With the Great Recession in the rearview mirror, we seem to feel more like treating ourselves.

We've been eating out more, buying new clothes, spending more on personal care and taking in more entertainment.

At the grocery story, we're spending less on fruits and vegetables but more on meats and fish.

In fact, households in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties spent an average of $40,595 on expenses in 2012, nearly 6 percent more than the year before, according to a new report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the most recent data available.

Spending is up for some things you might expect, like health care and gasoline. But we’re putting more money toward fun as well. Spending on eating rose 30 percent, clothing 28 percent and personal care 5 percent and entertainment 3 percent.

Economists say the looser pocketbook indicates people feel better about things.

"Now things are better -- much better," said Fabiana Desousa of Deerfield Beach as she and her mother ate in the food court at the Galleria Mall in Fort Lauderdale last week. Desousa said she is working more hours these days and has extra money to buy clothes and eat out.

Many South Floridians also feel secure enough to charge more on their credit cards, according to Equifax, the national credit reporting agency.

Credit card debt was up more than 3 percent in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties in January from a year ago, Equifax said. Only the Houston and Dallas metro areas saw credit card charges rise faster.

An uptick at the first of the year indicates that South Floridians splurged more at the holidays, said Equifax deputy chief economist Dennis Carlson. Bills for the holidays typically start arriving in January.

"I think it’s encouraging that people felt comfortable to spend more at the holidays," he said.

South Floridians are tired of pinching pennies, said Tim Petrillo, owner of four restaurants, including Yolo in downtown Fort Lauderdale, where he intends to open two more eateries.

"They were very concerned when the economic outlook looked grim," he said. "Now they’re willing to spend money on themselves."

At his restaurant, patrons are not only eating out more often but treating themselves to costlier entrees, Petrillo said.

South Florida economist William B. Stronge sees the latest spending increases as a sign of a healthier local economy.

"Consumers are feeling a lot better than they were two years ago," said Stronge, a professor emeritus at Florida Atlantic University.

In Pembroke Pines, Maria Trotto-Mark said she doesn't think about cutting back on eating out. Indeed, she recently spent money on something she had been putting off — renovating her school uniform shop, Planet T Uniforms.

"I’m spending more money than what I would have three, four years ago," she said. "I’m not worried about tomorrow. There’s less uncertainty."

But many South Floridians won’t buy unless they feel they’re getting a bargain, said John Holloway, an accountant at C. Orrico, a women's clothing store in Palm Beach.

"A lot of people have been putting off spending, from what I can see," he added.

Mary Lou Poli of Miami recently strolled through the Galleria Mall in Fort Lauderdale — but wasn't buying because the cologne she wanted wasn't on sale.

Poli, though, was treating herself to staying in Fort Lauderdale and eating out for the weekend.

"Travel and restaurants, that's what I spend on," she said.

Even with increased consumer confidence these days, South Floridians still aren't embarking on spending sprees they enjoyed before the housing boom went bust and the Great Recession arrived.

The average South Florida household spent some $7,000 less in 2012 than the average just three years earlier, according to the BLS survey.

"Before, people were using their homes as piggybanks," economist Stronge said. The boom that sent home prices soaring in South Florida encouraged many to spend more than they could afford, he said.

That’s unlikely to return soon -- if ever, he said.

dgehrke@tribune.com or Twitter @donnagehrke

 

Here’s where we spent our money in 2012

Housing, $10,320

Groceries, $3,504

Utilities $3,316

Gas & oil for vehicles $2,523

Car repairs & other exp $2,387

Health care $2,149

Eating out $2,044

Entertainment $1,442

Clothing $1,150

Household operations and supplies, $1,136

Does not include taxes, Social Security and retirement accounts

Source: Consumer Expenditure Survey for Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics