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Holiday Spending: Saving Defines Season In One Community

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FLUSHING, N.Y. -- On the Wednesday morning before Christmas, there were no fir trees for sale in New York City's Flushing, Queens. The sidewalks were packed with people preparing for the holidays other ways: making deposits at the bank, buying pomegranates and holiday cakes at the grocer, and meeting friends at restaurants.

In Flushing, a predominantly Asian-American neighborhood that is a 30-minute subway ride outside of Manhattan, yuletide decorations were sporadically placed and the shopping was modest, but the mood was festive.

The religious holiday -- hyped up in most parts of the United States with retail promotions, Santa Claus imagery and Christmas carols -- is secondary here to the real celebration coming up: two consecutive shortened work weeks.

"For many people it's more like a family holiday. It's not a religious day," said Martin Lu, manager at New York Life Insurance, which is located in the central intersection of the neighborhood. "It's time off of work."

Lu added that the unemployment rate was low and many residents work hard in the city's restaurants or other service-industries leading up to the holidays, and that underscored the heightened anticipation for a day or two off for Christmas and New Year's.

Beneath the buzz of daily life and vacation prep, two local financial institutions painted a clearer picture of how the year's economy was also affecting the holiday sentiment. The insurance business has been busy in recent weeks, said Lu, as customers, who are mostly Chinese, invested in whole-life policies and education funds to build savings and security for their families. He said the insurance business had grown significantly over the last year as customers -- including a wave of new immigrants from Asia -- trended increasingly toward savings rather than spending.

Lu said that a higher savings rate and high employment rate has, in some ways, buffered the community from some of the economic woes of the last year. "My feeling is that they have savings, and don't spend too much," he said.

Six blocks away at Union Pawn, a different facet of the economy showed its face. The lender is doing steady business in pawn loans to small business operators to help them with cash flow and to make payroll, said store manager Droo Hong. The store also serves individuals who need cash to make ends meet or to pay off other debts.

Union Pawn offers quarterly pawn loans that have an interest rate of 4 percent, which is set by the state of New York. Hong said small business customers came from as far as New Jersey and Connecticut, where rates are higher.

"Whether you need to pawn or not is not cultural," said Hong. "If you live beyond your means, you're in a bind." He said he had not seen any extra business that was related to the holidays, but felt the demand had to do with the economy in general.

High gold prices and a bad economy ushered in more business earlier this year, Hong said, but it has tapered of slightly and led him to speculate that it was not that the economy had strengthened, but that borrowers were maxed out or not looking to take on more debt.

"The economy might be doing well for corporate America," said Hong. "But it's still rocky for small businesses, especially in retail, like clothing or jewelry."

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