The laundry room of Tamara Huffman’s split-level here in the Shenandoah Valley is filling up with cheese powder and freeze-dried ham, at the ready should her husband, Brian, lose his job anytime in the next 25 years. She carves a little bit out of their already tight budget every month to buy some more.
This sort of stockpiling was once the purview of survivalists preparing for Armageddon. But Huffman’s fear isn’t the end of the world so much as the $5 basket of grape tomatoes she bypassed the other day at her local supermarket.
“The price of everything is going up. I have no idea what’s going to happen,” Huffman says, assessing her growing collection of dehydrated and freeze-dried food in cans that look like house paint — pink is fruit, green is vegetables, blue is dairy, orange is grains — much of it with a shelf life that won’t expire until her second-grader, Chloe, is 32. Whatever she stocks at today’s prices her family can eat at tomorrow’s sure-to-be-higher ones.
The Huffmans are not among the millions of families who have lost their jobs or homes in the Great Recession. Indeed, Brian Huffman’s career as a computer engineer at a local hospital has been going strong for more than a decade, and their modest home in rural Virginia is worth more today than when they bought it 14 years ago.
What this economic crisis stole from them was their sense of well-being. First there was the foreclosure sign that went up on the neighbor’s dream house down the block; it’s somebody else’s dream now. Then the light bulb factory in nearby Winchester closed last fall, taking 200 jobs with it.
And recently they saw gas at the truck stop down the road shoot up 19 cents a gallon in a single afternoon. Brian filled up their 6-year-old minivan before it went any higher, and his wife wondered whether it was possible to store a barrel in the backyard without blowing the neighborhood to smithereens.
Not unlike the generation that survived the Great Depression and spent the rest of their lives pinching pennies, some middle-class Americans have developed a sense of thrift that is lasting even as the economic crisis loosens its grip. The so-called Great Recession was declared officially over last fall, yet consumer confidence — or lack of it — remains consistent with an economy in deep trouble.
“The people at the top of the ladder were hardly affected, but the people in the middle got squeezed. They got scared. So many middle-management jobs have disappeared, there is no place to move up,” said James Tillotson, professor of food policy and international business at Tufts University in Boston. “They walk the grocery aisles with little adding machines.”
Sales of store brands and coupon-clipping are on the rise, according to AllianceBernstein, which researches industry trends, and Inmar CMS Promotion Services, the nation’s biggest coupon processor.
Costco’s Great Gift Ideas catalogue last Christmas included a one-year, four-person supply of dehydrated and freeze-dried food on sale for $2,999. It sold out.
The fear factor alone can drive families to avoid restaurants and stock up on coffee in ways that would have seemed extreme a few years ago.
“There are all kinds of ways consumers can feel this,” said Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics at Moody’s Analytics. “With unemployment hitting 10%, most people probably know someone who has lost their job. Housing markets haven’t recovered yet and that matters for about two-thirds of consumers who are homeowners.”
The recession is likely to produce a wave of more risk-averse investors, the 40-somethings wary of a stock market that has sputtered and tanked most of their adult lives, said Stefan Nagel, a Stanford University financial economist who studied the economy’s effect on stock buying.
That sort of caution can seep into everyday buying habits of people like the Huffmans who don’t have a portfolio to worry about, just a family of four to feed — “an increased pessimism about the future that can lead people to become more thrifty,” Nagel said.
Brian and Tami Huffman weren’t always so frugal. Yes, they wisely settled for an $85,000 house when the mortgage companies were insisting they could afford more. But they also bought a new Mustang with less-than-great gas mileage and splurged on a $2,000 electric piano for an exchange student who stayed a year.
Today, the Huffmans cannot imagine such extravagances. Brian is 37, Tami is 45, and they live on his five-figure income. She home-schools Chloe, 7, and Dylan, 10, and makes it her job in these uncertain times to be “financially savvy.”
A year ago they canceled the satellite dish. She started baking her own bread (25 cents a loaf vs. $3) and making her own laundry detergent from borax and bar soap rather than spending $12 on a jug of Tide.
Some would say her anxieties are getting the best of her. But the way Tami Huffman sees it, middle-class families have hit a wall while the price of everything has nowhere to go but north.
Her husband’s cost-of living raises are frozen. No one is talking about layoffs at the hospital where he works, but no one’s promising there won’t be layoffs either. Retirement is a crapshoot. And the heart disease that runs in his family isn’t lost on her.
What if he gets sick? She had one year of college and her last job was managing fast-food stores. The least she can do is be prepared.
“I grew up in an affluent home with no idea what it was to manage money. My husband was an only child who didn’t want for much. We had to learn,” she says, checking her watch. This particular afternoon, she is waiting for 100 pounds of grass-fed beef from a local rancher — steaks, roasts and hamburger averaging $2.60 a pound.
Mostly, people are trying to spend less and save more — three times more than they were four years ago, according to the Department of Commerce. For Christmas, the Huffman children got piggy banks with three slots: one for charity, one for spending and one for a rainy day.
Tillotson said there was reason for concern. Americans spend more than $1 trillion a year on food — 1 out of every 5 retail dollars, on average. And the prices of food and fuel (which affects the price of food) are headed up in the 21st century, according to federal statistics.
Such dim predictions have been a boon for businesses like Shelf Reliance, the Utah-based company that makes food storage shelves and the canned foods the Huffmans are buying. The company recently shifted its marketing strategy from emergency preparedness to recession consciousness, encouraging customers not only to store the stuff for later but to eat some of it now, dipping into the tomato powder when the real thing hits $5 a basket.
At the same time, corporate giants such as Clorox and Kimberly-Clark struggle as consumers “trade down” from more costly name brands to generic labels, said Stephen Powers, an equity analyst with AllianceBernstein. He cited a 2010 survey by his firm that found that nearly half of consumers who had made such a switch weren’t sure they’d switch back, even if the economy improves.
“It could be a long, arduous process before they go back to pre-recession behaviors,” Tillotson said.
While there is nothing wrong with being prepared, Tillotson is skeptical of products that claim to last longer on the shelf than the lifespan of the average horse.
“You can’t keep people from getting old no matter what you do to them. Food is the same way. In five years it may taste like a dog’s breakfast.”
Tami Huffman says she doesn’t care; the peace of mind is worth it. She only wishes she’d started sooner. How many people can whip up a casserole from freeze-dried diced ham and cheese powder anytime they want, with just a trip to the laundry room?
“I consider it my training ground for retirement,” Huffman says. “I hope I never have to open my food storage until my husband retires, but I know it will last that long. I’m eight years older than he is, but women live longer than men. I may be sitting down here by myself eating my freeze-dried strawberries from a can.”