Since the Great Recession, inflation has been unusually low, inching along at well below the 3% historical average. And over the past 12 months, the consumer price index has clocked in at a ho-hum 2.1%. But you are not the U.S. economy, and the costs of being you haven’t stagnated.
In some cases, that’s a good thing. If you’re in the market for a new TV or computer, for instance, you’ll pay dramatically less than you would have five years ago (see chart, below). Yet during the same period, prices of many of the biggest and most common expenses families pay, from child care and health care to key grocery items, have shot up. Meanwhile, in real terms, salaries are stuck in molasses, so consumers have roughly the same income as they did before Lehman Brothers collapsed.
Use these moves to keep price increases from eroding your paycheck.
Costs of Raising Junior
Strategy: Let Uncle Sam help. Diapers, summer camp, and orthodontia may be budget killers. But the biggest strain on parents comes from two expenses: child care (up from an average $87 a week in 1985, adjusted for inflation, to $148 now) and college (tuition and fees for state schools: up 27% in real terms since 2008).
Tax breaks can help you reduce those costs. Got children under 13? Sign up at work for a dependent-care flexible spending account to use pretax dollars to pay for up to $5,000 of child-care bills, says J.J. Burns, a Melville, N.Y., financial planner. That saves you up to $1,400 in the 28% bracket.
Your company doesn’t offer the FSA, or your costs exceed the limit? Claim the child-care tax credit on your 1040 for up to $3,000 in bills for one kid, $6,000 for two. A married couple filing jointly with adjusted gross income (AGI) over $43,000 can write off 20% of bills up to these amounts.
As for college, saving via your state’s 529 plan may put money back in your pocket, says Savingforcollege.com founder Joseph Hurley; check "What's the Best 529 Plan for Me?" to see if that’s true for you. Contributions grow tax-free and are fully or partly deductible in 34 states and D.C. (withdrawals are tax-free in every state). Plus, once your child is in school, you may qualify for the American Opportunity Tax Credit on tuition and fees worth as much as $2,500 and a deduction of up to $2,500 on student-loan interest.
Strategy: Find a cheaper substitute. If you grilled hamburgers this Fourth of July, then you already know about skyrocketing meat prices. And that's not all: The prices of car insurance, butter, milk, and eggs have all risen at double or triple the CPI. For gas, make that sevenfold.
Solution? Substitute a lower-cost item or supplier that can fill the same need. Trade T-bones for chicken breasts—the price of which has tracked inflation the past five years. Reach for a glass of wine (down 2% over the past five years) instead of a bottle of beer (up 9%).Then take the strategy wider. Carpool to work or use public transit to save on gas. And shop around for a cheaper auto insurer.
Health Care Costs
Strategy: Comparison-shop. Workers’ contributions to health care premiums have climbed 26% in real terms since 2008, based on data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Prescription: Compare prices, which vary widely even in-network for doctors, services, and drugs. By logging on to your insurer’s web tool you can save thousands on MRI and CT scans, specialists, and physical therapy.
Also, to avoid big bills later, take advantage of free preventive care like physicals, which most plans must now offer, says Katy Votava, president of Goodcare.com, a health-plan consultancy. You can’t do much better than paying zero.