Phoenix high school teacher Kenny Williams said he's cutting back on his "family splurge fund" for movie and sports outings after the reinstated U.S. payroll tax lowered his first paycheck of the year by $30.
The 46-year-old single dad of two was shopping at the 99 Cent Only store in Phoenix last week to save money on groceries and partly offset the $60-a-month cut he expects in his take- home pay. Dinners out also will go, he said.
"I don't normally shop here for food, but I am now," Williams said, as he struggled to find healthful items in an aisle he said was filled with high-fructose corn syrup. "You have to make up for it somehow. When you already are on a tight budget, something has to be done."
By now, most Americans have experienced the hit to their checks firsthand after Congress let a two-year-old payroll tax break expire while averting bigger automatic cuts that were to take effect this month. The 2 percentage point increase in taxes will take $125 billion from consumers' pockets this year, estimates Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist for JPMorgan Chase & Co., which in October lowered its forecast for first-quarter economic growth to 1 percent from 1.5 percent.
The tax bump will range from about $4.50 a week for a single person earning at the poverty level to $46.64 a week for someone making the maximum $113,700 subject to the tax in 2013. Any additional earnings beyond that amount won't be affected.
While the reductions are small relative to paychecks, workers eventually will cut back, said Meir Statman, the Glenn Klimeck Professor of Finance at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University in California.
"It will be in the little decisions people make, small amounts," said Statman, who wrote a 2011 book that studied how emotions and other factors influence investor behavior. "Things like whether you eat at McDonald's are most likely. People still have to pay for housing and food and they aren't going to give up their phones."
The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index posted its biggest one-week drop since August in the seven days ended Jan. 6, falling to minus 34.4 from minus 31.8 the prior period.
Automatic Data Processing Inc., which handles paychecks for about one out of every six workers in the U.S., said about 75 percent of its clients pay employees either every two weeks or twice a month. Most of the rest pay weekly and a very small number pay monthly, said Michael Schneider, a spokesman for Roseland, New Jersey-based ADP.
"I'm thinking I need to stop eating out as much," said Ana Smith, 24. She works for a consulting firm in Philadelphia and doesn't get paid until this week. "It'll affect my ability to shop."
Smith was one of several diners in the food court at the Shops at Liberty Place, a retail complex in Philadelphia populated by many office workers who as of last week said they weren't aware their paychecks were about to shrink. The increase in tax, to 6.2 percent of wages up to $113,700, will be used to pay for Social Security. It was reduced to a 4.2 percent rate in 2011 and 2012 to help ease the effects of the recession.
Most of the 134 million Americans who are on corporate payrolls will likely change their spending habits in similar ways to Williams and Smith, and that can add up to hundreds of millions of dollars across the economy, said Jerry Davis, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
"Most Americans don't bother to save much, so many people are living paycheck to paycheck and so small changes will quickly change behavior such as skipping meals or movies," said Davis, who is also the Wilbur K. Pierpont Collegiate Professor of Management.
Paycheck to Paycheck
About 3.7 percent of an average American's income is spent on recreation including things such as sporting events, movies and trips to the museum, according to November 2012 data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Another 5 percent goes toward food bought on the go, such as dining out, the data show.
A single person who makes $11,702, considered the poverty line in the U.S., will have $234 less in take-home pay a year. A family of two adults and two children at the poverty limit earns $22,811, subject to $456 more a year in taxes.
Even if the change seems small, Leslie Martinez said she worries the increased tax will affect her ability to pay bills on time or afford activities such as a movie night with her kids. The 32-year-old mother of two makes $17,000 a year working at a central Phoenix dry cleaner.
By the time she gets paid, there is already as little as $40 left, and the costs for her 12-year-old daughter to play soccer have been adding up recently. The changes will probably cut about $6.54 from her pay each week.
"When you live paycheck to paycheck, every penny counts," Martinez said. "When I get my paycheck, it's already spent."
Brandon Croud, a mortgage underwriter for the Federal Housing Administration, doesn't see the higher tax rate making a big dent in his lifestyle. He said his Jan. 4 paycheck was about $30 less than usual.
"I don't plan to change anything because it's not that much money," said Croud, 30, who was drinking a Captain Morgan rum and Coke and munching on potato skins and onion rings at the 24 Seconds Bar & Grill in Berkley, Michigan, on a Friday evening. "If it were like $100 a paycheck, then I might switch to a cheaper beer or something."
For the family earning the median U.S. income of $64,293, the return to the higher tax withholding rate translates into $1,286 for the year. Taxpayers with a salary of $113,700 or more face an annual increase of about $2,425.
Working for free
Higher-earning consumers may not alter behavior right away, said Statman, the Santa Clara University professor. The initial loss of income will probably first show up in higher reliance on a charge card, he said.
"Many of those people aren't going to look at their paychecks and be shocked because they are doing well enough and these aren't huge numbers," Statman said. "But eventually what will likely happen is it will begin to constrain people."
Williams, the Phoenix schoolteacher, said the reduction in pay makes it feel as though he's working a couple hours each week for free.
"You work the same amount of hours and are taking home less money," Williams said. "I don't like it. We've all given more than our fair share."