US retail sales are flat. They may stay that way.

Paul Sakuma/AP/File
A shopper perused refrigerated items last month at Costco Wholesale in Mountain View, Calif. Half of Americans in a survey said they had cut expenses by shopping at discount stores.

Call it the consumer paradox: Americans are feeling better about the economy, but they're keeping as tight a hold as ever on their billfolds and pocketbooks.

May's retail sales figures, released Thursday by the Commerce Department, reinforce the message that US consumers seem content to keep buying at today's restrained levels.

Scott Spiker thinks he knows why.

"The current generation ... is experiencing financial strife on an order of magnitude that has not been seen since the Great Depression," said Mr. Spiker, CEO of First Command Financial Services, in a telephone interview. As a result, "people are embracing a new frugality on a whole different level."

In a survey in May, First Command found that 77 percent of the respondents said America was too wasteful before this recession. And 58 percent said that the current economic situation will have a long-term impact on their behavior. The survey is the latest of a monthly sampling of 1,000 heads (or joint heads) of households under 70 and making more than $50,000 a year. First Command, a nationwide financial-planning firm based in Fort Worth, Texas, released it Wednesday.

The big question, of course, is whether Americans in this case will do what they say. This intriguing tidbit from the First Command survey suggests they just might be serious this time.

In March, at the very depth of the recession's gloom and the stock market's fall, 16 percent of the respondents said they had cut back spending for good. Since then, the stock market has rebounded, consumer sentiment is up, and there's a sense that the worst is behind us. But the share of respondents who say they're permanently cutting spending has gone up in each of the succeeding months. In May, it was 20 percent.

"The 'greatest generation' had austerity as a way of life," Spiker says. "I think [this generation] just had a huge wake-up call."

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