Ryan Wojcik is in high spirits heading into the holidays.
He is in a new city, has several promising job prospects on the horizon, and is in a better financial position than he was a few years ago, when he graduated from Purdue University with a degree in political science and found himself in an employment desert, scraping by as a leasing agent making $8 an hour.
But despite his bright outlook, Wojcik, 26, who recently moved to Chicago from Arizona, doesn't plan to shell out any more money on holiday gifts or festivities than he did last year.
Scarred from entering the job market in the midst of what still felt like a recession, he is being prudent and saving his extra income in case the economy plunges again.
"I'm afraid it could get worse again, so I'm still cautious," Wojcik said while taking a rest after visiting J.C. Penney at Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg. "It got so bad so quickly it still could go off a cliff."
Even as optimism about the economy climbs to pre-recession levels, one forecast suggests Chicago area consumers like Wojcik will keep a lid on their expenses as they make the holiday shopping rounds.
Chicagoans plan to spend $1,295 per household on holiday items this year, up just 2 percent from last year, far more modest than the 13 percent bump in holiday spending Windy City shoppers anticipated last year, according to consulting firm Deloitte, which polled 509 Chicago-area residents as part of its larger national holiday survey.
But Chicagoans aren't lacking in generosity, with an expected 11 percent increase in spending on gifts. Money spent on entertaining at home is expected to rise 15 percent, while the other categories specified in the survey, including socializing away from home, holiday decor and spending on gifts for oneself, will decline.
The Chicago forecast is gloomier than Deloitte's national survey of 5,000 U.S. consumers, which shows shoppers planning to increase holiday spending by 13 percent, to $1,299, and spending up across all categories.
Tom Compernolle, principal in the retail division at Deloitte, said he was surprised by the gap, because Chicago usually isn't so far out of sync with the rest of the nation. Forty-three percent of Chicagoans said they planned to spend less during the holidays, compared with 37 percent nationally.
While the survey didn't directly ask why people are trimming their budgets, nearly half of Chicagoans who plan to rein in spending said they wish to live more responsibly, compared with 36 percent who gave that reason nationally, Compernolle said. As possible reasons, he said job growth in Chicago was less than in the U.S. as a whole, and that more unemployed people were represented in Deloitte's random Chicago sample than in the national sample, or the nuances of calculating averages.
"The ones who are spending less are spending significantly less and that pulls down the average," Compernolle said.
The holiday shopping season, which accounts for one-fifth of the retail industry's $3.2 trillion in annual sales, is getting underway as the economy presents a mixed bag.
The unemployment rate for the Chicago region has been improving, dropping to 6.2 percent in September from 8.6 percent a year earlier and a high of 10.4 percent in 2009, but it still has not returned to pre-recession 2007 levels of 5 percent, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security.
Meantime, wages have been stagnant among white-collar and blue-collar workers alike for more than a decade, said Lawrence Mishel, president of the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute. In Illinois, the median hourly wage was $17.22 in 2013, flat compared with $17.26 in 2012, and he expects it didn't budge in 2014.
"Most people spend based on what they earn on the job," Mishel said. "They don't have other sources of income that matter that much."
But the mood of the shopper is positive, with two-thirds telling Deloitte the economy is good or getting better, in line with pre-recession levels, Compernolle said. Nine percent of Chicagoans said they think the economy is healthy, a sharp rise from 5 percent a year earlier, while the percentage of people who believe the economy is slowly recovering or still in recession has declined.
Chicagoans are generally more optimistic than the national average, with 49 percent believing the economy will improve next year, compared with 44 percent nationally.
Notably, Compernolle said, a growing proportion of Chicagoans say they plan to wait until December to do the majority of their holiday shopping — 44 percent this year versus 39 percent last year — which could reflect a more confident consumer and the declining significance of Black Friday.
"When the economy was not doing well the doorbusters and other hyperpromotions meant a lot to people," Compernolle said. "With times being better, people aren't willing to stand in line for a DVR."