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You Don’t Have To Read the Paper To Measure How the Economy Is Doing

December 20, 2010 · 48 comments

in Personal Finance

Paper? What was I thinking when I wrote that title?  The major paper in our state is in such bad shape that it only delivers 3 days a week. (Or is it 4?) Of course, you can pick it up at a newsstand or Starbucks for a ridiculous price, and there is barely any ‘meat’ to it.

Anyway, I watch CNBC sometimes and I do watch some news programs, all of which provide plenty of information about the state of our economy.  Often times, the ‘facts’ vary based on which show you are watching.

I started thinking the other day though, I don’t need anyone else to tell me how the economy is doing.  I can just look around to form my opinion.  Here are my new leading indicators to tell me if the economy is fully recovered or not.

  1. Red Lobster Effect:  Back in the day, Red Lobster used to provide a free dessert on your birthday.  When my husband had his most recent birthday, we went to Red Lobster and I inquired about what you get for free.  Yes, the obnoxious singers will still surround you clapping, but the ‘dessert’ has changed from a nice piece of cake (or dessert of your choice) to a little mound of Reddi Whip with a candle stuck in the middle.  Oh, and some chocolate syrup drizzle on top also.   They even had the nerve to provide numerous spoons so we could all share in the treat!
  2. Library Hours: Our city is not a poor city.  However, the city’s tax revenue has dropped because a lot of businesses have moved out, and property values have plummeted.   As part of budget cuts, our library is now closed on Saturdays.  In addition, our mayor is threatening to close the library completely because she is carrying a grudge because her pet millage didn’t pass.  As with much of the country, our city has enjoyed a spending spree for many years, and apparently, the library is the only way to make up the deficit.
  3. Construction Signs: With all the economic problems, I expected construction to be at a minimum this year.  Not so!  There was more construction than ever!  What was different though was the signs around the road construction in the city I live in.  To ‘justify’ the road spending, the city put signs up all over the place saying “80 percent of these road improvements were paid for with Federal Dollars”.  I think they needed a follow up sign that said “100 percent of the cost of these signs were paid for with YOUR tax dollars”.
  4. Traffic: I don’t know if it is some other phenomenon, but with so many businesses picking up and leaving and less people having jobs, I don’t sit in traffic nearly as long as I used to .  However, this is one situation where I would welcome more traffic, because it would signify that more people were employed.
  5. Grocery Store: It wasn’t too long ago that I was the only shopper marching up and down the aisles with my coupons in hand.  Now I see all kinds of people sorting through their coupons at the store; men, women-  I even saw some teenagers using coupons a couple weeks ago.  (Go teens!)

So, I am going to keep my eyes open to the world around me to determine when the economy is back on track.  I will be sure to let you know, although it may have to wait until someone in my family has a birthday and we finally get a decent free dessert!

Have you noticed similar things where you live?

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{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

Money Reasons December 20, 2010 at 6:52 am

What really kills me about Red Lobster is that in my local city, they actually weight the salads and soup before sending the out??? Now that’s cheap!

I use restaurants as a gauge as to whether the economy is doing better too. Great tips!
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Kris December 20, 2010 at 10:47 am

Yikes – I bet they do the same where I live too. How ridiculous.

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101 Centavos December 20, 2010 at 7:00 am

For me, it’s been the number of houses in the neighborhood that haven’t put up any Christmas lights, as compared to seasons past.
At work, coincidentally, the number of calls from small manufacturing businesses that were desperately looking for work to fill empty backlogs have been steadily dropping off. This could either signal an economic recovery, or more likely, a reality that the weaker members of the herd have been culled, and gone out of business.

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Kris December 20, 2010 at 10:48 am

101- Ironically, my neighborhood has more Christmas lights this year, which I found surprising.

I really hope in your case the economy is recovering and not that the little guys went out of business.

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The Grouch December 20, 2010 at 8:16 am

As Dylan says: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” By the way, what’s a newspaper?

For me it’s the number of for sale by owner signs, and the number of empty store fronts and how long they remain empty.
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Kris December 20, 2010 at 10:50 am

Biz – I take it you don’t read a newspaper anymore? I love the newspaper, and I really miss it. We ended up subscribing to a paper that is more local, but it just isn’t the same.

I have not seen a ‘for sale by owner’ sign in ages in my neighborhood. We sold both our houses ourselves, but I don’t know I would try that now unless I had ages to sell.

