This recession has prompted many to scrutinize their purchases and ask: "Is this something I merely want or something I really need?"

A recent survey by marketing firm Allen & Gerritsen (A&G) took a look at the distinctions between want and need that US mothers are making in this recession. The survey found that 45% of moms have eliminated nonessentials from their purchase list. Another 29% have found ways to cut back on their spending while still indulging in the occasional "want" item.

Generational differences emerged among the three cohorts examined by the study: Gen Y, Gen X, and Boomers. For instance, only 35% of Gen Y moms have eliminated purchases and services they deem unnecessary, compared with 45% of Gen X mothers and 54% of Boomer moms:

Key findings:

  • Of the three groups, Gen Yers are most likely to have downgraded their lifestyle rather than eliminated nonessentials from it: 37% of Gen Yers have cut back, compared with 28% of Gen Xers and 24% of Boomers.
  • Gen Y moms are the most likely to have returned to their pre-recession spending habits, and Boomer moms are the least likely: only 13% of Boomers have reverted to their pre-recession spending patterns, whereas 18% of Gen X moms and 20% of Gen Y moms have done so.

Top Priorities

Asked what they were unwilling to give up, the US mothers in the survey cited cable TV most often; 70% had either trimmed spending on it without eliminating it, or maintained pre-recession spending on it:

Key findings:

  • Some 63% of mothers still go out to restaurants and bars and buy clothing and accessories, although some spend less in these areas than they did before the economy took a dive.
  • Almost half the respondents—47%—said they consider higher and continuing education absolutely necessary and had not lessened their spending on it.
  • After renting movies (51%), the items or activities mothers hadn't eliminated were traveling for vacation (44%), newspaper and magazine subscriptions (39%), and getting their hair professionally colored (38%).
  • The survey findings suggest that laptops and smart phones are indispensable to moms, yet only 35% of moms are spending money to purchase new devices or services, and 69% of them have cut back their spending.

Priorities by Generation

Cable TV, new clothes and accessories, and restaurant/bar outings are the three things that moms are most reluctant to give up in the name of saving money in this recession. But Gen Y, Gen X, and Boomer moms placed different values on each:

 Key characteristics of Gen Y mothers:

  • High-tech gadgets are must-haves for this cohort; Gen Yers are much more likely than their Xer and Boomer counterparts to buy new communication devices (43% Gen Y vs. 35% of moms overall) and entertainment technology (36% Gen Y vs. 32% of moms overall). They're also much more likely to travel for vacation (47% vs. 44% of moms overall).
  • Some 64% said that going out to restaurants and bars is a necessary part of their lives, and 62% said the same about buying new clothes and accessories.
  • Gen Y moms are more likely than the average mom to attend concerts (30% vs. 24% of moms overall) and go out to the movies (41% vs. 38% of moms overall), and they are significantly less likely to spend money to stay in and watch cable TV (61% vs. 70% of moms overall).
  • They're much less likely to pay to color their hair than the average mom (26% vs. 38% of moms overall), but they feel it's still worth the money to be pampered at a spa (25% of Gen Y moms vs. 22% of moms overall).

Key characteristics of Gen X mothers:

  • Gen X moms are significantly more likely than Gen Y or Boomer moms to continue buying music CDs and downloads (29% vs. 26% of moms overall), spend the night at home with a movie rental (56% vs. 51% of moms overall), or catch the latest film at a movie theater (44% vs. 38% of moms overall).
  • Though 35% have scaled back spending on cable TV, 75% identify cable as a necessary part of their lives (vs. 70% of moms overall).
  • This enthusiasm doesn't translate into a willingness to spend money on new entertainment technology such as plasma TVs or BluRay Disc players. And Gen Xers are the least likely of the three generations to spend money on new communication technology like smartphones or laptops.
  • Gen X moms are much more likely than moms overall to go out to restaurants and bars (68% vs. 63%) and to purchase coffee or other beverages at a shop (30% vs. 27%).
  • When they do go out, they want to look good, say the study's authors; 68% of respondents said that purchasing new clothes and accessories is a necessary part of their life (68% vs. 63% of moms overall) and 18% of Xer moms said they have not scaled back their spending at all on coloring their hair at a salon (vs. 17% of moms overall who said this). 

Key characteristics of Boomer mothers:

  • This generation of moms is the least likely to spend money on out-of-home activities like concerts (18% vs. 24% of moms overall), movies at the theater (29% vs. 38% of moms overall), or nights out at a restaurant or bar (54% vs. 63% of moms overall).
  • Boomers prefer to spend on cable programming at home (72% vs. 70% of moms overall), but they are content to watch it on their old TVs: 29% of Boomers vs. 32% of moms overall say new entertainment technology is a necessary part of their lives.
  • Boomer moms are more likely to hang on to their magazine and newspaper subscriptions (43% vs. 39% of moms overall).
  • Some 41% of Boomer moms said that getting their hair professionally colored is necessary (compared with 38% of moms overall) and 60% said the same of buying new clothes and accessories.

About the data: Allen & Gerritsen partnered with Communispace to determine the thoughts and feelings of 400+ moms through community discussions, online surveys, and photo sharing. A total of 456 responses were received from women across the US with children under 18 in the household. Time period: May 6-8, 2009, during which period the Dow Jones average was 8,574.65.

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