Insight: Recovery at risk as Americans raid savings

Tue Jan 17, 2012 7:38am EST
 
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By Jilian Mincer and Jonathan Spicer

NEW YORK (Reuters) - More than four years after the United States fell into recession, many Americans have resorted to raiding their savings to get them through the stop-start economic recovery.

In an ominous sign for America's economic growth prospects, workers are paring back contributions to college funds and growing numbers are borrowing from their retirement accounts.

Some policymakers worry that a recent spike in credit card usage could mean that people, many of whom are struggling on incomes that have lagged inflation, are taking out new debt just to meet the costs of day-to-day living.

American households "have been spending recently in a way that did not seem in line with income growth. So somehow they've been doing that through perhaps additional credit card usage," Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans said on Friday.

"If they saw future income and employment increasing strongly then that would be reasonable. But I don't see that. So I've been puzzled by this," he said.

After a few years of relative frugality, the amount of money that Americans are saving has fallen back to its lowest level since December 2007 when the recession began. The personal saving rate dipped in November to 3.5 percent, down from 5.1 percent a year earlier, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

Jeff Fielkow, an executive vice president at a recycling company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, contributed less to retirement savings and significantly cut back on dining in restaurants and taking vacations in order to keep college savings on track for his two children. "We would love to save more," he said, "but we're doing the best we can."

There have been some signs of a quickening in U.S. economic growth recently after it emerged from recession in mid-2009.   Continued...