ATLANTIC CITY - Most of Rhonda Freier's mini-vacation here last week consisted of lounging around a swimming pool, window-shopping, and strolling the Boardwalk.
Things that didn't require a lot of cash.
"I'm 57, and I took a terrible hit with my 401(k), which affects me in the long term," Freier, who lives in Minnesota, said as she peered through the glass walls at The Pier, an upscale shopping mall attached to Caesars. "I retired from one job and went right into another one for the health insurance."
As a result, she said, she has cut her leisure spending 30 percent across the board, including her gambling on $1 slot machines. And she has gone from taking four vacations a year to two.
Freier is among the 60 percent of Americans who visit casinos who say they have cut back "a great deal" or "somewhat" as a result of the recession, according to a report released last week by the American Gaming Association, which represents the U.S. commercial casino industry.
Changes in consumer spending help explain, to some extent, Atlantic City's declining revenue over the last year. Cutbacks by visitors, combined with competition from Pennsylvania slots parlors, have hurt the seaside resort. Las Vegas, the nation's largest gambling mecca, has also been hit hard by the recession.
Mark Juliano, chief executive officer of Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc., said that though visits to the three Trump casinos here have stayed steady, spending per visit clearly is down.
"They're more cautious," Juliano said of consumers. Yet he is hoping Atlantic City also will benefit this summer from the same reluctance to spend lavishly.
"I think people who were taking those traditional, long summer vacations, whether it be to Disney World, the Caribbean, or to Europe, are going to stay close to home this year," he said. "We hope that a week down the Shore is going to be what they do."
Summer has traditionally been Atlantic City's most lucrative season, but casino operators say they are not taking anything for granted.
"The question is: How much money will people have in their pocket, and how much will they spend?" said Keith Smith, chief executive of Boyd Gaming Corp., which co-owns the swanky Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa with MGM Mirage. "They've seen their wealth erode, and they're just not spending money the way they used to."
Consumers are looking for value, whether it is in choosing one restaurant over another or a closer vacation spot, said Steve Hoch of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
"People like to get a good deal, and they like to be good, smart shoppers," said Hoch, a marketing professor. "They are not going to be stupid, and no longer feel a need to be splurging all the time."
Sue Brennan, a hairdresser from Albany, N.Y., said she had been doing a lot more comparison shopping while at grocery stores.
"I look at the price more," she said as she worked a nickel slot machine at the Trump Taj Mahal last week.
Brennan, 38, booked the two-night stay at the Taj - a package deal that included airfare and hotel accommodations for $200 a person - in December as a Christmas present for her mother, who was seated next to her at another slot machine. It was a convenient 47-minute flight from Albany, she said.
"If times were better, I would have booked a flight to Vegas for the weekend with my mom instead," she joked.
Some say consumer spending will not return to its previous level anytime soon, if at all.
"There has been a fundamental change, and how great it will be remains to be seen," said TD Bank N.A. chief economist Joel Naroff. "I think people, after the dot.com and housing bubbles burst, are not going to go out and spend wealth that they thought they had, but never really had."
People still have not reverted to their gas-guzzling ways, Hoch noted, despite the fact that gasoline costs 40 percent less than it did at its peak.
"The longer [the recession] goes on . . . the more likely it's going to become a more permanent part of our behavior," he said.
Seniors such as retiree Reginald Hocking of Franklin, N.J., are key clients for the casinos. But Hocking, 75, said he lost "a lot on his investments, mostly," and that he and his wife, Shirley, 73, now go to Atlantic City only once a month, vs. twice a month pre-recession.
"You have to watch everything," he said as the couple waited in the buffet line at Bally's recently. (As regulars, they had been comped for two $21.99 meals.)
"When I come down, I only come with so much," Hocking said. "We leave after that's gone."
When she returned to St. Paul on Wednesday night from Atlantic City, Freier said, her nephews got a rude awakening.
Before, she would bring home about $1,000 worth of souvenir gifts. All she came back with this vacation was $70 worth of saltwater taffy.
"This year, they got taffy, and nothing else."