Even the rich are spending cautiously.
Five years ago, Mike Cockrell, chief financial officer at Sanderson Farms, a large U.S. poultry producer in Laurel, Miss., had just paid off a mortgage and was looking forward to the extra spending money. Then Lehman collapsed, and he decided to save it instead.
"I watched the news of the stock market going down 100, 200 points a day, and I was glad I had cash," he says, recalling the steep drops in the Dow Jones industrial average then. "That strategy will not change."
The wealthiest 1 percent of U.S. households are saving 30 percent of their take-home pay, triple what they were saving in 2008, according to a July report from American Express Publishing and Harrison Group, a research firm.
After years of saving more and shedding debt, the good news is that many people have repaired their personal finances.
Americans have slashed their credit card debt to 2002 levels. In the U.K., personal bank loans, not including mortgages, are no larger than they were in 1999. In addition, home prices in some countries are rising.
So more people have the capacity to borrow, spend and invest more. But will they?
Sahoko Tanabe of Tokyo, 63, lost money in Japan's stock market crash more than two decades ago, but she's buying again. "Abenomics," a mix of fiscal and monetary stimulus named for Japan's new prime minister, has ignited Japanese stocks, and she doesn't want to miss out. "You're bound to fail if you have a pessimistic attitude," she says.
But for every Tanabe, there seem to be more people like Madeleine Bosco, the Californian who ditched many of her credit cards. "All of a sudden you look at all these things you're buying that you don't need," she says.
Attitudes like Bosco's will make for a better economy eventually â¿¿ safer and more stable â¿¿ but won't trigger the jobs and wage gains that are needed to make economies healthy now.