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Nicole December 20, 2010 at 8:38 am

Nope. Our little town is growing. We’re starting to upscale. You would not know there was a recession at all. Why eat at Red Lobster when there’s a new Indian food place in town?

Going by The Grouch’s metrics, DH’s hometown is doing great too… 2 years ago it was all for sale signs and empty store fronts, but then the auto industry bounced back and it was thriving over Thanksgiving. Well, thriving as much as a town of under 10K can thrive.

Our town is also a blaze of lights and puffy lawn balloons… even the Jewish houses had electric candles in the windows, with the occasional lawn menorah.
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Kris December 20, 2010 at 10:51 am

Nicole- I eat at Red Lobster because I love the clam chowder their, and the crab-stuffed mushrooms.

Glad things look so good where you live. I do sense the start of a recovery around Detroit, but I don’t want to jinx anything…

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Nicole December 20, 2010 at 10:56 am

We haven’t been since they changed their rolls recipe. DH used to love love love their rolls and now he cannot bring himself to go back as the last time (10? 12? years ago) was such a disappointment. There’s some local fish places in town that are generally preferred… they are way out-competed by a local chain the students love.
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Kris December 21, 2010 at 12:00 am

You mean those delicious cheese biscuits that are so warm and really bad for you? WE all love them!

I am tempted to move to one of the coasts just so I can eat fresh seafood every day instead of going to Red Lobster. My two favorite clam chowders were on opposite coasts. One at a small pub in Gloucester, MA and the other on a pier in Monterey Bay.

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DoNotWait December 20, 2010 at 8:54 am

There’s no Red Lobster’s anymore here… for a long time already! But that is because I live in Quebec, Canada! They shut them all 15-20 years ago. I heard some cities got one back. Anyways, it is always shocking to me to see how the economy is going on your side. I did see a couple of stores closing here, houses sold by owners (or even by the bank), more people being unemployed, etc. But there are lots of Christmas lights this year and as much “clear the snow off” companies signs in my neighborhood than the years before. Restaurants are almost always full and shopping malls those days also. So, yes, good points you brought but I truly wish that there will be less and less next year. Did you notice any signs that the economy is getting better??
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Kris December 20, 2010 at 10:52 am

DNW- I do think things might be getting a little better here. We do have more Christmas lights, so that is something. I have talked to some people that work in smaller manufacturing companies and they have been hiring, along with some of the automotive companies. We will bounce back eventually, but I think it will take longer than many parts of the country.

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Linda December 20, 2010 at 9:13 am

A mixed bag here, I guess. Last night the local news was reporting that holiday sales seem to be “back to normal” in the area, so I assume that means that people are spending like crazy. I avoid the usual shopping venues at this time of year, so I can’t say I’ve seen this heavy activity myself, though.

On the other hand, the BF and I were enjoying lunch at a local restaurant yesterday that features a buffet. (Not one of those chain buffet restaurants, this was a Serbian place; I think I had a bit too much goulash, but it was sooooo gooooodddd!) We saw two women come in with a child. They approached the buffet area, checking everything out and quizzing the staff in Serbian. I didn’t have to speak the language to realize they were “negotiating” the price of the buffet for themselves and the child. Maybe that’s just normal in these situations? It was my first time there, so I’m not sure.

Maybe I’m just not tuned in to the “indicators” or maybe Chicago is doing pretty good overall. The only house in my immediate neighborhood that had been boarded up with foreclosure notices on it is now gone, literally. The house was pulled down and a new one is being constructed in it’s place.
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Kris December 20, 2010 at 10:55 am

Oh I am sure Chicago is doing much better than Detroit. We are just so dependent on the auto industry whereas Chicago is more ‘business-diverse’. However, as the auto industry picks up, we will too, and I think it is starting to happen. (Thank God GM and Chrysler were bailed out or I would have a lot of unemployed friends and I cannot imagine what would happen to our area in general.)

Also, I check out the price of my house on Zillow and it actually increased since the last time I saw! I think it is up 13,000 since June. Still has a ways to go, but I will take what I can get.

I wonder if in the case of the Serbians, it is a cultural thing?

