Less than a year ago it was a struggle to keep up with the Joneses. Now the Joneses are not spending. The new struggle is to keep down with the Joneses. This theme is discussed in Consumers cut back on small pleasures.

Such small luxuries seemed almost necessities in happier economic times. But no more for lots of folks, including those and other USA TODAY readers who described how they’ve changed their habits.

The murky financial outlook and recession fears are factors. Another driver: fear of being out of step with a cultural mind-set that increasingly says less is more. If your best friend and next-door neighbors are cutting back on little luxuries, shouldn’t you be, too?

“For years, we had the opposite. It was all about keeping up with the Joneses. Now, the Joneses are starting to cut back,” says Ellie Kay, author of 12 personal finance books.

“There’s a sense that prices are rising — and will continue to rise — but wages will not,” says Ken Goldstein, economist at The Conference Board. “This is squeezing household budgets whether they’re $200 per week or $200,000 per year. Folks are looking closely at anything they don’t have to purchase now.”

“The new status isn’t how much you’ve got, but your ability to show what you don’t spend,” says futurist Watts Wacker, who advises businesses on trends.

“This is a seminal moment. It’s not a fad that will die out when the economy picks up.”

Trends guru Faith Popcorn puts it this way: “It’s cooler not to spend.”

Borrowers Abandon Mortgages

The Wall Street Journal is reporting Borrowers Abandon Mortgages as Prices Drop.

As home prices plummet, growing numbers of borrowers are winding up owing more on their homes than the homes are worth, raising concerns that a new group of homeowners — those who can afford to pay their mortgages but have decided not to — are starting to walk away from their homes.

In the Phoenix area, where home prices were off 15% in the fourth-quarter when compared with a year ago, accountant Steven Ulrich says several of his clients have recently said they plan to walk away. One client’s home is now worth $100,000 less than the mortgage and the other is $60,000 underwater.

“It surprised me,” said Mr. Ulrich, who works at The Focus Group in Scottsdale. “I’d never had people doing that before, if they had to it was something they were forced into. But these people are choosing it as a strategy, and I think it’s going to be happening a lot more.”

Some financial advisers are even encouraging homeowners who are upside down to consider foreclosure, which they see as a purely financial decision with limited negative consequences. YouWalkAway.com, a Web site started in January that offers foreclosure counseling to homeowners, advises that borrowers who default on one mortgage can typically get another mortgage between two and four years after a foreclosure. Then, “before you know it, you will have this behind you and a fresh start!” the site says.

Facing Default, Some Walk Out on New Homes

A similar article in the New York Times is Facing Default, Some Walk Out on New Homes.

When Raymond Zulueta went into default on his mortgage last year, he did what a lot of people do. He worried. “I was terrified,” said Mr. Zulueta, who services automated teller machines for an armored car company in the San Francisco area.

Then in January he learned about a new company in San Diego called You Walk Away that does just what its name says. For $995, it helps people walk away from their homes, ceding them to the banks in foreclosure.

Last week he moved into a three-bedroom rental home for $1,200 a month, less than half the cost of his mortgage. The old house is now the lender’s problem. “They took the negativity out of my life,” Mr. Zulueta said of You Walk Away. “I was stressing over nothing.”

In recent months top executives from Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wachovia have all described a new willingness by borrowers to walk away from mortgages.

Carrie Newhouse, a real estate agent who also works as a loss mitigation consultant for mortgage lenders in Minneapolis-St. Paul, said she saw many homeowners who looked at foreclosure as a first option, preferable to dealing with their lender. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘My house isn’t worth what I owe, why should I continue to make payments on it?’ ” Mrs. Newhouse said.

The same sorts of loans that drove the real estate boom now change the nature of foreclosure, giving borrowers incentives to walk away, said Todd Sinai, an associate professor of real estate at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

“There’s a whole lot of people who would’ve been stuck as renters without these exotic loan products,” Professor Sinai said. “Now it’s like they can do their renting from the bank, and if house values go up, they become the owner. If they go down, you have the choice to give the house back to the bank. You aren’t any worse off than renting, and you got a chance to do extremely well. If it’s heads I win, tails the bank loses, it’s worth the gamble.”

50 Ways To Leave Your Mortgage

You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just get yourself free
Hop on the bus, Gus
You don’t need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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