Americans are failing to pump gas-price savings back into the economy

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Americans are taking the money they are saving at the gas pump and socking it away, a sign of consumers’ persistent caution even when presented with an unexpected windfall.

This newfound commitment to frugality was illustrated this past week when the nation’s biggest payment-card companies said they aren’t seeing evidence consumers are putting their gasoline savings toward discretionary items like travel, home renovations and electronics.

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Instead, people are more often putting the money aside for a rainy day or using it to pay down debt. That more Americans are saving their bounty at the pump comes as a surprise, because the personal savings rate, after rising during and after the recession, has declined steadily over the past two years.

“We haven’t seen the extra savings from lower gas prices translate into additional discretionary consumer spending,” said Ajay Banga, chief executive of MasterCard Inc. MA, +0.80%  , on a conference call Friday to discuss quarterly earnings.

The new data are perhaps the best indication to date that the pain of the recession remains fresh in the minds of many Americans, even as the economy picks up steam.

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The Commerce Department said Friday that the U.S. economy grew at a 2.6% annual rate in the fourth quarter. Personal consumption expenditures rose 4.3% at a seasonally adjusted annual rate in the last three months of 2014, representing the biggest increase since the first quarter of 2006.

Also on Friday, the University of Michigan said consumer sentiment in January reached its highest level in 11 years. The closely watched index has increased in each of the past six months, rising 20% since July.

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But that positive outlook doesn’t mean consumers feel emboldened to splurge with their savings at the pump, and card-company executives said spending growth would have been higher if consumers had put their gas savings toward more big-ticket items rather than savings.

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