Across the country, a sudden shift is taking place.
Bobbie Cleave, a retired teacher in Utah, has put off plans to get a badly needed car.
Brian Chandler, a data manager in metro Atlanta, is delaying buying a house, despite needing space for his second child due any day now.
Retired police officer Richard Huffman of Michigan may ditch plans to re-enter the work force.
And several families CNN spoke with said they're shrinking the gift pile beneath the Christmas tree.
As the nation approaches the so-called "fiscal cliff," people are taking steps to cushion their families from the plunge.
To them, the threat to the nation's economy requires preparation -- particularly with President Barack Obama warning that going off the cliff could cost the average family of four more than $2,000.
But some say the fears are just hype.
And others see an upside.
"We need to go over the cliff," says Valerie Stayskal, 58-year-old owner of two small businesses in Addison, Illinois.
As Congress and the White House battle over the $7 trillion worth of tax increases and spending cuts that could start to take effect in January, CNN reached out to people in various walks of life to find out how they're already being affected.
The country is 'stuck again'
"The fiscal cliff is just one more thing that makes us wait, feel unsure," says Cleave, 61, who is also a wilderness ranger in Salt Lake City. She shared her perspective recently with CNN iReport.
The economic collapse of 2008 left a lot of people "stuck," she says.
She was "stuck" trying to sell her house, then felt "unstuck a bit" when Obama was first elected "because we hoped he could change things." But things didn't change enough. "We felt unstuck again this election," because the country seemed to send a resounding message about the kind of economic action it wants, including raising taxes on the wealthiest, she said.
"But now we feel stuck again" because there's no sign of a compromise. "It means we freeze, we don't buy as much, we save, we wait."
Cleave's family is Buddhist, "so we meditate on living with the feeling of uncertainty," she says. "It's part of life. But I think many people are in waiting and saving mode because they feel confused about how this will all play out."
Lela Ladd is one of them. Her family in McCook, Nebraska, is "living frugally, anticipating future tax increases," she says.
"My husband and I are not exchanging Christmas gifts. In the past, we spent about $500 on each other."
The couple has three children and eight grandchildren -- each of whom will receive only one gift each from them this year
That frugality was already spurred by the hard times of the last several years, but the "cliff" is adding to that stress.
"It is hard not to be angry at our elected officials," says Ladd, 57, a self-employed insurance agent. "They have forgotten why we elected them: to watch out for our country. They really don't know what it is like to walk in our shoes. You have to be rich to be elected to anything anymore, so the working class is no longer represented."
Surveys show most Americans want compromise on Capitol Hill. A Gallup Poll found 62% want Democrats and Republicans to reach a deal.
But many doubt it will happen. A Washington Post/Pew Research Center poll found 49% of Americans do not expect an agreement by the end of the year, while 40% do.
The frustration and fear could slice holiday sales, as people try to hold on to some cash, the National Retail Federation warns.