly six in 10 say they feel guilty about buying something they don’t need, virtually unchanged from three years ago. And six in 10 say they’re trying to beef up their emergency cushion, a huge jump from 2009, when less than a quarter said the same. Indeed, the national savings rate, while down from its post-crash peak, is now 4%, about where it’s been for much of the past three years and substantially above the 1% rate of the pre-crisis boom years.

Whether we’ll be able to maintain that restraint for good, however, is unclear. “We’re not back to a status quo environment that would allow you to make those kinds of judgments,” says Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics at Moody’s. He thinks consumers will let loose eventually: “Underestimate the desire to spend at your own peril,” he says.

It’s particularly tough to assess the long-term trend while the recovery is still so uneven, notes Caroline Ratcliffe, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, pointing out that some groups, such as high-income baby boomers and retirees whose wealth is tied to the stock market, are feeling more flush than others these days.

Jim Durkis says the improving economy has not changed his habits — yet. The government lawyer and his wife, Deborah, an elementary-school teacher, both 50, were looking to buy a bigger house near where they now live in Albuquerque but decided against the move when housing values in the area declined.

Since the recession, the family, which includes Jason, 22, and Kaja, 21, have switched insurance companies, delayed vacations, and cut cable — though they signed up again last summer after Deborah, a former-spender-turned-bargain-hunter, found a good deal.

Though both spouses are working and he has a solid pension plan, Durkis says he’s still focused on saving. “I’m not convinced there’s been a true recovery,” he says. “I’d rather have extra money, just in case.”

Additional reporting by Kerri Anne Renzulli.

Part 2 of Money magazine’s survey: The long term still looks uncertain

MONEY Economy

Americans Still Worried About Their Financial Future

Six out of 10 people surveyed by Money magazine own up to being worried about their family's long-term economic security.

Most Americans believe that the Great Recession is over, according to MONEY magazine's new national survey. But a Great Insecurity seems to have emerged in its wake.

Many of us are sticking to the good financial habits we adopted after the crash — a trend explored in Part 1 of this story. One reason for that: Once you look beyond the immediate future, optimism fades and it becomes clear that Americans remain deeply worried about their long-term economic prospects.

Consider: In the MONEY survey, nearly two-thirds of those earning less than $100,000 and roughly half of those making six figures said they were worried about their family’s economic security; roughly six in 10 Americans were anxious about how they would pay their health care costs.

The majority fell behind on their savings, given their stage of life, and almost three out of four were concerned that their money wouldn’t last through retirement. Other recent studies have found similar concerns: New research from the Consumer Federation of America, for instance, found that only a third of Americans feel prepared for their long-term financial future.

Why does the outlook seem so scary? Some experts think the events of the past six years have shaken the belief in our ability to accumulate wealth over the long haul.

“When the housing market fell, that really scared people,” says Michael Hurd, a senior researcher at Rand, who studied the effect of the recession on household finances. Hurd found that a decline in home values caused people to cut back on their spending more than a similar drop in the stock market.

In addition, the erosion of trust in our financial system will have a lasting effect, says Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University.

“If you don’t believe that your environment will persist, you’re not willing to stake out plans,” Cowen notes. “For example, you won’t buy a home based on the premise that in five years you’ll be earning more money. The volatility of the stock market and the government shutdown have only made it harder.”

Speech pathologist Janel Butera, 47, is one who isn’t counting on anything. A divorced mom of two sons, ages 12 and 13, from Corona, Calif., Butera has made reducing spending and boosting savings a priority over the past five years. Out went the gym membership and vacations; packed lunches and day trips to the beach are the new norm.

“The economy as a whole — I don’t put a lot of faith in it,” she says. “I’m not counting on getting any retirement help, not even Social Security.”

Butera is proud that she’s managed to rebuild her finances after suffering the twin hits of divorce and the recession but is still anxious that she might one day become a burden to her boys. “I worry about them having to provide for me when I’m older,” she says.

Her concern is shared by many: In the MONEY poll, one in five Americans with children said they would probably need their kids’ financial support someday.

We’re living close to the edge

One reason we’re not feeling so hot: While our 401(k)s may be flush again, our emergency savings are not. Half of the respondents in the MONEY poll confessed to living paycheck to paycheck; roughly six in 10 felt they didn’t have enough money set aside for emergencies and didn’t think the family’s breadwinner would find it easy to get another job if laid off.

