Julie Daily is finally knocking home improvement projects off her to-do list.

Money was tight for nearly two years after she lost her job at Ameriprise and while she hunted for a new one. She raided her 401(k) and delayed any big spending.

But U.S. Bank hired her in September. She's making more money than she used to, and calling contractors about overdue repairs to her little blue house a few blocks north of Lake Hiawatha.

The windows that need replacing, the gutters, the first-floor insulation — she plans to fix it all in 2015.

"These are things that I've put on hold, and I don't think I need to keep holding them anymore," said Daily, 58.

After a brutal recession and years of sluggish recovery, the U.S. economy is gaining real momentum. Daily found a job after a prolonged period of unemployment. Others are leaving good jobs for better ones, starting businesses and entering the job market after years away.

The government reported Friday that employers added 252,000 jobs in December, capping a year of gains that was the strongest since 1999. Unemployment in Minnesota is at a 13-year low, at 3.7 percent. Industries like manufacturing and construction have started hiring. Business lending, which fuels growth, is on the rise and consumer sentiment is as high as it's been in seven years.

It's a change from the early years of this decade, when the rapid growth that typically follows a recession failed to materialize. Throw in low gas prices that save most families about $70 per month — the cost of a gallon has even dipped below $2 in the Twin Cities — and many people's financial situation is better than it has been in years.

"If this is a six-cylinder car, it's firing on four-and-a-half cylinders," said Eugenio Aleman, an economist for Wells Fargo based in Charlotte. "The one-and-a-half that are not firing are the housing sector and the energy markets."

The joy of quitting

While employers still aren't giving the big raises they might offer in boom times, workers are seeing more opportunities to move around and advance their careers.

Joshua Groll worked on the sales floor at Best Buy in Roseville while he studied marketing and finance at Augsburg College. When he graduated in 2010 he moved into a corporate job at headquarters in Richfield.

He worked at the retailer for nearly five years, forecasting sales of televisions and speakers and appliances. He wasn't exactly in the market for something new this past fall, but when a recruiter contacted him on LinkedIn about a forecasting job at Boston Scientific, he listened. Less than a month later he was hired, just up the road from where he grew up in Plymouth.

"It was a 25 to 35 percent raise, better benefits, that kind of thing," said Groll, 25, who's working on an MBA at the University of Minnesota. "It also was kind of an opportunity to work with new products, things that aren't just retail."

Groll's example is a good sign for the economy. Not only does it show there's demand for professionals with specialized skills — Groll combines statistical know-how with an ability to communicate — but people are becoming more willing to take a risk to pursue a good opportunity.

Some 2.7 million Americans quit their jobs voluntarily in September and another 2.7 million in October — the highest monthly totals since early 2008.

Surveys of workers show that many more people are unhappy with their jobs and would like to quit than actually do, said Scott Anderson, chief economist at Bank of the West in San Francisco.

"A major factor holding most people back is fear of not finding another job when they quit," Anderson said. "When you see a higher quit rate, it can be a signal that employees are becoming more confident in the labor market and their ability to get another job."

Confidence and catering

It can be even scarier to strike out on one's own to start a business, which is what Tracy Kohler did.

She worked for 12 years as a project manager for a medical exam company, then decided to start a bakery and catering firm.

Farina Bakeshop opened in Excelsior in April. Business depends in part on corporate events and holiday parties, and sales have been strong. Kohler sold two dozen carrot cakes in about a week in December. She says her ham and Gruyère brioche rolls and almond bostock are starting to earn a reputation.

"The economy is back up, and it's running, and people are spending money again," Kohler, 36, said.

Despite her passion for baking, Kohler admits it would have been much more difficult to launch the business three or four years ago. Her new livelihood is tied in part to how confident people who run businesses are feeling.

Thankfully for her, confidence is growing. A fourth-quarter survey of large companies by the consulting firm Deloitte showed that 63 percent of North American chief financial officers in the fourth quarter believed the economy is either good or very good. That compares to 44 percent only three months earlier.

In the Upper Midwest, home to four of the five lowest state unemployment rates in the nation, including Minnesota, almost 90 percent of business leaders are optimistic, the highest reading in the history of the Minneapolis Fed's annual survey. And there's a ripple effect.

"People want to have celebrations," Kohler said. "Take the holiday parties for example — holiday parties two or three years ago were really cut back a ton. This year and a little bit last year, people are starting to spend a little bit more money to show appreciation to their employees."

Still uneven

That appreciation only goes so far, though, and typically still isn't showing up in generous pay raises. Average earnings in December actually fell by 5 cents an hour nationwide.

Pay has been stagnant and is forecast for slow growth in 2015 despite a dropping unemployment rate and the growing chorus of complaints from business owners who say they can't find qualified workers. Certain occupations may be attracting higher wages, but not most jobs, said Rob Grunewald, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

"It's basically at what time do we see enough pressure on businesses to take that next step to raise salaries and wages more broadly?" Grunewald said. "Broadly based, we haven't seen companies take that next step."

There are also still a lot of people outside the workforce. Many older workers who lost their jobs have found themselves in limbo between retirement and underemployment, and young workers have struggled to establish themselves in a job market that's been slower to recover than corporate profits. In Minnesota, black and Hispanic unemployment remain far higher than white joblessness.

The employment-to-population ratio — the share of people over 16 who have a job — is still below the prerecession peak and well below the level in 2000, both in Minnesota and the U.S. Part of the reason for that is boomer retirements, but many who lost jobs in the recession never got back into the workforce. Twice as many workers are out of the workforce because they're discouraged than were in 2007 — about 698,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Meanwhile, about 2.7 million Americans have been officially unemployed for more than six months — also twice as many as in 2007. And the share of people working part-time jobs because they can't find anything better is still high by historical standards.

"Individuals and households have come to a realization that the economy is on the mend," Aleman, the Wells Fargo economist, said. "I think that it is the first time that the overall feeling of the economy is that things are getting better, finally, but still we need to see some increases in wages and salaries, because there's a lot of people that are still not seeing the benefits."

Return to the workforce

Still, the number of workers who are getting off the sidelines and back into the job market is increasing.

Juli McGilp was a stay-at-home mom in Champlin for 14 years, caring for her two daughters, before she decided a year ago to go back to work.

One daughter was in a private school and the other was taking dance lessons — new expenses for the family. McGilp applied for several jobs but didn't get anywhere through the summer. Most times she didn't even get a call back, she believes because she hadn't worked for so long.

"It's a little intimidating," she said. "I was beginning to feel like I wasn't a valuable member of society, like I didn't have anything to offer."

Part of the difficulty was that she wanted a part-time job that didn't force her to work on weekends or holidays. Her husband is a geologist who sometimes travels or works nights, and McGilp needed flexible hours to be there for her daughters. "I was pretty selective," she said.

In late October she found a job on Craigslist at Happy Feet Footcare, a service for the elderly near her home. She interviewed and almost immediately got an offer. The job pays $12 an hour.

"It's like a dream job for me, getting back into working after 14 years. It's really ideal," she said. "I think there's a lot to pick from out there."

Julie Daily's job is in risk management at U.S. Bank. She's making $6,000 per year more than she did at Ameriprise two years ago. Her company is hiring. She doesn't expect huge raises on the horizon, but next year she will be eligible for a bonus.

None of her friends, she said, are unemployed or struggling financially. Several are looking forward to retirement, as what had been a scary future now looks smoother and calmer.

"The people I work with are not worried about their economy," Daily said. "I know that I don't need to be as cautious as I was."

Adam Belz • 612-673-4405 Twitter: @adambelz