MIAMI ( – The fourth fiscal quarter has gotten off to a rocky start on Wall Street; but there are new signs the U.S. economy is improving, even if it’s just minor gains.

But for struggling homeowners around South Florida, the fourth quarter will bring more pressures on their paychecks and more opportunities to get ready for holiday spending.

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For the 28th straight month, the U.S. economy was able to squeak out gains, according to the latest figures from the Institute for Supply Management. Consumer sentiment is also improving and auto sales are seeing an uptick too.

Wholesale oil prices have dropped under $80 a barrel, and that’s triggering price drops at local gas stations.

Holiday hiring is starting all over South Florida and may provide thousands of jobs for local unemployed workers.

Still, the slow recovery on the local front is still expected to continue thru the end of the year.

There are still unresolved problems in Europe, specifically Greece, which is threatening the global economy. Plus, gridlock in Washington is expected to pull down investor confidence through December.

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For local families, the fourth quarter will mean more tough times paying bills, while price-hikes and stalled salaries make it harder than ever to keep up with it all.

South Florida homeowner Irene Coto, a local therapist, said she’s been hearing a lot of bad news from her patients and has to work all week to keep up with her own bills.

“I work seven-days-a-week and I see all of my patients,” Coto said. “Most of them are completely stressed out. They need to come see me just to deal with, ‘how do I feed my kids? how do I pay my rent?’ and a lot of them have lost their homes.”

Not surprisingly, her story is one of many that financial planners said the time is now to start your own end of the year moneywatch.

Among the suggestions to help pinch your pennies: double-check your bills to track spending and cut-back wherever possible; try to save some extra cash over the next few months for holiday shopping; and consider spreading out purchases to avoid all the bills coming due in January.

Some money managers forecast possible improvements in the local and national economy if consumer spending jumps for the holidays.

“You typically see a boost in the economy from consumer spending in the fourth quarter,” financial planner Matt McGrath of Evensky & Katz said. “Retailers are already getting a jump on holiday advertising and promotions. So we could see improved spending possibly as soon as early October.”

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A growing number of retailers are already offering lay-away plans and deep discounts to stimulate early holiday shopping. Plus, South Florida’s biggest economic engines, tourism and foreign trade, are both forecast to see solid gains thru the end of the year.