She’s not ready to audition for the Top Chef TV show, but Nicole Nagel’s home cooking is helping her save for a house. The Miami resident is skipping fancy restaurants so she has enough money for a down payment.

“I’ve had a lot of a bad meals, but they’re sacrifices I need to make,” said the 29-year-old marketing manager, who hopes to have $20,000 saved by this summer to buy a two-bedroom condo for $250,000.

Americans are saving more than they have in months, new data this week showed. And while that’s bad news for retailers and restaurateurs, it could be good news for the crippled housing market. Many potential homebuyers say they’ve stopped eating out, going to movies, buying iTunes and other nonessentials to save money for larger down payments that lenders now are demanding.

Lenders want buyers with between 20 percent and 25 percent of house price in cash, said Guy Cecala, publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance. Even loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration, a popular option for first-time homebuyers, now require at least 3.5 percent down, up from 3 percent last year.

“Everybody in America better be saving if they want to buy a house these days,” Cecala said.

And they’re starting to. The personal savings rate rose to 3.6 percent in December and averaged 1.7 percent for 2008, the government said Monday. That’s nearly three times the 2007 rate and far above the seven-decade low of 0.4 percent in 2004 – when lenders were wheeling and dealing in no-money-down mortgages.

Of course, many people are saving anew because they are worried about losing their jobs or because the stock market has obliterated their retirement accounts.

But newlyweds Scott and Emily Russell are pinching pennies so they can move out of their one-bedroom condo into a three-bedroom house with a big yard and kitchen. Emily, a high school English teacher in Atlanta, is curbing her clothing splurges, while Scott, a litigation technology consultant, has cut back on his $100 golf outings. They’re eating in more and taking leftovers to work with a goal of saving $36,000 by Christmas.

“We’ve decided to stay put for a while and save some money; do it the right way,” said Scott Russell, 30.

Aspiring homebuyers should also get a little financial boost from Uncle Sam. This week, the Senate passed a plan to give homebuyers a tax credit of 10 percent of the value of new or existing homes, up to a $15,000 limit.

The program, if added to the economic stimulus package, would replace a temporary $7,500 credit for first-time homebuyers that was passed last summer.

ChaVonne Gilzean of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., is crossing her fingers for a bigger tax credit, but she still needs some time to put away $4,200 by October to buy a $100,000 townhouse using an FHA loan. That means no new earrings or shoes. No iTunes either, said the 26-year-old health administrator.

She also plans to pay off her $2,700 credit card debt with her tax refund. And she has set up two automatic monthly transfers into her savings account.

“I did it so it wouldn’t hurt so bad,” Gilzean said with a laugh.

Despite the daily deprivations, some savers have discovered some unexpected advantages to less lavish living.

Jeff and Jaime LaMore said they’re happier now because they don’t fight about money anymore.

“It’s a marriage booster,” said Jeff, a 34-year-old computer reports writer in Roswell, Ga. “It puts things in perspective and you don’t dread the rainy days.”

The couple overhauled their finances last summer after plans to build a home without a down payment failed.

“We were frustrated with ourselves,” said Jaime, a 31-year-old dental assistant. “We were making six figures together and we couldn’t figure out where the money was going.”

They put themselves on a $300 weekly budget. They traded nights on the town for weekends hiking with their dog, and restaurants for dinner parties at home.

So far, they’ve paid off their credit cards and are squirreling away between $300 and $800 each week. They expect to put down at least 20 percent, if not more, on a $350,000 house in nine months. And after that, the LaMores are going to work on living debt-free.

Says Jeff: “I don’t see us using a credit card ever again.”

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