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Jacq @ Single Mom Rich Mom December 20, 2010 at 9:15 am

I’m with fellow Canuck DoNotWait but am in a wealthier province – no signs of recession here. But, unlike 1-2 years ago when there was a Help Wanted sign in EVERY store and McD’s was advertising jobs rather than hamburgers on their outside signs, that’s calmed down a bit. We’re still importing in people from other countries / down east to fill jobs though.

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Kris December 20, 2010 at 10:56 am

Jacq- sounds like your area has stabilized somewhat. We will too over time I am sure. But a lot of people and businesses have left, but I guess that is supply and demand at its finest.

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MoneyCone December 20, 2010 at 10:18 am

You could be describing any city in America today. Why do they always gun for libraries when there is a budget crisis?
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Kris December 20, 2010 at 10:44 am

I agree Moneycone! The unemployed need library resources, as do all the students, really anyone. Why would you take away someone’s ability to educate themselves? Our mayor is a joke and has her own personal vendetta.

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MoneyCone December 20, 2010 at 11:02 am

Great point Kris!
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Financial Samurai December 20, 2010 at 10:49 am

It’s weird… San Francisco, as I’ve stated in blog posts since this summer is absolutely HOPPING! It’s ridiculous how much traffic and commerce is going on.

Maybe I am living in a parallel universe, I donno. But given what I saw this summer, I bought a lot of stock. Maybe I’m just an optimist?

State services however, suck. One of my favorite buses got canceled, which makes going to one of the racquet clubs a PITA.
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Kris December 20, 2010 at 5:27 pm

San Francisco is a hub for people all over the world. Who wouldn’t want to travel to San Francisco? You have so many great things fairly close by too (Monterey, Yosemite, Wine Country, etc.) You don’t live in a parallel universe, you just live in one of the sweet spots of the country. (In my opinion.)

I am sure with the state of California’s economy, many services have been cut. Hopefully it can get turned around.

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retirebyforty December 20, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Target parking lot – it is always packed these days, the economy must be getting better. Traffic is getting worse these past few months, I guess it’s good but I hate driving in traffic.
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Kris December 20, 2010 at 7:32 pm

Our traffic has been worse lately, but just because of the snow!

Target stores around here seem to be packed no matter how little people have to spend.

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Squirrelers December 20, 2010 at 12:27 pm

I think much of this really depends on where you live.

Here in Chicago, things seem pretty good in general, and downtown seems to be doing really well. That said, the growth and building boom of 5 years ago isn’t quite happening anymore. There seem to be better sales, and I do know that there are many highly paid professionals that have been laid off and had trouble getting back in. So overall, I’d say things are are fine, perhaps better than some other areas, but not in “growth” mode as before.

To add to Financial Samurai’s comment, I do think San Francisco is a parallel universe:) Reason I say that is that I do visit there annually, as I have a lot of family there, including some that recently moved OUT of the city, on to Marin. Anyway, they had an open house and had over 100 people there despite a steady rain! I can’t imagine that being the case at open houses in most other parts of the country. I think that the experience of folks there is probably vastly different than that of many other places. Certainly different than even Chicago, which is doing ok compared to many other places.
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Kris December 20, 2010 at 7:34 pm

I agree Squirrel, I think San Francisco is somewhat of an anomaly. I am glad Chicago is doing so well. One thing I do not notice here at all is new home building. There is no need to build new office building because so many buildings are vacant. If your business is thriving, this would be a great place to put your headquarters because we will offer low rent and low taxes!

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Suba @ Wealth Informatics December 20, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Mall parking lots. Any time of the day, any day of the week, it is always packed. I don’t know how people go to work if they are always in the mall or if they are in the mall “because” they don’t go to work. The malls are absolutely crowded, even the costly stores, not just walmart/target. It is raining continuously for the last 1.5 weeks, even then the malls are crowded.

Library on the other hand tells a very different story. They seems to be cutting hours slowly. First it was 1 day off, then weekends off, now they work only from 9-2. Quite unfortunate actually. Library is one of the most needed resource and that is the first thing that gets cut. We have been petitioning to keep it running, no hope in site.
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Kris December 20, 2010 at 7:36 pm

Suba – your library situation is worse than mine, unless of course they completely close the library like our mayor threatens.

I remember when I was younger, you would sit in traffic forever to get into the mall parking lot. Now, you can pull right up. I don’t know if it is because there are more malls, or less shoppers.

