10 reasons for pocketbook optimism after a financially shaky 2009

I lost my job of 16 years in 2009, and perhaps your luck was no better. I certainly wouldn't blame you if you looked at 2009 as one to forget where your wallet is concerned.

But as the "aughts" turn into whatever you wanna call a decade with years 10-19 in it, I found plenty of reasons to feel upbeat. To me, it's not so much a matter of putting a happy spin on a sad year, but looking at the facts, and choosing to build a case based on them -- one that affects the all-important bottom line.

Here's my list of 10 financial highlights worth celebrating with the end of the year, and the decade.

1) Health Care Reform: When it comes to this issue, I blame the Obama administration for only one thing: It failed to effectively communicate the evils in the private insurance system that most of us -- including every Senate Republican--somehow forgot during the Great Healthcare Debate. No matter: Real reform is on the way, and while far from perfect, it marks the first crucial step in terms of bringing the U.S. on par with the rest of the world, including our neighbors in Canada, in building a health care system that guarantees a fair shake for all of us. No matter how shaky the new system starts, it will mark an improvement over the insurance company mafia where everything short of death itself is treated as a pre-existing condition.

2) The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act: Besides turning a record surplus into a record deficit and handing us the worst recession since the Great Depression, the Bush administration also left behind a crumbling infrastructure of roads and bridges, in no small part responsible for everything from defective levees in New Orleans to the tragic Mississippi River bridge collapse in Minneapolis. When Congress passed the ARRA, it not only addressed these dangerous problems head on, but also put lots of folks in construction back to work. Saving lives and providing job stimulus for unemployed Americans sounds like a win-win to me.

3) Low airfares: If you want to fly, you should have little trouble these days scouting airfares that rival what you'd pay more than a decade ago, even if perks are cut and luggage fees have soared. (Just remember to pack frugally.) With vacation destinations clobbered by the Great Recession, hotel bargains abound as well. Save what you can, plan carefully and watch those travel dollars stretch from here to Jamaica and back.

4) Low real estate prices: One sad consequence of 2009: The huge numbers of Americans who lost homes to foreclosure. But as the economy recovers, this has meant a fabulous opportunity for first-time homebuyers and those seeking real estate bargains. To be sure, banks are still playing stingy with lending, but that circumstance can't last forever, especially as the Obama administration puts continued pressure on lenders to loosen up.

5) Coupons in the Internet: More sites have sprung up for people to find coupon bargains. In Chicago, we love groupon.com, which offers a deal of the day if enough people sign up to get it. Other sites among the dozens worth checking out include coupons.com and mycoupons.com. Point, click, print, save, repeat.

5) SUVs are out, hybrids are in:
I never thought I'd see the day when those wasteful Hummers became a thing of the past, and ultra-efficient hybrids such as the Toyota Prius couldn't roll off the assembly lines fast enough, even in a moribund 2009. Let's hope that if Cash for Clunkers II comes around, Detroit will shape up its act enough to realize that -- duh -- this is what people will buy: Cars that save fuel costs, and the environment, too.

6) Savings are up, finally: Americans historically save far, far less than all other industrialized nations. But in mid-2009, a U.S. savings rate that had hovered near zero in early 2008 surged to 6.9%, the highest level since December 1993. That's still not good enough, but a welcome sign that Americans have cut impulse spending to build up a financial reserve.

7) The recession is ending: Most economists say that the worst is over, and while it might not feel that way to you or me, rest assured that the duration of the Great Recession -- which turned two years old this month -- signifies that we've probably turned a corner. One measure of a rebound: The first 30 days of online holiday spending surpassed $16 billion in 2009, up more than 3% over 2008, according to the digital tracking service ComScore.

8) Thrifty is in again: No longer is there a foolish stigma surrounding buying at bargain basements over department stores, nor should there be when you see what you can save. Computer cables and laptop sleeves that might cost $50 at the Apple Store will sell for half that much at Marshall's. People are also learning that you can do little luxuries the smart way: Eating out at lunch instead of dinner (where the same menu items jump in price), or shopping multiple online sites from eBay to Overstock.com to get the best price possible.

9) Entrepreneurs rock: Employees in dying professions such as print journalism--which lost an astounding 40,000 jobs this year--have discovered a second act where they call the shots, make the hours and build their own businesses. That's led to some fascinating experiments such as trueslant.com, where paid bloggers build their own brand and following -- yet benefit from their association to the larger, prestigious Web site. Plus, self-employment means any number of cool perks from working in your 'jammies to waking up
and saying, "Hmmm. The bills are paid. Think I'll take two weeks off. Right now."

10) Now we know: Money cannot buy love: The message is as old as time and a part of the lyrics to a certain Beatles song, but the way we needlessly spend as Americans, you'd think Zhu Zhu pets and Costco mega-packs could fill the empty holes in our lives. With less money to blow, more Americans rediscovered simple pleasures, from board games to family meals at home. As a result, we bought back some of what consumer culture had stolen away from us: Quality time with loved ones and friends. Sure, it's free. But try putting a price on that.
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