Days of a fistful of dollars are disappearing

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE and CURT BROWN , Star Tribune s taff w riters
  • Updated: October 5, 2008 - 8:07 AM

As Wall Street unravels, Minnesotans are reevaluating spending habits and fretting about the future.

Simone and John Metzdorff aren't fond of the master bathroom they wake up to every morning in their New Prague home. The corner shower is small. The pedestal sink offers no counter space.

They made plans to gut it this winter and remodel it into a spa-like retreat.

Now, that project is suddenly on hold. The Metzdorffs are watching their 401(k) balances plummet in stride with news of job losses, tightening credit and a $700 billion government financial system bailout to keep things from getting worse. The uncertainty has them hunkering down.

"You don't know where it's going to end," Simone Metzdorff said. "It just seems that spending the money on something we want at this time rather than absolutely need is frivolous and irresponsible."

As Minnesotans watch the financial meltdown on Wall Street with their fingers crossed, many are also starting to change their spending habits, acknowledging the end of one financial era and the start of an uncertain new one -- in which their retirements, their home values, their jobs and their children's education all seem in question.

Asked how they have responded to the nation's financial problems, about one-third of respondents to a new Minnesota Poll said they have already cut back or canceled vacations, delayed making home improvements or buying a new car. More than four out of 10 said they've changed the way they save and 55 percent rated their personal finances as fair or poor.

'I want it to stop'

The Metzdorffs' finances are relatively secure, Simone said. They have been aggressive savers, and they have stable jobs -- she's a business analyst with an insurance company and he's a technical representative for a framing company.

But they're not sure that will mean they can send their 3-year-old daughter to college when the time comes. "We're just losing money hand over fist," she said. "I want it to stop."

So besides holding off on the bathroom renovation, they won't upgrade woodwork in their home as planned, either. And Simone is already looking at holiday cutbacks.

"We're just not going to spend what we did at Christmas -- we just aren't," she said. "We used to go a bit overboard, probably the same as everyone. And now I'm probably cutting gifts probably like in half."

Those who are still remodeling are looking for ways to cut the bill. Homeowners used to approve designs and pay for it all with few questions, said Jennifer Dynan, a designer with Castle Building & Remodeling in northeast Minneapolis. Now they're scrutinizing every item for savings, ripping out old kitchen cupboards themselves, for example, before the granite countertops go in.

Brides and grooms are also scaling back, said Christina Anderson, owner of Christina Marie Events in Shakopee. That means getting wedding planners to shop around for the best deals and cutting back on alcohol, flowers and photography.

The changes aren't coming voluntarily for everyone, though.

DJ Enga, director of outreach and education at the credit counseling firm Auriton Solutions, said he sees people coming in to solve their mortgage troubles, while still making payments on ATVs. They want credit counselors to pressure banks to back off on their adjustable rate mortgages, Enga said, and they don't want to give up the things their friends and neighbors consider status symbols.

"There's a huge amount of expectation that people should be able to continue along the way things have been going," he said. "They are forced to change because if they don't, there's going to be real trouble."

Yearning to earn more

Many are trying to stay afloat with second jobs.

Hotel executives are seeing a larger pool of shared employees bouncing around to fill part-time or on-call jobs as front desk workers or other hospitality positions.

"There's an influx in much more professional people from other hospitality-related businesses such as airlines taking second jobs," said Charles Goldberg, general manager at the Hilton near the airport and Mall of America.

For Minneapolis teacher Michael Contreras, extra money he earned coaching and refereeing basketball used to pay for vacations for him and his daughters to places such as California and Florida. This year, it's paying for gas and groceries.

The family summer trip in 2008? Camping overnight in Lino Lakes-- and only because his mother and stepsister were camping there and had an extra tent.

"It was depressing," Contreras said.

Contreras is also trading his daughters' mall and movie visits for parks and libraries. He's buying and selling things on Craigslist and seeking generic brands.

"Some of this rising cost has been kind of a good thing, because you learn other ways to buy stuff," Contreras said.

There's less social pressure, too.

"If you don't upgrade to the new cell phone and you don't have the new electronics, nobody does, really," he said.

For more than 20 years, Chad Westling worked construction, mostly residential remodeling. Now, he's delivering office furniture in the daytime and moonlighting as a blackjack and Texas Hold 'em dealer at private casino parties a few nights a week.

Wall Street's woes have left Westling scrapping to get by -- and not just since the latest upheavals of the financial markets. He took the second job dealing cards nearly a year ago when the construction market bottomed out.

"Nobody is spending money building anything anymore, and that was my bread and butter," said Westling, 43, of Burnsville.

"You do what you can to survive," he said. "But after a while you get tired of trying to survive week to week, month to month and year to year."

He watches the financial news and shrugs.

"All you can do is keep plugging away."

Staff writer Jeff Shelman contributed to this story. plouwagie@startribune.com • 612-673-7102 curt.brown@startribune.com • 612-673-4767

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