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Spending habits: Americans at all income levels tighten their belts

As a recession looms, signs of a new frugality emerge. Say goodbye to long trips and lattes.

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This new fiscal awareness has also spread to her friends. "We have started to discuss economic things," Palmer says. "It's definitely more of the social conversation than it ever was before."

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Living beyond one's means is hardly a new issue. "Americans have been dealing with debt for a long time," says Ronald Wilcox, author of the forthcoming book "Whatever Happened to Thrift? – Why Americans Don't Save and What to Do About It." "Some of the Founding Fathers were famously in debt, like Jefferson."

Americans' innate optimism adds to the challenge. "One consequence of being overly optimistic is that people think tomorrow is probably going to be better than today," Mr. Wilcox says. "So they don't save."

It took a layoff five years ago to teach Christine Pietryla the importance of saving. "I wasn't prepared and I went into panic mode," she says. "It was definitely a defining moment. I had not been very prudent. It was a smack in the face, but it was a lovely smack in the face because it ended up setting me on the right path." She now runs her own public relations consulting business, Pietryla Enterprises, in Chicago.

These days Ms. Pietryla is taking another look at her finances. Rather than feeling deprived as she trims expenses, she feels more free. "I'm trying to approach it as a lifestyle change, as opposed to a sacrifice," she says.

In addition to cutting back on Netflix, iTunes, and a daily latte, she buys only what is on her grocery list, avoiding impulse purchases. By consolidating her cellphone and home phone carriers, she was able to negotiate a better price. "I'm also very careful about bank charges and late fees," Pietryla says, noting that last year they cost her $140. "I'm getting rid of that." She is keeping her workouts with a personal trainer. When she goes out with friends, they often do things that don't require a lot of money.

Michael Boss, a manager at MPC Computers in Boise, Idaho, regards this kind of revision as essential.

"I don't want to see people out of work or unable to make their mortgage or rent payments, but I do think that collectively we need to recoil from the materialism that has come to define this culture," he says. "Spiritually and environmentally, there are all these reasons we should do more with less and not feel as though not having all these material things is an abrogation of our birthright as Americans."

He and his wife have cut back to one car. "I drop her off at her office and then go to work," Mr. Boss says. "We scaled down the size of our home after our children left. We've reduced our mortgage."