Motorists stay frugal despite declining gas prices

WASHINGTON — Stacie Banks can trace the merciful descent of gas prices in recent weeks from the Exxon Mobil credit card bills she keeps after filling her Ford Econoline van every few days.

A sampling:

Oct. 14 — $100

Oct. 18 — $93.99

Oct. 29 — $82.01

And just last Saturday, Nov. 22 — $60.

The recent plunge in gas prices from their historic highs this summer has meant relief for Banks and her family, who use their van and two Honda Elements to deliver arrangements of orchids, chrysanthemums, carnations and Gerber daisies throughout the Washington, D.C., area from Lee's Flower and Card Shop.

Falling gas prices have become one of the few bright spots in an economy otherwise marred by a series of troubles.

But for many, the good news is overshadowed by ever-deteriorating home values, job losses, spending cuts, the credit crisis, bank failures, foreclosures and so on.

"When gas prices were going up, that was clearly dragging consumer confidence down," said Brian Bethune, chief U.S. economist for IHS Global Insight.

"Now the problem is that consumers have gotten more worry beads: They are continuing to see their 401(k) plans evaporate, they are worried about their jobs, they are concerned about the economy, and they are hearing a drumbeat of bad news."

Gas prices are falling largely because the global economy is slowing, easing demand worldwide.

Ricardo Torres, president of the Herndon, Va.-based National Student Clearinghouse, marveled at how fast the price had fallen recently as he filled up his Saab at an Exxon gas station in Fairfax City, Va.

"I was just doing the math in my head — it has dropped by a half," he said, putting the nozzle back in place. "Two months ago, it would have cost me $60 to fill this tank up."

Torres said he is grateful for the price drop, as it means he will make the six-hour drive to see his family over Thanksgiving in Boone, N.C., without reservations.

But the savings are not likely to induce him to spend lavishly this holiday season, given all of that other dismal economic news.

"Because of all the things that have transpired in the market, Christmas is going to be a little lighter this year," Torres said.

Kathryn Vadenoff, director of cash operations for the global technology-services company CSC of Falls Church, said that when gas prices soared this summer, some employees worried about having to quit their jobs because it was becoming too costly to drive to work. So she helped organize a carpool program, which continues despite the falling prices.

"They are definitely happier, but they have not stopped," she said. "They are going to continue doing it."

For businesses that are heavily reliant on fuel, the decline in energy costs has been particularly welcome, given the problems with the broader economy.

"We welcome the decrease in fuel prices. It is a big help, but it is not enough to offset the effect of the recession to our freight loads," said Bob Costello, chief economist of the American Trucking Associations in Arlington. "We are seeing more failures despite fuel prices coming down. We have seen motor carriers get rid of equipment; they are laying off people; they are not buying equipment. ... It is having a significant impact."

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