Minnesotans are feeling slightly better about the economy and their finances. But many are still feeling the effects of the recession in their day-to-day lives, according to a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.

Not so long ago, Larry Fronczak didn't even open his retirement statements. But now, "I don't feel as pessimistic about the financial situation," the 62-year-old retired special education teacher said. Jeff Whitman is seeing signs of recovery at the software company where he works. "We're already seeing companies loosening the purse strings a little," the 41-year-old father from Minneapolis said.

Fronczak and Whitman are among the nearly one-third of those surveyed who expect their financial situations to improve over the next 12 months. Last fall, 27 percent of respondents felt that way.

The Star Tribune poll of 1,000 Minnesota adults was conducted Sept. 21-24, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.

Keeping an upbeat outlook

As the Dow Jones industrial average makes its way toward 10,000, the housing market free fall shows signs of stopping and stimulus money works its way through the country, fewer Minnesotans think that their financial situations will worsen in the next year. Last fall, about one in four respondents worried that their family's financial situation would get worse. Around that time, President George W. Bush had just told the public about the need for a $700 billion bailout package to stave off "a long and painful recession," Lehman Brothers had recently failed and federal regulators had taken over Washington Mutual.

This time around, 16 percent of those surveyed believe that their family will have a tougher time economically in the next year. "I don't think the economy has hit rock bottom yet. ... People are still losing their jobs, housing hasn't really made a big comeback," said Anita Svec, 52, of Scandia. She's been unemployed for two years, and said she can't begin to count the number of job applications she's filled out. "The job market is completely dry. It's like a desert out there." The national unemployment rate hit 9.7 percent in August; Minnesota's was 8.0 percent.

Although Kara Scheck's husband is still working, she thinks her family will be among those experiencing a lower standard of living in the next 12 months. That's because the Delano stay-at-home mom believes that taxes will increase dramatically, taking a bite out of workers' paychecks.

"He's got to pay for all of this somehow," she said, referring to President Obama's stimulus projects.

Scheck is one of the 38 percent of those surveyed who disapprove of how Obama is handling the nation's economic challenges.

A slim majority -- 53 percent -- said they approve of the president's economic moves. The rest were undecided. "It was a challenging situation he inherited, and I think he responded quickly, and it seems like, at least at present, things are turning around," said 29-year-old medical student Leslie King-Schultz of Rochester.

'Running amok with greed'

Fronczak, the retired special-ed teacher, said: "No one was minding the store with our economy. ... People [were] running amok with greed. It ruined a lot of things people had faith in for a long time [such as the stock market]."

He and his wife's investments "took a tremendous beating," he said, and they are reconsidering whether his wife can retire next year at age 62 as planned. Nevertheless, Fronczak, of Woodbury, is one of the 38 percent of poll respondents who describe their family financial situations as "good," the same percentage as a year ago. In April, 34 percent of Minnesotans surveyed felt that way.

Brian Sorvik of Duluth feels good about his family finances, despite that his wife lost her job processing claims for United Healthcare. His job as a postal worker is secure, he said, and his income can carry the family's expenses with careful accounting and smart choices. They used to eat dinner out once or twice a week. Now, it's "hamburgers on the grill instead of going to McDonald's or to the steakhouse," he said.

For nearly two-thirds of Minnesotans, the recession is not just something they read about in the news. They are feeling its effects directly. When asked, 65 percent of poll respondents said that they or their spouses had experienced one or more of the following: lost a job, absorbed a cut in pay or benefits, postponed retirement, taken on more debt or changed vacation plans in the past 12 months. Specifically, 16 percent of respondents lost a job; 33 percent were socked with a cut in benefits or pay. Of those contacted for the poll, 32 percent took on more debt to make ends meet, 43 percent scaled back or canceled a vacation and 14 percent said they delayed retirement.

Then there are those Minnesotans who spend their days the same way no matter the economic cycle. Marine on St. Croix resident Jewell Anderson, 82, said that it doesn't take much money to "read my paper and look out at what's going on on the lake." She's with the 48 percent of those polled who believe that their finances will stay about the same over the next year.

Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293