For the poorest Americans, this year's holiday season offered little respite from the lingering Great Recession. Despite signs that the American economy has been strengthening in recent months, households grappling with limited means have seen little to no improvement in their fortunes, some economists say.

The latest sign came Thursday as one of the nation's largest dollar store chains -- which caters heavily to customers with low incomes -- said that December sales had been meager, an indication that many families bought fewer toys for children, and likely scrimped to finance necessities, such as groceries, instead.

"On the low end of the spectrum people are still hurting quite a bit," said Chris Christopher, an economist at IHS Global Insight. "The median household income adjusted for inflation has dropped steadily over the past 3 or 4 years. Living paycheck to paycheck is more than a perception, it's a reality."

On a conference call Thursday, Family Dollar CEO Howard Levine told analysts that his company's customers passed on toys in favor of "basic need" items. "Clearly [our customers] don't have as much for discretionary purchases as they once did," he said, citing economic pressures like gas prices and rising payroll taxes.

Other retail sales data released Thursday also indicated that many Americans abstained from lavish holiday celebrations this year. Target announced today that sales at its stores open at least a year were flat in December. At Family Dollar, sales at stores open at least a year rose 6.6 percent over the last three months of 2012. But in December, traditionally a busy shopping month, they rose only 2.5 percent. On Thursday, the company's stock dropped 13 percent.

Certain retailers defied the trend: Costco, for one, saw sales rise 9 percent in December, according to Reuters estimates. Nordstrom, an upscale department store, also saw sales rise 8.6 percent last month.

Family Dollar, whose core customer earns a family income of less than $40,000 a year, has largely benefited from the rocky economy in recent years, like many discounters. As other retailers have consolidated and closed stores, Family Dollar has branched into new product areas like food and cigarettes.

But the company has not always been able to convince shoppers coming in for cheap milk to throw more "fun" items like clothes and nicknacks -- which typically afford companies higher margins -- into their carts. Last year, sales of "consumables," or food and household products, far outpaced discretionary categories like home decor during the holiday season, the company said at the time.

This year, toys were some of the most challenging items to sell, executives said on Thursday's call. Many of Family Dollar's toys were being sold for less than $10, according to a November press release.

Christopher, the IHS economist, said that low- and middle-income people like those who shop at Family Dollar could have been worried about the approach of the so-called fiscal cliff. "People were bracing themselves because they didn't know how it would impact their finances," Christopher said, noting that the Sandy Hook tragedy and Hurricane Sandy didn't do much to motivate shoppers, either.

And in fact, the expiration of the payroll tax holiday permitted by the recent fiscal cliff deal will likely impact the working poor more than others, according to Tim Quinlan, an economist at Wells Fargo.

"For ordinary Americans, it will get in the way of going out to dinner or paying for your kid's piano lessons," Quinlan said. "But when you talk about subsistence living and people trying to put food on the table, it becomes an even more significant burden."

Loading Slideshow...
  • Cars

    Gas prices may be falling, but cars that run on it are getting more expensive. Earlier this year, the Obama administration issued new standards that <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/29/business/energy-environment/obama-unveils-tighter-fuel-efficiency-standards.html?_r=0">require automakers improve fuel efficiency</a>, and the cost of upgraded engines alone is driving up prices. Toyota hiked prices on its mid-size Camry by roughly $175, and among best selling luxury vehicles, the 2013 Lexus CT 200h will be almost $3,000 more than the 2012 model. <a href="http://dealnews.com/features/Things-That-Will-Be-More-Expensive-in-2013/">Read more at dealnews</a>.

  • Groceries

    Meat, poultry, and dairy prices are all expected to rise thanks to <a href="http://dealnews.com/features/How-the-Drought-Will-Impact-Your-Wallet-Expect-Increases-on-Milk-Corn-Beef/599426.html">this summer's drought</a>. Feed corn and grass were most effected, and the impact from their scarcity will soon be felt at the grocery store: price increases will hit right along with the new year. Since drought conditions forced farmers to reduce the size of their herds to combat higher feed costs, the price of beef and chicken is also slated to rise. The cost of dairy products, too, will be affected, as fewer and leaner cows produce less milk. Overall, the USDA expects food prices to rise 3.5% to 4% in 2013. <a href="http://dealnews.com/features/Things-That-Will-Be-More-Expensive-in-2013/">Read more at dealnews</a>.

  • Cereal

    Cereal and bakery product prices will rise too, as a result of the 2012 drought and lower wheat yields. Prices in this category began creeping up in October, and the USDA's Economic Research Service forecasts cereal and bakery product prices to rise 2.5% to 3.5% next year. <a href="http://dealnews.com/features/Things-That-Will-Be-More-Expensive-in-2013/">Read more at dealnews</a>.

  • Health Care

    Obamacare not withstanding, employee health care premiums are expected to rise an average of 6% in 2013, according to Aon Hewitt, a human resource consulting firm. That amount will vary by state and type of plan, but overall, employers will face higher premiums and the increased cost will be passed along in part to employees. <a href="http://dealnews.com/features/Things-That-Will-Be-More-Expensive-in-2013/">Read more at dealnews</a>.

  • TVs

    While there will always be budget home entertainment options, folks who want the latest and greatest in this department will face some shockingly high price tags in 2013. According to Jeff Joseph, spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association, Ultra HD TVs -- which include an <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UltraHD">extremely high pixel density</a> -- sell for $20,000 to $25,000. High-end audio manufacturers too aren't holding back, as they incorporate premium features like Apple Airplay or standard DLNA that lets users control the entire system wirelessly. These features can drive up the cost of AV equipment in an instant. <a href="http://dealnews.com/features/Things-That-Will-Be-More-Expensive-in-2013/">Read more at dealnews</a>.

