But take heart: We at Kiplinger believe the longest and steepest recession since World War II is over. And though the recovery likely will be long and difficult, we note 11 significant developments and trends to be thankful for as 2010 begins.
1. How about that stock market?
2. Best time in decades to buy a home
Affordability combined with historically low mortgage rates (still around 5% for most 30-year fixed-rate mortgages, including jumbos) presents opportunities for buyers who have good credit and secure jobs, and plan to live in their homes for a long time.
To sweeten the opportunity, Congress extended the $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers who sign a purchase contact by April 30 and close by June 30. Even higher-income buyers can take advantage of the tax break, and move-up buyers qualify for a credit of $6,500. The credit should help sustain a recent uptick in sales -- and set a floor under falling home values.
3. Your heating bill will be lower this winter
Milder winter weather is forecast for many areas. The price of natural gas is expected to run 11% lower than a year ago; propane, 14% lower. Heating-oil prices probably will remain the same. And fuel inventories are higher than they were last year, which will help keep price hikes at bay should the winter be colder than expected.
You can still get tax credits in 2010 for energy-efficient home improvements. States have also begun to release federal stimulus funds designated for rebates on energy-efficient appliances.
4. Innovation for everyone
Just look at high-definition, flat-screen televisions. A few years ago, a 32-inch unit started at $1,000. Last month, Best Buy started offering all entry-level 32-inch Dynex LCD HDTVs for $299.99 and 40-inch Dynex 1080p televisions for $499.99. Smart-phone service providers are trotting out a host of new phones and service plans to give Apple's iPhone a run for its money. And prices for lightweight computer laptops, netbooks, video games, Blu-ray players and digital book readers are all falling fast as well. The trend is likely to continue in 2010.
5. Roth IRAs more available
6. More-healthful and safer food
Exciting breakthroughs involving corn and cassava (a tropical fruit) will result in quality improvements in both and provide them with greater resistance to pests and diseases. Moreover, tweaking genes of farm animals is expected to improve animal health and bolster livestock production while reducing antibiotic residues in your meat and milk.
7. Bon appétit, for less
The decline tracked decreases in an array of food items in 2009. Prices for whole milk were down 27% from a year ago, according to an informal third-quarter survey by the farm bureau. Prices for cheddar cheese decreased 23%, potatoes fell 22%, and apples were down 19%.
8. Personal savings rate is up
The most recent figures show that we're still squirreling away 3.3% of our disposable income. That's still far below the 10% that was typical 25 years ago but a lot better than the near-zero savings rate of three or four years ago.
9. Credit card debt is declining
New credit card charges dropped by about 2%, according to market research firm Synovate. Default rates, although still at very high levels, dropped for five of the top six credit card issuers in September.
10. Traffic death rates are dropping
The reasons? A combination of safer cars, safer highway design, higher seat belt use and tougher enforcement of laws against impaired driving. Highway deaths usually drop during recessions, when people drive less, so there's reason to believe the 2009 statistics will bring good news, too.
11. Lodging prices are low
Travelers who are flexible with their lodging requirements (arriving Thursday, Friday or Saturday, for example) may be able to get deals 20% lower in 2010 than in 2009, depending on occupancy rates. Luxury hotels have been hardest hit in the downturn. Keep your eyes peeled for grand openings in 2010. For example, a Hotel Palomar opening in May in Chicago is offering pre-opening package rates starting at $89.