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Cautious middle classes cut back on spending

Subscribers to Which?, the bible of the middle classes, intend to scale back their spending in the coming year in a sign that the credit crunch has begun to affect sectors not usually associated with bad debt or low wages, according to a survey.

In a poll, 46 per cent of members of Which?, formerly the Consumer's Association, plan to cut back on non-essentials, such as clothes, DVDs, CDs and books. A further 9 per cent have cancelled plans to buy audiovisual goods and a further 25 per cent intend to delay purchases of 'big ticket' items.

The findings, from a sample of ordinarily affluent consumers, go part of the way to explain why high street retailers are experiencing falling sales.

Which? members are regarded as enthusiastic buyers and read reviews of the latest products for design and reliability. However, as the economy has tightened, a quarter said they would cancel or reduce spending on white goods, such as washing machines. Slightly fewer, 24 per cent, intended to cut back on restaurant spending.

Most of the 1,984 members surveyed still considered quality more important than price – 54 per cent said their choices were not based on cost, and a further 20 per cent opted for expensive goods on the grounds of durability.

But Which? said that more people were turning to cheaper food stores – in particular the "hard discounters" Aldi and Lidl, who are renowned for their no-frills stores. In a price survey, the consumer group found Lidl was 21 per cent cheaper than Tesco for a selection of 15 basic food items. Its research found that shoppers were "not impressed" by the shopping experience at the discounters but were happy with the prices. "We didn't attempt to compare the quality of the ingredients, but when it comes to the contents of the cheapest food, the discount stores did just as well as, and sometimes better than, Tesco," Which? said.

Jess Ross, the editor of which.co.uk, said: "Difficult times call for extreme measures and it's clear that some people won't be splashing out on luxuries in the near future. People still want quality, but it's all about value for money."

The consumer group suggested that shoppers could save £1,878 each year by shopping around for the best deal on household spending. Installing a water meter could save £100 a year; switching energy supplier could net £233; while getting a new mortgage could reduce bills by more than £33 a month – £400 a year.

Combining your broadband and landline supplier could save £132 and getting a Sim-only mobile phone could save £180. Buying annual worldwide travel insurance could save £68 and shopping around for buildings and contents insurance a further £215.

But the biggest saving could be had from another form of insurance – car insurance. Analysis carried out in May showed that a 56-year-old in a high-risk area driving a Ford Focus 1.6 Zetec could save a total of £550 by choosing the cheapest policy.