10 More Quirky Economic Indicators

There are a lot of traditional benchmarks to gauge the economy. This list does not include them.

Many Americans struggle to decipher news about producer prices, inflation, consumer confidence and other factors that are supposed to shed light on the state of the economy. Yet more common occurrences may be easier to comprehend -- and perhaps can offer an even better reading of the nation’s fiscal health.

10 More Quirky Economic Indicators

For example, what’s up with all those “Missing Dog” signs? A recent spike in stolen pets can be blamed on the bad economy. And the gray hairs popping up on the heads of friends and co-workers? Those are proof that cash-strapped consumers are skipping salon visits.

Our latest list of quirky economic indicators to watch shows that Americans are still tending to their recession wounds and signaling that recovery is a distant idea. Plus, it may be good for a laugh. And isn’t that the best medicine?

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More Finger Painting

Historically, the “Leading Lipstick Indicator” has shown that sales of inexpensive cosmetics increase in poor economies when women seek out affordable luxuries. And current beauty trends support the theory: Makeup sales in the first five months of 2011 were strong, according to market research company NPD Group.

The boldest segment in the industry was nail polish -- a little pick-me-up every time a woman lifts a pen. A bright nail color is a small luxury. Nail-care products increased dollar sales between January and May by 57% compared with 2010.

Less Kicking and Screaming in Stores

We adults may be throwing a fit over price tags, but maybe you’ll hear less of it from kids these days, as leaving children at home during a shopping trip seems to be the only way parents will maintain spending goals. A survey conducted by Kelton Research around back-to-school season this year showed that the majority of parents feel pressured by their kids to buy certain brands and products.

How well do you handle sticky financial situations with your kids? Test your financial reflexes to find out.

Less Kicking and Screaming in General

By the mid 2030s, only 25% to 30% of households in the U.S. will include kids, according to Nielsen, compared with the current figure of 33.6%. Unstable economic times can make potential parents think twice before adding another mouth to feed. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fertility rates fell more rapidly from 2007 to 2009 -- to 66.7 births per every 1,000 women in the country -- than in any two-year period in more than three decades.

More “$” Savings Advertised

Watch for a savvy marketing shift in circular ads, television commercials and coupons. Three years ago, according to America’s Research Group, when consumers were asked about the influence of advertising on their buying, they responded at a ratio of three to one that they were more motivated by advertisements presenting a percentage savings. Today, customers are all about dollar savings -- at a ratio of two to one. “You can’t save a percentage sign,” says Britt Beemer, chairman and founder of America’s Research Group. “You save dollars.”

Less Auto-Repair Traffic

Chances are, the stark, uncomfortable waiting room at the auto repair shop is not your ideal destination. But under current economic conditions, at least you won’t have to share the out-of-date magazines with as many of your fellow drivers. According to NPD Group’s forecasting, as long as gasoline prices remain above $3 a gallon -- the recent nationwide average is $3.47 -- drivers will cut back on the miles they drive.

And less driving means less wear and tear, and less maintenance. In fact, for the first half of 2011, total miles driven in the U.S. were down 15.5 billion compared with the same period in 2010, according to NPD. In 2011 through July, auto parts sales were down 1.7% compared with the same period in 2010.

More Lottery Players

Your odds of winning were bad before, but they’re worse now, thanks to increased competition. Some state lotteries are bringing in record-breaking sales, even as Nielsen reports that 31% of Americans say they have no extra cash for discretionary spending. Tennessee, for instance, reported a 4.2% increase in total sales in the 2011 fiscal year, which ended June 30, compared with 2010. That’s $1.19 billion for the year -- more than ever before.

This is no anomaly. The Virginia state lottery also set a new sales record in fiscal year 2011 (which ended June 30), according to the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries. And total lottery sales in the United States were up in 2011, compared with 2010 sales.

Less Sparkle

The uncertain economic future may weigh heavily on your mind, but your finger may be feeling a little lighter. According to the 2011 American Wedding Study conducted by Brides magazine, the average amount spent on an engagement ring has dropped 27% since 2009, to $4,647. While that’s nothing to sneeze at, the smaller ring budget shows a conservative shift in spending. The average wedding cost has also decreased, by more than 5%, since 2009. (See Wedding Bells on a Budget and 6 Ways to Save $10,000 on Your Wedding for ideas to cut costs on your nuptials.)

More Missing Pets

Stapled on telephone poles, posted at the local coffee shop, tucked under wiper blades -- those “missing Spike” flyers may be spotted more often in this economy. In the first seven months of 2011, 224 pets were reported stolen, compared with 150 pets in the same period of 2010. And for the first time, theft from adoption events and shelters has become a trend.

The AKC Companion Animal Recovery National Pet Theft Database cites a few possible causes for the high number of thefts, all linked to financial issues. The pets may be resold for profit, held for ransom or reward money, or kept by thieves who don’t want to pay the purchase price or adoption fee for a pet. (Furry -- or scaly, slimy or feathery -- friends can be quite pricey; see The True Cost of Owning a Pet.)

More DIY-ers

There goes the neighborhood. According to the National Gardening Association's 2011 National Gardening Survey, the number of households using lawn care and landscape professionals declined by 8% this year and is lower than it has been in the past five years. Four times as many weekend warriors did the work themselves, compared with those who hired a professional.

Another gardening trend, first mentioned in our 2009 collection of 10 Quirky Economic Indicators, continued this year: Americans spent 20% more on food gardens -- including vegetable gardens, fruit trees, berries and herb gardens -- this year than they did in 2008.

Fewer Salon and Spa Visits

They don’t call it platinum blonde for nothin’. Keeping up your locks is a luxury. And based on 2011 findings from market research and consulting firm SymphonyIRI’s Quarterly MarketPulse Survey, conservative spending habits may result in a few more split ends, shaggy haircuts or bad dye-jobs. Of the people surveyed, 55% of women and 38% of men are visiting hair salons and spas less frequently than they used to. To fill the void, 40% of women and 19% of men are using at-home treatments, such as coloring their own hair.

Contributing Writer, Kiplinger.com