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Rising gas prices may spur Americans to save less

The historic drop in gas prices over the past several months has apparently prompted unusual behavior among many Americans. They've been taking some of that $1,000 per household annual windfall created by lower pump prices and have saved that cash, instead of going on a spending spree.

Indeed, according to data released by the Department of Commerce on Monday, American consumers spent less in both December and January.

"Growth is slowing in the first quarter after a strong second half of last year," Thomas Costerg, an economist at Standard Chartered Bank in New York, told Reuters. "All the gas savings are ending up at the bank rather than being spent."

Reviewing your savings

But now, as gas prices start to creep upward, will that savings trend be ending?

"Savings have definitely gone up," Price Fishback, economics professor at the University of Arizona, told CBS MoneyWatch. "People are borrowing less, but not necessarily by choice."

Fishback, who's also an economic historian, noted the Great Recession greatly reduced the number of borrowing options many Americans had. And while the economic recovery has led the credit markets to loosen up a bit, they're still not as loose as they were before the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

In terms of gasoline and savings, Fishback agrees pump prices are certain to rise again in the next year or so. But measuring actual savings from energy can be difficult, he added, due to the diverse ways consumers use gas and other fuels in their homes, cars and offices.

And if you're talking about overall savings, "we have more savings than people perceive," he said, pointing to financial instruments such as insurance, Social Security and retirement programs.

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