The Consumer Reports Index, a measure of Americans’ personal financial health, showed that consumers’ lethargic outlook is taking a toll on retail spending.

The Index’s past 30-day retail measure declined for the third straight month since January. The Index’s sentiment measure was unchanged from last month at 50.1. Looking at the longer trend, consumers’ attitudes concerning the economy are neither advancing nor retreating and sentiment has been frozen in a narrow band between 51.2 and 48.9 since November 2012.

One positive sign from the Index’s next 30-day retail measure (reflecting expected April activity), was an uptick in planned spending for major appliances, small appliances and major yard and garden equipment as consumers prepare for summer.

Among the larger retail categories the Consumer Reports Index tracks, consumer interest in future home buying increased slightly. Planned spending in the next 30 days was at 2.4% from 1.4% the previous month.

The Consumer Reports Index’s trouble tracker measure of the overall financial difficulties consumers are facing, which had declined for three straight months, rose this month. The sharpest increase in financial troubles was among adults in households earning $100,000 or more. However, the most hard-pressed consumers continue to be those in homes earning less than $50,000.

The Consumer Reports Index’s employment measure improved slightly this month, rising to 50.8 from 49.9 a month earlier. The employment measure indicates that the proportion of Americans starting a new job outpaced those losing a job by a narrow margin. The highest gains were among those in homes earning less than $50,000 and adults with a high school degree or less. Middle-income Americans lost ground, with the employment measure declining into negative territory (below 50).

“At best, consumers feel the economy is treading water. They are still holding back on spending, largely due to the uncertainty they feel,” said Ed Farrell, director of consumer insight at the Consumer Reports National Research Center.   

The level of stress that consumers feel was unchanged from last month. The Consumer Reports Index’s stress measure is at 56.5. The most stressed Americans are those in households earning under $50,000 (59.5), aged 35-64 (57.5), and those in the North East (61.2).

The Consumer Reports Index report comprises responses directly from consumers on five key measures: the Sentiment Index, the Trouble Tracker Index, the Stress Index, the Retail Index and the Employment Index.

The Consumer Reports Index, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, is a monthly telephone and cell phone poll of a nationally representative probability sample of American adults. A total of 1,007 interviews were completed (657 telephone and 350 cell phone) among adults aged 18+. Interviewing took place between April 4 and April 7. The margin of error is +/- 3.2 percentage points at a 95% confidence level.

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