Americans are enjoying a nice raise at the moment, in the form of dramatically lower gas prices. The government’s Energy Information Administration estimates that the average household will spend $750 less on gas this year, which is like getting a roughly $1,000 raise, since the savings aren’t taxed. For a little perspective, the 2008 economic stimulus package passed by Congress designed to save America from the worst of the recession sent a maximum of $600 to American households.
The gas price drop means even more to struggling lower-income earners: the bottom fifth of earners spend 13% of their income on gas.
That’s the good news. The bad news? Retailers aren’t seeing much, if any, of that money.
Americans spent $6.7 billion less on gas in January than November, but retail spending actually fell slightly during that span. That means lower gas prices are not acting as a surprise stimulus plan for the economy.
So where is the money going? To the bank.
The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis recently reported that Americans’ notoriously low personal savings rate spiked in December, to 4.9%, from 4.3% the previous month. The cash that’s not going into the gas tank is going into savings and checking accounts instead.
Few Americans save enough money, and many have insufficient rainy-day funds. With the recession fresh in their minds, many Americans appear to be more concerned with restoring their severely damaged net worth than buying stuff.
But Logan Mohtashami, a market observer and mortgage analyst, suspects something else might be at play.
“People don’t think the gas price (drop) is a long-term reality,” Mohtashami said. Despite government predictions to the contrary, he says, consumers aren’t adjusting their spending to a new normal, and instead they’re holding onto their cash for the next rise in prices.
Again, that kind of pessimism is sensible, and it’s good for personal bank accounts, but it’s not so good for growing the economy.
How much are you saving thanks to lower gas prices? What are you doing with the “raise?” saving or paying down debt? Planning a better vacation? Driving a gas-guzzler more often? Let me know in the comments, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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