And almost all people, it seemed, felt like they’d need a higher income than they now earn to really be financially secure — even those who currently bring home a six-figure income. No wonder that anxiety about how we’d cope with a real financial emergency tied with concerns about outliving retirement savings as the most prevalent money worry.

In fact, money has gotten tighter for many lately. Household income, adjusted for inflation, has dipped 4.7% since the recession, economist Cowen points out.

One thing’s for sure: All this stress isn’t helping our love life. The MONEY poll found that finances are both the most frequent source of spats between couples and the cause of the most serious arguments — far ahead of the second-place finisher, household chores, and snoring, which came in third.

Edward Martinez of Tyler, Texas, is one of the many who are worried about not having an adequate cushion. Though Martinez, 44, made $140,000 working for a military contractor in Iraq after the recession, he now earns less than six figures as a technical specialist with the Smith County appraisal district.

He and his wife, Jennifer, 38, a professor at the University of Texas, have an 18-year-old daughter living at home and also help support Martinez’s 22-year-old daughter from his first marriage.

Right now the family has only about a month’s worth of savings, which could easily be wiped out by a run-of-the-mill financial emergency, Martinez acknowledges. He’s in the process of getting a pharmaceutical degree, which he hopes will boost his earning power a few years from now.

Like Martinez, many parents these days are helping grown kids, making it even harder to save. More than a third of the parents of children 22 and older in the MONEY survey are helping out at least one of their brood; of those, three in 10 are shelling out $5,000 or more a year. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon: In the survey, parents providing such support believed their adult child wouldn’t gain full independence until age 30; adult kids supported by a parent put that age at (gulp) 32.

The kids may be all right in the end after all

Such findings are in keeping with alarms many experts have sounded predicting that young adults would bear the most lasting scars from the Great Recession, just as the Depression had a lifelong impact on the way people who came of age at that time managed their money.

Certainly millennials have had a tough slog so far: The job market for this youngest generation of workers is grim (nearly half of those unemployed are under 34, a Demos study has found), and the average student-loan debt for recent college grads is $30,000.

Atlanta resident Courtney Clemons, 25, has a typical millennial story. The Georgia State University grad interned at a travel agency while in school and was hired there full-time after she got her degree. But her earnings, ranging from $25,000 to $35,000, depending on bonuses, aren’t enough for her to get by on her own. So her parents provide about $500 a month to cover her car and health insurance, cellphone bill, and some spending money. Contributing to the problem: She has $90,000 in student loans.

“The jobs you get after graduation aren’t conducive to living on your own,” she says. Morley Winograd, co-author of Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation Is Remaking America, agrees. “Millennials are a very economically stressed generation, and that stress will last for their lifetime,” he says.

Yet MONEY’s survey, among others, shows a more mixed picture. Today’s younger folks do seem at least as value-conscious as their elders, and maybe even more so: A greater percentage of millennials say they are eating at home these days than they were in 2011, for example, while the numbers had dropped slightly for the general population. And for now at least, younger investors also seem more nervous about the stock market, keeping a greater percentage of their portfolios in cash than older people do.

When it comes to other attitudes about spending and saving, however, millennials seem to be pretty much like everyone else. They are just as likely to covet new, innovative products. And they aren’t cutting back on luxury spending or postponing vacations with any greater frequency than their elders either. Nor do they place more importance on saving; almost everyone, young and old, affluent or not, says that saving money is more important to them now than it was a few years ago. And for all the lamentation about how dim the prospects are for this generation, younger folks are surprisingly upbeat about their future: The vast majority (86%) expect to live as well as or better than their parents.

For now, though, while millennials may be having difficulty leaving the nest, no one seems particularly unhappy about it.

“Boomers created a helicopter parenting style and went out of their way to be friends with their kids,” says Winograd. “Many are delighted to have their adult children home.” The kids apparently don’t mind either. A recent Pew study found that 78% of adults ages 25 to 34 who were staying with their parents said they were satisfied with their living arrangements.

Some experts believe this turn toward family may be one recession-induced change that truly lasts. Reality is causing more people to let go of the postwar expectation that living standards will naturally just keep getting better, says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

Many may end up caring less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about being with the people who matter the most to them as a result. And indeed, almost 80% of the respondents to the MONEY survey say spending time with family is more important than ever to them, an increase of 10 percentage points over the past five years.

Janel Butera is one of them. The speech pathologist and mom felt her financial situation was secure enough last year to cut back her workweek from five days to four, so she went for it. “Sure, I could use the money,” she says, “but spending time with my kids is more important.”

Additional reporting by Kerri Anne Renzulli.

 

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