NEW YORK -- American consumers changed in ways large and small after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon a year ago.
Experts say that many Americans shop differently now, seeking better value for their money. They are more conservative with investments, having experienced the near-collapse of the stock markets last September. They fly a lot less. And they're taking advantage of the lowest interest rates in decades to buy new homes or spruce up the ones they own.
"Economies run on psychology," said Ken Winans, an investment manager in Novato, Calif. "The difference between your pulling out your credit card and buying or not buying depends on your perception of your own well-being.
"Until something like this happens, we forgot how fragile it all is."
"Fragile," "vulnerable" and "cautious" are bywords of many consumers who were battered by last year's recession and then the Sept. 11 attacks.
Their tentative attitude is one reason economists believe that the nation's economic recovery is so lackluster. And no one is sure if such feelings are temporary or mark permanent changes in the way consumers think and behave.
Marta Stevens, 44, who helps develop Sesame Street projects, compares her reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks to the feelings of those who experienced the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 or the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
"I think it was one of those defining moments," Stevens said. "It stays with you. It takes a long time to get your bravado back."
She and her husband, developer and builder William Gray, moved to rural Charlottesville, Va., late last year. She says she travels less, buys less for herself, and is focused on "nesting" -- making her home more comfortable.
"My priorities have changed," she said. "I'd sooner hold on to my money and spend it on things that keep me safer or that give me pleasure, like a gift for my mother," Stevens said.
Sung Won Sohn, chief economist at Wells Fargo & Co., believes that in the post-Sept. 11 era, American consumers "are more judicious about how they spend."
That's why, he said, they're more likely to shop at discount stores than department stores, or to take on do-it-yourself projects with materials from Home Depot rather than hiring a contractor.
Still, they remain very rational, he added: "Given the right incentives, like zero percent financing, they're out there buying things like cars and appliances."
That's also the reason home purchases and refinancings have been hitting record levels, Sohn said. Federal Reserve interest rate cuts last year -- including four after the attacks -- have pushed mortgage rates to the lowest levels in years, making home buying a lot cheaper.
For Harriet Lessy, 60, a media relations specialist in Philadelphia, security issues have become part of life.
"Friends say, 'Don't fly,"' she said. "Of course I'm going to, for business or pleasure. I consider it inappropriate to change my lifestyle that way."
Still, she said, she's more conscious of how she spends her money -- and with whom.
"I would pass up a new cocktail dress," she said. "But I would spend money and time having company for dinner in my home."
This year, too, she is planning a trip with her 28-year-old daughter, something they haven't done for a while.
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