In 2009, I wrote The Recessionistas, a chronicle of four women's journeys through the financial crisis. Those women, New Yorkers from different walks of life who are connected to the Wall Street in some way, found a way to deal with the effects of the economic crisis and emerge stronger for it. At the time, the country and world were in the depth of a recession the likes of which had not been seen since the Great Depression. During the crisis, over 8.4 million jobs were lost, 200,000 small businesses failed and 1.2 million homes went into foreclosure. At its depth, 18 years' worth of wealth was wiped out for households in the United States. If there ever was a trickle-down theory of economics that worked, it was that in reverse: The effect on the rich trickled down to everyone else on the socioeconomic ladder across the country, whether it was the banker who worked on Wall Street, the middle class professional in Las Vegas who had upsized to a McMansion and taken out home equity loans to buy the toys to go along with it, or the gardener who lost his job and was unable to pay for the mortgage he took out to buy the house he couldn't afford.
Over the last several years, the Federal government, and the Federal Reserve in particular, has done just about everything they can to right the economy and spur growth, and while we certainly have pulled ourselves out of those deep, dark days, the country is far from being back to full strength. Millions are still struggling to find jobs lost in the recession, grow their incomes or pay down debt. The middle class still lives frugally and even the seemingly wealthy bankers have seen seismic changes to their compensation. Yes, there are still and always will be the uber-rich who are unconstrained in their consumption, but a new kind of austerity is the norm. The personal savings rate has started to come back down of late, but it is still higher than it was in the bubble years. The Recessionista -- whether the wealthy New Yorker, the struggling sole breadwinner or the young woman just out of college -- is still finding her economic sea legs in choppy waters.
Mary Evans, an Upper East Side divorcée and regular on the New York Social scene, lives off the very nice settlement she received a few years ago. She took a big hit to her portfolio when the stock market declined and learned to live on a tight budget. Even with the recent market rebound, her frugal ways have continued, because she is worried about what comes next. She feels there is a disconnect between the stock market and the economy, and she fears it will end badly. When The Federal Reserve starts to pull back its easy monetary policy, interest rates will go up and the stock market could take a nosedive -- she does not want to get burned again.
"I used to spend without thinking," says Evans. "Now, I don't travel like I used to. I cut back on beauty treatments. I go to a hair dresser who charges one-third of what my old one did. I used to order out all the time, now I make my own dinner. Even though my portfolio is up now, I'm going to have to live on it going forward. I'm really scared right now."
It's not just divorcées with (relatively high) fixed incomes like Mary who have learned to scale back. Wives of investment bankers who, prior to the recession, spent their days shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue or antique-hunting with their decorators have had to change their lives to reflect the new compensation schemes at banks. Nowadays, bankers' pay includes a very small cash component with larger amounts of deferred compensation or restricted stock that cannot be sold or borrowed against for many years, and clawbacks are always a threat. You can't pay your monthly maintenance, fund tuitions or send your kid to summer camps with deferred comp. In the new regulatory environment, the relative security of huge, annual cash bonuses is gone and may not return for years, if at all.
If the financial crisis showed anything, however, it is that there is little sympathy for the rich, but it isn't only wealthy women who have changed. In April, the economy added 165,000 jobs, and while most of those went to women, there is disturbing data underneath. Well over half of the newly-employed women are working part-time. In fact, 100,000 additional women are working part-time over the past year because they couldn't find full-time work, and the jobs they do find are low-paying. They, too, are struggling or have changed the way they spend.
When Holly Allen saw the recession hitting in 2009, she knew her catering business in Suffolk County, Long Island would be hit hard. She cut back on every nickel and dime she spent, but it still wasn't enough to protect her from a 70% downturn in business as her wealthy Hamptons clients stopped entertaining. As the economy has gradually improved, Ms. Allison has gradually seen her business return to normal levels, but the effects of the recession remain for her 22 female employees.
"All the girls who work for me are in trouble," says Ms. Allen. They lost their other jobs, or this is a second job. They are single mothers, struggling to hang on, especially when it comes to housing. People are getting roommates, moving in with their families or adding an apartment to their houses. A middle income job on Long Island doesn't support the cost of housing."
Holly isn't immune either. Needing to take on significant credit card debt to keep her business going, she was forced to give up her home and move in with her brother. She still lives with her brother and finds it hard to envision a time when she might own a home.
It's not that much different for educated young women who are also facing uncertain financial futures. Emma Billlington, 25, graduated from college in 2009, right in the teeth of the recession. While she was lucky to find a job on Wall Street through a family connection, it is just clerical and below her capacity. She and her friends have only recently started to move out of their parents' houses and all have two or more roommates.
"We constantly compare notes about budgeting and spending," says Emma, "especially those of us that live in Manhattan. A lot of my friends have side jobs sitting or waitressing so that they can stay in the City. Long-term planning is tough with so much uncertainty." Emma tells me that it even applies to marriage. So much for love conquering all!
Will we ever return to the more care-free years of consumption? It remains to be seen, but for now, this is the way America lives. As Mary Hall, Founder and Editor of The Recessionista, an online magazine whose tagline is "The Chic Recessionista's Guide to Fashion and Surviving the Downturn in Style" (no relation to my book), says, "The recession has changed most people's habits forever. Frugal is now the new normal. People are still looking for deals and even if they have the money, no one wants to spend more than they have to. Even the Duchess of Cambridge is wearing a $58 Topshop dress."