Cars packed Lexington-area shopping center parking lots over the weekend. And the sounds of sales being made inside Fayette Mall meshed easily with the background tones of Christmas songs.
Those normal pre-holiday shopping indicators, however, belie subtle changes Kentuckians say they're making in their spending attitudes and habits amid the recession.
"They're saying they consider purchases very carefully and they're watching their finances more closely. That's the tone," said Claudia Heath, professor of family studies at the University of Kentucky. "Of course, people are affected by all levels. Some people say they're going to buy fewer luxuries, and some people are saying they're going to buy less food."
Last week, Heath and doctoral student Jennifer Hunter completed a statewide survey in which nearly 70 percent of 321 Kentuckians polled reported changing their lifestyles recently because of the economy. The survey was done through the university's new Family Sciences Survey Research Center.
More than half of respondents said they're cutting back on buying things they want for themselves or their children and grandchildren, including checking off all the items on their Christmas wish lists.
"People are considering what are their needs and what are their wants and just buying the wants as best as they can," Heath said.
For instance, at Fayette Mall on Sunday, wCarrie McFarland, who works at the Sunrooms and More kiosk, recalled talking with a couple from Stamping Ground whose granddaughter wanted a sweater from Hollister Co. When the grandparents discovered it cost more than $50, they walked to Macy's to buy the girl a comforter for her bed instead.
"People I talk to say they're not buying as much this year," McFarland said. But the pace of shopping has sharply increased in the past week, perhaps as people "are waiting until the last minute to get the bargains," she said.
In October, a Herald- Leader/WKYT poll showed 26 percent of 600 Kentuckians surveyed said they planned to cut holiday spending this year, and 63 percent said they planned to buy as much for Christmas as they did last year.
UK's 134-question survey, conducted from Nov. 13 to Dec. 18, asked Kentuckians how concerned they are about the U.S. economy affecting their families, and it asked them open-ended questions about the ways they're responding to the recession.
Heath said many respondents say they are putting fewer purchases on credit cards and are curtailing borrowing. More than three-quarters of those surveyed said they figured on borrowing less next year.
Among the other specific effects that the survey found:
■ More than half of respondents said they planned to invest less next year, while 49 percent said they plan to pump more earnings into savings accounts.
■ Sixty percent said they're eating less often at restaurants, while 54 percent said they've curtailed fast-food stops.
■ More than 70 percent said the summer and fall's high gas and diesel prices strapped their budgets.
■ Forty-eight percent, particularly those planning for retirement, said they've "experienced problems" because of falling stock prices.
"For us, because of the money we lost in our 401(k) plans, I'm definitely concerned about the stock market," said Tony Harris, an eighth-grade math teacher from Corbin.
Harris, who was shopping with his wife and two children Sunday, said the family cut back on driving to save money when gas prices soared and has tried to save more in recent months. But he said Christmas at the Harris house won't be much different than in past years.
Overall, 59 percent of those surveyed said they planned to spend less than usual through the end of 2008, while 69 percent said they would spend less in 2009.
It remains to be seen whether this signals a permanent shift among Kentuckians toward more frugality, said Heath, who added that she and Hunter want to launch a follow-up survey in six months.
Hunter, who is pursuing her doctorate while working full-time as a senior extension associate in the UK College of Agriculture, conducted some of the survey interviews herself.
"Christmas presents were on the forefront of people's minds, and they also said they would like to provide more for their children, such as a good education," she said. "Several people made statements like, 'Our college money is gone.'"
Hunter said she discovered through the survey that many people are making the same types of basic changes that she and her husband are.
"We do not out eat out much. And we don't say when we get home from work, 'Let's go out and grab something to eat,'" she said. "Subtle changes like that add up."