Prices are rising. Employment is falling. The economy is stalling and talk of recession taints conversations coast to coast. The economic fear haunting much of the nation has given many the jitters.

Some people have altered spending plans already by squirreling away cash. Others have tossed credit cards in drawers. The traditional test of consumer spending power - the Christmas buying season - looms on the horizon.Retailers are feeling the pinch already. Earlier this month, the nation's largest department stores reported soft sales for September. The government reported an overall gain of 1.1 percent in retail sales during the month.

Much of this gain, however, came from the typically strong September automobile sales, including "fleet" sales to car rental companies and other large car buyers.

Despite the optimistic sales report, consumer confidence has dropped to its lowest levels since the recession of 1982, according to the Conference Board, which commissions a monthly survey of 5,000 households throughout the United States.

The board's report also shows that people are less positive about the availability of jobs.

Few economists disagree that the economy has slowed considerably, but the economic evidence is mixed as to whether the country has slipped into recession.

"We don't know where the economy is going," said Martin Feldstein, president of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a group of seven academic economists that determines whether the economy is in recession.

But you don't have to be an economic theorist to know that times are getting tougher. Just look at these headlines from one issue of The New York Times business section:

"Citicorp earnings drop 38 percent," "Two airlines to raise fares again," "Douglas Aircraft cutting 1,200 jobs," "300 are laid off at Burger King," "Gold prices plummet again," "Dollar low against mark."

The next day:

"Earnings at AMR fell 52.1 percent in third quarter," "Citicorp expects large job cuts," "Texas Instruments cuts 450 workers," "Dollar plunges against yen."

News like this is enough to spook even the most hardened veterans on the economic battlefield.

"A sense of crisis is building," said former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. "Recession or not, we're not growing and sluggishness brings unhappiness."

"People are very pessimistic," agreed Robert Oberst, a certified financial planner from Red Bank, N.J., and president-elect of the International Association of Financial Planners.

Oberst should know. When times are tough, people tend to turn to financial planners for help. Oberst said his business has picked up in recent months.

"The bad news is the pessimism," he said. "The good news is you can do something about it."

The best thing people can do in times like these is to pay down debt, particularly from credit cards, automobile loans and other consumer debt, Oberst said. "Consolidation and paydown is very important. That's going to help your cash flow."