  • Computers

    As tablets continue to gain momentum in the consumer electronics realm, computers are returning to their original function as work-related machines -- albeit more powerful and expensive. According to Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis at The NPD Group, Apple's new notebooks with retina displays are among the highest-priced models out there, and Microsoft's latest operating system, Windows 8, is driving the adoption of premium touchscreen PCs. Even geeks and gamers could see higher prices, as Intel plans to <a href="http://www.zdnet.com/intel-preparing-to-put-an-end-to-user-replaceable-cpus-7000008024/">release processors that are soldered onto motherboards in 2013, rendering them un-upgradeable</a>. This would make DIY upgrades to a desktop machine impossible, forcing the computer-savvy to opt for a custom configuration from the manufacturer, which is, as a general rule, more expensive then getting a deal on the boxed CPU and replacing it on your own. <a href="http://dealnews.com/features/Things-That-Will-Be-More-Expensive-in-2013/">Read more at dealnews</a>.

  • Beer

    Move over gold, it's copper's time to shine! Copper prices could be on the rise thanks to a move by the SEC to approve a fund to trade the metal. The fund could lead to scarcity and higher prices, as it did for gold. The problem is that copper is used in plenty of consumer items, including residential water pipes, wire, pots, and kettles, as well as equipment for brewing beer, distilling liquor, and making candy. <a href="http://dealnews.com/features/Things-That-Will-Be-More-Expensive-in-2013/">Read more at dealnews</a>.

  • Smartphones

    The U.S. smartphone market has long been subsidized by service providers, offering phones at reduced prices with the signing of long-term contracts. In 2013 <a href="http://dealnews.com/features/T-Mobile-Will-End-Phone-Subsidies-But-Youll-Save-Money-in-the-Long-Run/646061.html">T-Mobile will eliminate the subsidy</a> and charge full price for its phones. While there's evidence to suggest that the carrier will in turn allow users to opt for cheaper service rates (thus saving money in the long run), the pill of a full-price phone may be hard for many to swallow. <a href="http://dealnews.com/features/Things-That-Will-Be-More-Expensive-in-2013/">Read more at dealnews</a>.

  • Daily Deals

    In spite of lots of bad press, <a href="http://dealnews.com/features/Is-the-Daily-Deal-Site-on-Its-Death-Bed-/645906.html">the daily deal isn't dead yet</a>. It will, however, continue to evolve in 2013. Too many competitors and not enough profits are forcing these sites to focus more on product deals, lead by Groupon Goods. It therefore may become difficult to find deals on services. If you're accustomed to scoring cheap spa vouchers, for example, it may become harder to find such discounts next year, as daily deal sites will list fewer such offers and instead opt for tangible products -- leaving you to pay full-price for your indulgences. <a href="http://dealnews.com/features/Things-That-Will-Be-More-Expensive-in-2013/">Read more at dealnews</a>.

  • College

    While tuition costs are always on the rise, state schools in particular are feeling the pinch. As education costs continue to increase, many states will no longer be able to subsidize much of its students' tuition costs. Meanwhile, student aid and grants aren't rising commensurate to costs, which means university expenditures -- more administrators, new dorms, and additional property -- will get passed along to students. Tuition and fees for private universities aren't increasing as much in 2013 as they have in recent years, but they are expected to rise for public 4-year colleges. Students can expect in-state tuition to increase 4.8% and fees to rise 3.7%, according to the <a href="http://trends.collegeboard.org/">College Board Advocacy & Policy Center</a>. <a href="http://dealnews.com/features/Things-That-Will-Be-More-Expensive-in-2013/">Read more at dealnews</a>.

  • iPhone 5 Accessories

    Although there have been several iterations of the iPhone at this point, one thing had remained the same for several years: the dock connector. Thus, unlike cases that are outdated with the slightest change in form factor, iPhone dock accessories remained largely universal across new models. But the iPhone 5 features a radically different Lightning connector, resulting in a fleet of brand new accessories that have no prior-generation alternatives — which means premium prices. These higher prices debuted in late 2012, and they will continue in 2013 until manufacturers begin releasing updates to these items. <a href="http://dealnews.com/features/Things-That-Will-Be-More-Expensive-in-2013/">Read more at dealnews</a>.

  • Shipping

    While somewhat unsurprising, 2013 will see a <a href="http://dealnews.com/features/Free-Shipping-Wars-Rage-as-UPS-and-Fed-Ex-Announce-Increased-Rates-for-2013/644296.html">4.5% to 4.9% hike in shipping costs</a> from both UPS and FedEx, the latter of which is slated to raise rates beginning January 7. Higher shipping costs may affect customers who predominately shop from "independent" sellers, like those found on eBay, etsy, and the like, but it may also have an impact on retailers that presently offer free shipping. Since merchants end up paying for the handling and delivery of orders that "ship free," the increased UPS and FedEx rates may affect the frequency of, and threshold at which, online orders receive free shipping in 2013. Does all this talk about rising prices get you down? Be sure to shop wisely by setting up a dealnews <a href="https://dealnews.com/mydealnews/alerts.html">email alert</a> for the specific products and categories that are important to you, so you know immediately when we see a good deal. You can also stay tuned for next week's followup to this piece that details things that will be less expensive in 2013. <a href="http://dealnews.com/features/Things-That-Will-Be-More-Expensive-in-2013/">Read more at dealnews</a>.