"Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire ..."
 -- "A Christmas Carol," by Charles Dickens

Mr. Dickens introduced us to Ebenezer Scrooge more than 150 years ago. At the time, he didn't paint a particularly generous picture of the old miser. But today, America is beginning to warm up to some of Scrooge's finer qualities.

You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch ... but thrifty!
Between 2005 and 2007, we (as a nation) were essentially saving none of our earnings. But it seems this recession has finally scared us straight. As of May 2009, the national savings rate has soared all the way up to 6.9%, the highest rate in 15 years.

And we're not just saving, either; we're paying down debt. According to the Federal Reserve, Americans shaved $100 billion off of our national household debt load between since its peak in late 2008. This still leaves us with about $124,000 in debt per household -- or 133% of our annual disposable income -- but hey, it's a start.

Unfortunately, it may also be a reason to worry. While consumer spending has held up thus far, some investors and economists have concerns about America's newfound thriftiness.

No one loves a Grinch
Wondering why the fact of Americans finally acting like responsible grown-ups is taken as bad news on Wall Street? The answer is simple but, as I'll explain in a moment, not necessarily straightforward: Consumer spending accounts for 70% of the U.S. economy, so when consumer spending drops, so does economic activity -- if the marks ain't spendin', the circus could go broke. So basically, what's good for the individual could become bad for the economy and for stocks. Logical, right?

Sure, except that to every rule, there are exceptions. It seems to me that even in a year when the average S&P 500 company is expected to suffer 10% a drop in sales, there must be at least a few companies that can figure out how to make a buck on the backs of tighter-fisted consumers. Here are four of them:



Estimated 2009 Sales Growth

Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT)



Kroger (NYSE:KR)



Unilever (NYSE:UL)



Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN)



Data courtesy of Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

You can't write an article about penny-pinching consumers without mentioning the king of discount retail. (I checked. There's actually a law.) As hard economic times hit, shoppers hop in the car and head out to the boondocks in search of "Always Low Prices." That explains why Wal-Mart's sales have grown over the past year, versus double-digit declines at Saks (NYSE:SKS) and Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE:ANF).

Of course, consumers can't dine on $3-a-12-pack tube socks. Eventually, they've (we've) got to eat, and while not all of Wal-Mart's stores yet pack a grocery aisle, each and every Kroger does. Having recently moved to the Midwest (Kroger's backyard), I've discovered the wonders of this "we've got everything!" grocery store. Kroger has rediscovered the '80s-era concept of selling "generic" foodstuffs at cheap prices. Kroger also owns its own dairy farms, which helps keep milk prices low, the better to draw in shoppers.

But what about the stuff inside the stores, you ask? Here's where we get clever, Fools. The owner of the Suave brand of toiletries, Unilever does a grand job of mimicking higher-priced products manufactured by Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG) and others, then selling just-as-good alternatives under the Suave name. It's a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, clutching" shopper's best friend. Added benefit: Unilever offers the lowest P/E of any stock on this list -- and the biggest dividend at 4.5%!

Last but not least, let's not forget the most famous name in online retail. Every struck-through "list price" on Amazon's pages, followed by Amazon's price and the ubiquitous "you save" percentage, hammers home to the cash-strapped consumer how good a deal she's getting. And thanks to Amazon's move to provide free delivery to shoppers willing to part with at least $25 on a single order, even the fear of paying for shipping has faded into distant memory.

Foolish takeaway
So there you have it. Four stocks poised to profit from the new American affinity for thrift. If you're looking for more stock ideas, you can read all about our Inside Value team's official recommendations. Simply click here for more information.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above. Amazon.com is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. Wal-Mart Stores is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Procter & Gamble and Unilever are Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations. The Fool owns shares of Procter & Gamble. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.