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Crystal @ BFS December 20, 2010 at 2:01 pm

We have even more traffic because people heard Houston may have jobs. I’m okay with that. :-)

I’ll know when the economy is recovered when we actually have to wait for a seat in a restaurant again but see hardly anyone in the grocery store.

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Kris December 20, 2010 at 7:38 pm

BFS – We rarely have to wait to be seated in a restaurant. The down side is that I don’t think restaurants hire enough people because of the decreased number of patrons. So even when the restaurant is empty, you still have to wait to be served.

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Little House December 20, 2010 at 2:18 pm

In my city the traffic has gotten much worse, especially now around the holidays. There seems to be a lot of people out shopping (Suba lives not too far from me and I noticed she mentioned the same thing!), so perhaps my local economy is improving. However, I know my state is in dire straights; they’ve got a huge deficit on their hands and the new governor is “shocked” at how bad the budget is. I’m reading between the lines and predicting that it means more cuts to education. Not good for me at all!
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Kris December 20, 2010 at 7:40 pm

California is puzzling to me. The state seems to be doing quite well in some ways, but the finances of the state itself are a mess.

Well, if you stick to your bike, you won’t have to worry about the traffic as much I guess.

You and Suba should meet at a Starbucks and chat! I don’t think I live near any fellow bloggers. :(

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First Gen American December 20, 2010 at 3:48 pm

The Northeast is also hopping. I tried getting reservations for Saturday night and both places I wanted didn’t have anything available til at least 8:30pm. This was a Christmas present, so I picked a couple of upscale places to go.

That and of course the parking lot effect. Restaurants around here always seem to be packed. You’d never know things were bad.

Other indicators:
Does your fast food joint have help wanted signs?
Are you getting more door to door salesmen?

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Kris December 20, 2010 at 7:42 pm

We have been getting a lot of people going door to door selling coupon books and such.

I guess I live in the wrong part of the country because everyone else seems to be doing so well! We will catch up. (Hopefully)

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JohnG Home Loans December 20, 2010 at 5:44 pm

This post had a little personality to it! I loved it, especially learning about the aptly named: Red Lobster Effect.
Cheers, and coupons for all!
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Kris December 20, 2010 at 7:42 pm

Why thank you John G! :)

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Aloysa December 20, 2010 at 11:27 pm

I was reading and wondering if we live in the same city. Until I read about the library. Our library stays open on Satruday and Sundays (which is unusual for our Mormon state.) So, okay, we are not in the same city. But all the signs are very alike.

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Kris December 21, 2010 at 12:02 am

So I assume you are in Utah… (I think I may have known that now that I think about it.) I hope for the best for our library, but with local politics, who in the world knows.

I hope things improve for both our states!

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Crystal @ BFS December 21, 2010 at 2:15 pm

I’d be soooo sad if they messed with our libraries!

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Kris December 22, 2010 at 9:15 am

There is a lot of outrage in our community, that is for sure. Libraries in neighboring communities are also closed one day a week. However, ours is the only one that is threatening to full-out close. It is ironic because our school district is in the top 3 in the state year over year, so we obviously value education. I think the mayor knew that people loved the library and tried to attach a bunch of other things to a millage with the library so everything would pass. But, her plan backfired.

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Lindy Mint December 21, 2010 at 6:46 pm

Wow, that is a terribly sad dessert story at Red Lobster.
Our city stacks up a little differently than yours, but one thing I did notice this year was in the “teacher gifts” my husband received from his students. Normally he gets a barrage of gift cards. This year it was mostly baked goods (which I’m not complaining about!) I was thinking that last year the economy was worse, but I guess the cumulative effects have caught up to everyone.

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Kris December 22, 2010 at 9:13 am

Very interesting. Maybe more people are unemployed and have time to bake? I cannot walk away from baked goods, so I would really struggle at your house right now!

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Buck December 22, 2010 at 1:24 am

Very entertaining and observant of you :) I racked my brain and I have one. Marie Callender’s used to give a huge loaf of cornbread before your meal. Now it’s a small square. Still yummy, but it is a shell of its former self, at least the cornbread serving :)
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Kris December 22, 2010 at 8:43 am

Buck – I love cornbread too, so that would be quite disappointing.

I would love to see the cost/benefit analysis of making these changes.

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QUALITY STOCKS UNDER 5 DOLLARS April 4, 2013 at 7:37 pm

The economy is no longer creating high wage jobs.

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