Across economic spectrum, money worries are growing

Times Staff Writer

Donald Fleckenstein lives comfortably in retirement, but higher food and energy costs still prompted him to trade down from a big American car to a small Honda, to cancel plans for a European vacation and to worry more about how the next generations of his family will fare.

"I am not protected or immune to the economic situation in the world, regardless of how much money I make," said Fleckenstein, 81, of Westport, Conn. "There are things that we would like to do or planned to do that we are not."

Across the country, Americans struggling with rising food and energy costs are more worried about their personal finances than at any time since the early 1990s, according to the latest Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll.

Nearly 2 out of 5 people say the state of their personal finances is fairly shaky or very shaky, the poll found. And for the first time since 1993, the percentage of people who said their finances were very or fairly secure fell below 60% -- to 57%, said Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus. "Anything below 60% is sort of like a warning sign of what's coming next," Pinkus said. "It paints the picture of a very grim, weakened economy that is affecting how people are going to spend."

More than three-quarters of those polled said they thought the economy had fallen into a recession and that the country was "seriously off on the wrong track."

Half of those polled said 2008 would be a below-average year for the stock market, and 56% of registered voters said the economy should be the top priority for the presidential campaign -- a shift from December, when the majority said Iraq should be the candidates' focus.

Money worries plague Americans across the financial spectrum. Of those making between $60,000 and $100,000 a year, 26% described their finances as shaky; 10% of those making more than $100,000, including Fleckenstein, used the same terminology.

"I just bought gasoline at $3.96, and milk is about off the chart," Fleckenstein said in a follow-up interview after participating in the poll, in which he indicated that he had income of more than $100,000 a year. Even so, "It isn't easy today," he said.

The poll also found a sharp ethnic disparity in how Americans view their finances. Although 61% of whites and 54% of other ethnic groups polled said their personal economic situation was secure, just 39% of African Americans described their finances in positive terms.

More than half of African Americans polled, 53%, said their finances were shaky; 34% of whites and 42% of other ethnic groups polled expressed similar concerns.

The Times/Bloomberg poll, based on telephone interviews May 1 through May 8 with 2,208 adults nationwide, has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Part of many Americans' worries is their increasing debt.

Two out of five Americans who have credit card debt said it was more than it was five years ago -- with 22% saying they owed "much more" on their cards.

Ten percent of credit card holders said they owed more than $7,000 on their cards, and 11% said they owed more than $10,000.

Many of those surveyed do not anticipate their debt load growing lighter in the year ahead. Altogether, 15% of respondents said they expected to have more debt in the coming year, and nearly 1 in 10 Americans said they also expected to have lower assets.

Chris Kobes, 41, who lives in Cloquet, Minn., near Duluth, was among those who told pollsters that he had worries about the economy and his own finances.

With earnings of less than $40,000 a year, Kobes said he just barely makes it from paycheck to paycheck -- and that's after cutting back on things such as eating out, going to movies and driving unnecessary distances.

"I do very little extra that isn't a necessity," Kobes said. "With the cost of gas and food being more, there's just less money left over."

Affluent Americans also have a gloomier perspective. In a Bloomberg poll taken a year ago, nearly two-thirds of investors making more than $100,000 a year said they expected to have lower debt and higher assets in the year ahead. This time around, just 49% of that group held such a rosy outlook.

In general, Americans are planning to increase savings or curtail spending. Thirty-two percent predicted that they would have less debt and more assets in the coming year; 11% anticipated lower debt -- but also lower assets.

Still, for better or worse, fewer Americans are planning to tighten their belts than during the economic downturn of the early 1990s. In a 1991 Times poll, nearly half said they would use their credit cards less. In the most recent poll, 43% of Americans anticipated less debt in the coming year.

As might be expected given the current housing slump, Americans are skeptical that the housing crisis will be over soon.

Just slightly more than half of homeowners polled said they thought their homes would appreciate in value over the next three years. In a poll taken 14 months ago, 83% expected to see gains in the value of their homes.

And in 2006, just 5% of those with adjustable-rate mortgages said they were "not confident at all" that they would be able to make their mortgage payments if rates rose.

In the most recent poll, 24% of those with adjustable mortgages said they didn't think they'd be able to handle the payments if interest rates went up.

Five percent said they were "not too confident" that they could pay an adjustable rate.

Still, despite their worries about the housing market, many of those polled haven't given up on the American dream of owning real estate.

When asked where they would invest a hypothetical $1 million, a quarter of those polled said they would buy real estate, more than in any other category.

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abigail.goldman@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Household finances

Q: Would you describe the state of your personal finances as very secure, fairly secure, fairly shaky or very shaky?

Fairly secure: 44%

Very secure: 13%

Fairly shaky: 21%

Very shaky: 16%

Don't know: 6%

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Q: Compared with five years ago, would you say your credit card debt is higher, lower or about the same?

More: 40%

Less: 39%

About the same: 17%

Don't know: 5%

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Q: Do you plan to save more or less money in the coming year as you did last year, or about the same amount? (Among investors)

More: 39%

Less: 18%

About the same: 37%

Don't know/don't save: 6%

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Concerns among homeowners

Americans are grappling with the effect of the housing crisis on their home values and mortgages.

Q: Do you think the home that you live in will appreciate or depreciate in value or stay the same value over the next three years?

Appreciate: 51%

Depreciate: 14%

About the same: 26%

Don't know: 9%

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Q: Is your home worth more than, less than or about the same as when you first bought it?

More: 77%

Less: 7%

About the same: 11%

Don't know: 5%

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Q: How confident are you that you will be able to make your mortgage payments if they adjust upward in the future?

Confident: 62%

Not confident: 29%

Don't know: 9%

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Q: In the last two years, what have you used the equity in your home for?

Haven't used: 77%

Line of credit: 10%

Refinancing: 4%

Second mortgage: 1%

Don't know: 8%

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Source: Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll

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The Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll contacted 2,208 adults nationwide by telephone May 1-8, 2008. Included were 650 with annual household incomes of $100,000 or more. Also included were 1,657 investors, and among them, 607 with annual household income of $100,000 or more. 'Investors' are those who have stocks, bonds or mutual funds. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation, and random digit dialing techniques allowed listed and unlisted numbers to be contacted. Multiple attempts were made to contact each number. Areas with a higher concentration of households with annual incomes greater than $200,000 were disproportionately contacted in a separate random national sample to allow a more accurate analysis of higher-income investors, then weighted to represent households nationwide. Adults in the combined sample were weighted where necessary to conform with census proportions of sex, ethnicity, age, education and national region. The margin of sampling error for all adults and all investors is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For households with $100,000 annual income or higher and for investors in that range it is 4 points. For smaller subgroups, the sampling error may be somewhat higher. Poll results may also be affected by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented. Interviews were conducted by Interviewing Service of America Inc. in Van Nuys.

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