Hints of consumer confidence emerge, but finances still shaky for many

Tim Skillern
The Lookout

For some Americans, clues of confidence in the economy are unmistakable:

• In Davis, Calif., Jennifer Wolfe's family is seeing renewed curiosity in its music-teaching business. The local community is approving bonds and tax increases to support public schools. She's noticing gains in her retirement accounts.

• A movie theater near Eloah James' home in Columbia, Tenn., was a ghost town months ago. Now she says its business is bustling. Nearby storefronts that shuttered during the recession have reopened and are thriving.

• Morris Armstrong, a financial advisor in Danbury, Conn., says clients' interest in divorce and its financial repercussions is (strangely enough) a telltale sign that folks are feeling better economically.

These are just anecdotal nods to an awakening economy, for sure. But these snippets of consumerism do mirror a report released on Tuesday that says consumer confidence has hit a seven-month high. Still, increased morale hasn't seeped into all corners of the country. (For example, Maggie O'Leary of Oklahoma City says hiring still seems weak; her brother can't find full-time automotive work that would've been a cinch in a stronger economy.)

To get a sense of how Americans are feeling about the economy, and if they share the confidence found in Tuesday's survey, Yahoo News asked people across the country to offer their perspectives on their local economies.

Artist feels renewed confidence

For Robin Raven, more confidence in the economy allowed her to return to her chosen career—not just one that pays the bills. It also means not fretting about finding money to pay for health insurance or cover $3,000 worth of needed dental work.

"I was worried about having a freelance career," the Los Angeles resident writes in a story for Yahoo News. "Now I feel confident enough to soon leave the other job behind and continue with my full-time career as a writer and actress. I feel confident enough that I have founded my own publishing and production company. I feel confident enough buying journals, books, pens, stickers, and other little luxuries that I enjoy as an artist."

The rundown economy and a series of personal setbacks had forced Raven to take a job merely for the security it provided. Now that the country—to her, at least—seems to be rebounding, she says she feels safer.

"Every consumer has her own reasons for regaining the confidence to spend. I know that I feel more confident because of the increasing chances I see opening up for me in the near future. As more people are willing to support the arts, I am grateful for every opportunity I have to do what I love and hopefully give back to others in the process."

Indications of consumers' confidence abound

Eloah James, the Columbia, Tenn., resident, sees a marked difference in her hometown.

"Consumer confidence in the economy is at a recent high—and so is mine," she says. "To me, there are several clear and recent indications that Americans, at least here, are spending more money. And if they are spending more, that means they have more to spend."

For James, the measures of confidence are the local shops. In addition to the movie theater's resurgence, dependent businesses—like the local ice cream shop—are seeing more customers.

"While this is an isolated example, I see similar changes all over town and in the other cities where I spend much of my time. Store parking lots have more cars in them every day; store checkout lines have more people in them."

Not everyone shares the optimism

The economic boom eight years ago in Oklahoma City seems long ago to Maggie O'Leary.

"I don't feel any more confident than I have over the last few years," she writes, pointing out litany of lingering problems: no steady work, lost homes, temp jobs that don't lead to permanent positions, and jobs without benefits. Add in no health insurance, no life insurance and no short-term disability coverage, and O'Leary says it paints a bleak picture.

"People are struggling, and I don't see an end to this," she writes. "My brother worked a temp job for a year at a major automotive manufacturer. Last month he was laid off because the employer was required to bring him on as a permanent employee after a year and give him benefits. One month after he was laid off, they called him to come back to work. As much as he hates to do this, he has a family to feed so he's going to swallow his pride and go back to work."

O'Leary says her brother isn't the only one affected; her friends and other family share the experience. "So while the economy may be improving elsewhere, it's not here."

Economic confidence level related to the divorce rate

It's certainly an odd barometer. But financial advisor Morris Armstrong says divorce may mean renewed economic confidence. In 2009 and 2010, he says, there was a sharp decline in clients interested in divorce's financial implications.

Today, they feel it's in their means: "Now that portfolios have recovered and home prices have stabilized, many people are now readdressing the issue of divorce. I had clients this year remind me that, three years ago, they had spoken with me over the phone about divorce. But the economy prevented them from divorcing and now, they felt that they could afford it."

His business revenue is increasing because of it. But he notes, "It is sad that such a traumatic event may be a gauge of economic confidence, but we have to look for signs wherever we find them."

Consumer confidence is short-lived

Paterson, N.J., resident Dana R. Arevalo is unemployed and facing about $100,000 in student loans after earning her bachelor's degree and an MBA.

She's not confident: "Seven months is not long enough to believe the economy is changing for the better. Unemployment still remains a huge issue. The economy cannot change until individuals feel secure with employment and proven job growth. Families and individuals cannot afford to spend without being gainfully employed. Borrowing will lead one deeper into debt and hardship."

She notes August's unemployment rate of 9.9 percent in New Jersey, almost-$4 gas prices in nearby Pennsylvania and skyrocketing student loan debt.

"Does anyone recall that student-loan debt, talked about repeatedly throughout the year, is higher than credit card debt?" she asks. "We cannot afford to pay for school and leave school owing thousands of dollars with no jobs available in our fields."

"I live day to day," she says.