People Tell How to Do With Less

In Valentina Zefirova's Moscow household, the economic crisis has trickled down to the family cat: Instead of canned pet food, Kesha now eats a more affordable homemade porridge.

Japanese tax accountant Yuko Tsukamoto is cutting back on small luxuries.

Korean bank manager Cheigh Chong Hwa stopped eating meat at lunch every day.

Venezuelan hairdresser Marina Lugo has given up her car.

Asia's economic crisis, Russia's spiral into financial and political upheaval, and President Clinton's uncertain political future have rattled markets worldwide. The turbulence has Latin America teetering on the edge of recession.

The international uncertainty has changed lives, bumping millions out of the middle class. As governments struggle with the big problems, vast numbers of people are figuring out how to cope with falling incomes and rising prices. Poverty is growing even within the world's richest nations, according to a recent United Nations report that documents a widening gap between rich and poor.

Mr. Cheigh could be speaking for many people in financially vulnerable countries when he says, "Koreans have to tighten their belts."

Certainly, Ms. Lugo the hairdresser would agree. Like many Venezuelans, she says she has slipped from a middle class that expanded in the '70s with the country's oil boom. That boom left Venezuela heavily dependent on the caprices of global petroleum prices.

And when Asia's financial crisis set in a year ago, an ensuing economic slowdown sent the price of a barrel of oil south by about a third. It wasn't long before Asia's woes hit Lugo's pocketbook.

"I used to treat myself to an occasional lunch out," she says wistfully, "but no more. Now I just bring in a little something from home."

Lugo says clipping locks for eight hours a day, six days a week - at $3.50 a head - barely gets her by. "For the same week's worth of groceries it took [about $45] to buy a year ago, now you need about [$60]." If she didn't have one of her three sons living with her and sharing the bills, she's not sure she'd be able to keep her apartment.

Such downward mobility is frightening to Lugo, but not new. Eight years ago she had a car, which was normal for a hard-working hair cutter in a country with subsidies that still gives Venezuelans some of the world's cheapest gas.

"But then [in 1991] the car was breaking down and it was too expensive to keep up. There was no question of getting another one," Lugo says with a laugh, "so now I take public transit."

Pink slips where there were none

Cheigh, a manager at the Korea Development Bank (KDB), has held onto his car, but often wonders if he'll be able to say the same thing about his job.

When Korea's economic crisis exploded late last year, overleveraged banks emerged at the heart of a corrupt nexus. For years, businessmen bribed politicians to pressure the banks to support financially unsound projects.

KDB is state-owned, thus safer than other banks, but Cheigh feels squeezed - not surprising in a country where workers have been accustomed to lifetime employment. Bonuses and incentives totaling 20 percent of Cheigh's pay have been cut. In the past year, more than one-third of Cheigh's middle-aged colleagues have been dismissed.

The uncertainty at work is compounded by the economy's slide. "I own an apartment, but its value has dropped 30 to 40 percent," he says. Cheigh's response? Work harder and make do with less.

"Lunch is completely different. You used to never see people sit and eat 3,000 won ($2.30) meals. In the past ... I went to really fancy restaurants, [and ate] meat almost always."

At home, Cheigh's wife teaches music to earn something extra. "Even before [the crisis], my family lived [economically]. We didn't waste money on eating out. My kids don't wear brand-name clothes. I only spent money when I had to."

Sacrifices that affect the future

Cheigh might be giving up meat at lunch, but for Indonesia's Judith Soehardjono, having the option to make that sacrifice would be a luxury.

Between the passing of her husband 15 months ago and her country's economic and political crises, Mrs. Soehardjono is finding, like many members of the middle class, that her income no longer covers the most basic needs. The price of rice has increased 600 percent since her husband's death and government subsidies on all other staples, including sugar, flour, and cooking oil, have been removed.

But more than anything, Soehardjono wants her two children to obtain the passport out of poverty in the developing world: "I am not so worried about the price of food. It is the education of the children I am most worried about," Soehardjono says. Books, the school bus, and fees all add up.

Her widow's pension is less than half her husband's salary, and she supplements that by working fulltime as a nurse for about $30 a month - the equivalent salary of a housemaid. Family and friends help out financially as well.

Indonesia's widespread deprivation has a visible effect on daily life. "I am afraid of the demonstrations and rioting. If they attack and burn the shops in my area I will not be able to buy the things I need," Soehardjono says.

Lack of security

Japan's unemployment is up, debt-laden companies and banks are on thin ice, but tax accountant Mrs. Tsukamoto can certainly buy the things she needs - she just doesn't feel comfortable spending money now.

"Things are really bad," says the petite mother of two. Her husband's construction firm is near bankruptcy - its shares have slid from $110 to 40 cents since the early 1990s. And their small four-bedroom house has lost 50 percent of its value since they bought it in 1988.

Tsukamoto and her husband are making short-term adjustments and longer-term plans. He will probably find another job after his retirement in five years - if his company lasts that long - and she has no plans to stop working either. "The only thing we can do is work really hard," Tsukamoto says.

On a day-to-day basis, Tsukamoto clips coupons and reads discount flyers. "I've always been a careful shopper," she says. She has stopped buying as many clothes, and she and her husband have also stopped taking vacations overseas.

She says things will turn around in the long run, but the Tsukamotos are not taking any chances. They have taken their savings out of the bank and placed them in the government-backed postal-savings system - perhaps the most telling sign of their uncertainty.

Losing patience

Russian housewife Mrs. Zefirova has already experienced the troubled times Tsukamoto worries about - more than once. So she was ready when economic trouble hit Russia once again.

The first thing sacrificed was cat food. Next was meat for every dinner. Then Zefirova lost her hopes for a better Russia.

Just a month ago, Zefirova considered herself comfortable. Her husband, Boris, had a car-repair business that earned $700 in a good month. They lived with their daughter in a two-bedroom apartment and had a country house.

But on Aug. 17 the ruble collapsed. Banks defaulted. Prices for every consumer good soared. Her husband's profits shrank threefold.

Zefirova has lived through devaluations, crises, hyperinflation, shop shortages, hoarding, and food lines. She knew exactly what to do and made a list of what they could live without.

"I stop wanting sausage as soon as I see the price - [$6] for a kilo [2.2 pounds] now. Coffee is over for me; I can't afford it anymore."

The bleak Russian winter is approaching and Zefirova worries about how they will get by. Food supplies are diminishing in her freezer. They can't sell their car because Boris needs it for his job. They did sell a gold watch that belonged to Boris's grandfather. "That watch had been passed down through the family," Zefirova says sadly.

Now they're considering a cheaper apartment and selling the country house - if they can find buyers. Zefirova hopes to earn pocket money as a seamstress.

She and her friends had hopes for free-market reforms after the Soviet Union collapsed. "In the 1980s, we adapted easier because we were young and healthy. This crisis is more serious, because it is not the first or second," Zefirova says. "People have lost a lot of resources, including their moral ones. They lost their money, their stores, and their patience. And patience is the most important one."

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