Georgians think twice about major financial decisions

James Gentner was going to return to college this fall to realize a 24-year-old dream: becoming a weather forecaster.

Instead, the Kennesaw 28-year-old will hold his tuition costs down by taking just a single class, deferring his plans in response to the economic instability underlined by the Dow's 634-point plunge on Monday.

"I want to be a good role model for my 3-year-old -- show her that you can go out and do things," he said. Over and above that, though, he said, "there are financial considerations."

All over metro Atlanta, Monday found people putting off major financial commitments: retirement, returning to college, buying a home or taking a long-anticipated vacation that suddenly seemed like an indefensible extravagance. Business owners, too, were growing more cautious, foregoing expansions and the purchase of new equipment.

As for Gentner, he and his wife have decided not to have another baby just yet.

They go back and forth on his college plans. She wants him to pursue the dream that had him watching the Weather Channel as a 4-year-old and chasing tornadoes as a teen across his home state of Ohio.

But he'd have to go into debt, and that worries him in the current climate. Plus, he was counting on a small stock market fund to help pay for fees and school supplies.

"That's not looking too good now," he said. "It's extremely disappointing."

Tom Van Ham, president and chief executive officer of Atlanta-based Telemanagement Inc., knows the feeling. The economy's slide "has impacted my business plans considerably," he said Monday.

Van Ham bought the 28-year-old information technology and telecom services company six months ago, and business has been strong, he said.

Still, "outside forces" have caused him to take a more conservative approach to growth. After hiring two people about three months ago, he is holding off on hiring additional sales people "until we see how things settle."

In addition, he has decided to cut back by one-third on the amount of office space he will lease. Each action reduces his risk and saves money -- important in uncertain times.

First, there were the market conditions, he said. More recently, "the (credit) downgrade is really disturbing.

"The wild card is what's going to happen to interest rates," Van Ham said. "If rates creep up, profits will erode."

And it's not just his business strategy that's been altered by the latest wave of turbulent economic news.

"I put off a car purchase," he said. "I want a convertible." For now, he's hanging on to his 2004 Acura.

Van Ham isn't swearing off all expenses, however. His daughter was accepted to a prestigious out-of-state art school and, while "it's very expensive," she will attend.

"Do you sacrifice your children's dreams because we're hitting a rough patch in the economy?" he asked.

Atlantan Randy Holmes and his wife recently decided to buy a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house in Buckhead. They're looking to rent out their current home, which is nearby.

Holmes is confident in his IT job, and he expects his financing to go through, but the stock market swoon and the credit downgrade have left him anxious as his closing date approaches.

"Looking at buying a house several weeks ago, I thought the economy was much stronger," he said. "The last 96 hours makes a difference. There's a little more of a nervous feeling."

The credit downgrade, he said, "just shows the utter gridlock in Washington … that it came to something like that. It only adds to the stress."

His strategy: "You just take a deep breath, close your eyes, and hope you made the right decision for the right reasons. Then you push forward."