And many expect the same discipline from their government.
"Americans will be realistic, just as those in government need to be realistic," Schmuhl said of citizens' likely approach to their own finances over the next four years.
But, as Obama enters his second term, both the housing and job markets have been on a slow and steady uptick. Housing sales were up 6% in 2012 -- the biggest gain since 2005, according to CoreLogic -- and the unemployment rate had dropped to 7.8% in December, although there are still 4.8 million Americans -- or 39.1% of the jobless -- classified as long-term unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"Going into the second term, the fiscal situation will continue the agenda and the discussion," he said. "It will say a lot about us and where not only the government but the nation might be going. If it is difficult and, shall we say, fractured and there's a sense coming out of it that things are not working as they should my guess is that the public will begin saying: 'When will Washington work on our behalf?'"
Governing on a deadline
That sentiment was foreshadowed in the frustration over the down-to-the-wire, partisan political maneuvering as the last Congress sought to avert the fiscal cliff's steepest domestic spending cuts.
Obama appeared to prevail on that skirmish, delivering on a promise to raise tax rates on wealthy Americans -- although he shifted his definition of "wealthy" from those making $250,000 or more to those making $400,000 and up.
According to Pew Research Center and Gallup polls, Americans were none too impressed with how lawmakers handled the negotiations or the deal that was struck.
Some 41% of those polled disapproved of the deal, according to Pew, and 52% thought the deal would hurt people like them. In the Gallup poll, 67% - disapproved of congressional Republicans' handled the negotiations while 55% disapproved of how Democrats performed.
Still, partly due to deliberate redistricting to protect -- or create -- more partisan congressional districts, American voters continued to elect or re-elect safe representatives to do their bidding in Congress. For instance, most of the 435 members of the House of Representatives -- Republicans and Democrats -- faced little real opposition on Election Day in 2012.
Other battlegrounds: Sequester, gun control, immigration
But the next battle looms. Just weeks after Obama takes his oath of office, a new Congress will be tasked with addressing the automatic spending cuts, or sequester, that were kicked down the road in order to pass a smaller deal at the end of the year.
The new Congress will also consider raising the nation's debt ceiling, or the ability of the U.S. Treasury to borrow money to pay America's bills. Most agree that defaulting on the nation's obligations would be disastrous for America and the global economy, but some Republicans in Congress are starting to hint that they may be prepared to let that happen anyway if large spending cuts are not secured.
And after that, the fight over gun control, a high priority for the White House in the aftermath of the Connecticut school massacre, will pit the president against many members of the House and Senate from safe districts with high ratings and big-dollar donations from gun rights advocates.
The president and vice president unveiled a major plan on Wednesday that included 23 executive actions the president has ordered on his own, while urging the new Congress to take on the meaty issues of an assault weapons ban, limits on the number of bullets a gun magazine can hold, and other sweeping reforms the gun lobby and others say would gut the constitutional right to bear arms.
Immigration reform, another White House priority, will also stoke ideological differences and test the demographic shifts in Congress. For the first time, the House Democratic caucus is dominated by women and racial minorities, while the Republican caucus in that chamber is largely composed of white men. In the Senate, 20 women --- the largest number in history --- currently hold office.
But women and minorities are far outnumbered and outranked by white males on some of the most powerful congressional committees. And despite several high-ranking exceptions, Obama's Cabinet -- so far -- is shaping up to be largely male and white.
"The first thing we learned is that we're not post-race. That was a lot of willful imagining in '08 that his election would allow us to transcend these questions of race," said Mark Anthony Neal, a cultural and Black studies professor at Duke University. "The American electorate is looking different in terms of race and ethnicity and young folks being engaged. In 2016 our political realities will look more like our demographic realities."
And that's where the nation's shift over the next four years may be most visible.
But look first to the 2014 midterms and then the 2016 presidential election to see if the people signal continued frustration with the current regime -- in Congress and in the White House -- or demonstrate through the power of their vote that they feel the nation has finally turned the corner.