Leader Blues

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

TOP STORY > >Hunker down in hard times

Leader staff writer

Carefree spending is out, frugality is in. That is the mindset among average folks around town as they hunker down for uncertain times ahead. Those most strapped for cash are cutting back on essentials or looking to the local food bank and pawn shop to make ends meet. Some are making plans to garden to save on food costs.

“To me it is terrible – I don’t get much of anything anymore; it’s too expensive,” says Harold Newman of Lonoke. “They are trying to bail the stock market out; one day it’s good, the next day, bad. Who knows what is going to happen tomorrow. They are bailing out the rich folks, but who is going to bail the taxpayers out? They’re doing nothing for the working people. We’re right where we were before this happened.”

Newman, who once did maintenance and construc tion work but is now retired, says growing some of his food “helps out a lot” with the grocery bills.

He is still enjoying this year’s Crowder and purple-hull peas and plans for another garden next spring. He hopes to further cut food costs by getting a deer this hunting season.

Robbie Reeves of north Pulaski County is also thinking about a garden and meanwhile stocking up on store-bought food, just in case there are local shortages. She considers herself and her husband, David, among the lucky ones – “not one of those Wall Street folks” – and feels for friends and family who have seen retirement account values plummet recently.

To ride out possible rough times head, the Reeves are all about being debt-free with as few expenses as possible. Their advice to their three grown children is no frivolous spending, pay off the credit cards and mortgage.

“Get out of debt – don’t let anything hold you down,” Reeves said. “We’ve cut back on spending everywhere we could to save money.”

Eliminating their home phone line was an easy step that saved the family $80 a month. “We hardly ever used it, anyway,” Reeves said.

Crystal Morgan of Jacksonville says that she is “totally spending a lot less” and now deprives herself of indulgences such as a special lotion. “I am pretty much just doing the basics – going to work and coming home.”

Shanara Young-Cox had been a stay-at-home mom until recently, but her husband’s line of work is one of those hit hardest by the economic downturn – selling cars. So she had to take a part-time job, something she regrets having to do, since it means time away from their 9-month-old son.

She is looking ahead to better times by furthering her college education.

Meanwhile, she “minimizes trips to the store – I try do all at one time” – and economizes with WIC vouchers for baby formula and less-expensive selections. Now, she buys more turkey than beef and store and generic brands instead of name brands.

“At one point, I never would have thought I’d do that, but it does help,” Young-Cox said.

It is a little early yet to be seeing any significant impact on his business, says Mike Luter, the owner of Medicine Shoppe in Jacksonville. But Karen Adams, who works at the pharmacy, says that she “hears people say that they’ve had to cut back to afford their drugs.”

A few doors away, at Jackson Square Antique Gallery, a 50 percent-off sale in jewelry was under way, but sales in furniture were up.

“We’ve experienced a slowdown like everyone has,” said owner Jack Riggs. “People are looking for the best buy and are being more prudent in their buying. Furniture continues to move; people have to have it. But luxury items – glassware, jewelry – are really off.”

“We’ve come back before. I can’t help but believe we’ll come back again,” Riggs said. “We’re going to recover. That’s the American way. Everything will work out.”

Perhaps the best gauge of economic stress in the community has been happenings at a local pawn shop.

Long before recent upheavals in the stock market, consumer behavior was changing at Jacksonville Pawn and Loan as everyday necessities got more expensive. Not just the poor and unemployed come there for quick cash. The store’s owner talked about recent trends, a man sharply attired in a military uniform came in to get an item out of hock. Soon after, a woman in a business suit driving a shiny SUV with an Eddie Bauer logo entered the store with a piece of gold jewelry in hand.

Larry, who prefers to keep his last name private for security reasons, says he’s seen big changes in his business as folks struggle to make ends meet. Like storeowner Riggs, he is encountering more bargain hunters for certain items that shoppers in better times would buy new – high-dollar plasma televisions, for example. And, more folks are bringing in their computers to pawn, he noted, and more than half who’ve pawned items are late getting them back.

So the store is full and Larry’s cash flow has slowed, forcing him to go to the bank for working capital, something he did not do once last year. He tries to cut customers some slack on what they owe. He understands times are tough. What goes around comes around, he says.

“I have always been real liberal with people. Gas prices are down now, but they have already hurt a lot of people who have to drive to work in Little Rock. In the last two months, I have had more people come in asking for $5 or $10, but with nothing to pawn, than I have had in the last four or five years. I am better off than a lot of people, but it could happen to me.”

Around the corner at the Care Channel thrift store, business has picked up, as “more and more people are looking for bargains,” said Peggy Ness, director of volunteers and operations. Also rising are requests for food assistance from the organization’s food pantry. Donations from Arkansas Rice Depot are down, so the organization is buying more of what it gives away.

“I see a really big need out there,” Ness said.