Rising inflation is a concern for Mike and Brit Miller, a couple in their 30s living in Atlanta, Georgia. They say they’ve noticed a spike in prices for everyday items like food and gas over the past few months — a change that’s forcing them to reevaluate their budget and become extra cautious of their spending.
The December consumer price index, which measures changes in the cost of food, housing, gasoline, utilities, and other goods, rose by 7% over the past 12 months — the largest inflation surge in 40 years. Prices were up 0.5% from October, according to the report.
“I travel a lot more for work, so gas is a big thing and I noticed that pretty quickly,” says Brit, who works as a nurse. The Millers host a YouTube channel on which they share their story of paying off $120,000 in debt with more than 11,000 followers, along with financial tips and tricks they learned in the process.
The rising cost of meat and other grocery staples is forcing them to change their weekly grocery planning. “We haven’t increased our grocery budget yet, but we are getting closer and closer to going over it,” says Mike.
“Things that you’re buying on a day-to-day basis are now essentially going up in price, so it can really affect your budget,” says Larry Sprung, a certified financial planner and founder of Mitlin Financial, a financial planning firm in New York. “If you have a budget put together, it’s time to adjust it and take a look at how prices and your costs have changed.”
Inflation is hitting everyone, but low-income households are feeling the pinch even more, especially as wage increases for many workers fail to keep up with inflation. Higher prices for consumer goods means less discretionary spending for families with lower incomes, but it also means many families are having to shift their budgets just to cover their basic necessities.
“At first, it was kind of a sticker shock but we’re more concerned for other people. We know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck,” says Brit. “My coworkers have talked about gas and food going up, and having to adjust and take away from other parts of their budgets to cover it.”
We spoke with experts on the current inflation increase and to gather advice on how to manage inflation where it is hitting hardest, such as food, gas, consumer goods, and utilities, among others. Here’s what they said.
What’s Causing Inflation?
The COVID-19 pandemic caused a shock to the world economy, disrupting supply chains and contributing to major delays in shipping. Labor shortages and surging consumer demand have only exacerbated this problem. With many items in short supply and the cost of shipping going up, prices are increasing.
You may have noticed a hefty increase in the cost of a vehicle, food, or fuel over the last few months. The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows gasoline alone is up 58.1%, and energy prices are up 33.3% over the last year. Used vehicle prices are up 31.4% for the year, and new vehicle prices have increased 11.1%. Food prices have also increased by 6.1% year over year. Within the food category, meat, poultry, fish and eggs collectively are up 12.8%.
But the supply chain disruptions driving much of the current inflation won’t last forever. The Federal Reserve Bank and many experts believe the inflation is more temporary than long-term. Once the supply chain issues are worked out, “in a lot of cases these prices will actually drop,” says Dean Baker, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, an economic policy think tank.
Sprung has a similar belief. “This inflationary environment we’re in is not going to last forever,” he says. “I think there’s a little bit of a fear factor there. Inflation is a natural part of the economy.”
But for families living on a tight budget with little room to spare, macroeconomic cycles take a backseat to the challenges people face every day. There is no firm timetable for how quickly we see prices return to normal. It heavily depends on how soon the global supply chain gets back on track, according to Baker.
Where Are People Feeling Inflation the Most, and What Can You Do to Prepare For and Manage It?
A lot of your cash flow over the next few months could be consumed by increased prices, not just for food or goods, but also living expenses, like heating your home, says Beverly Harzog, a consumer finance analyst with U.S. News & World Report.
While inflation is likely affecting your bottom line in some shape or form, it could be worth making some simple changes to your budget and spending habits to account for it over the next few months. Some planning and self-awareness around your spending could help you scope out opportunities to save. If you don’t have a budget, now is a good time to start one.
“There are a lot of real practical issues here that people are very worried about,” she says. “I just advise across the board, just rein in your spending a little bit,” Harzog, says.
Having a budget or spending plan is essential for combating inflation. It’ll help you keep track of what you spend and identify areas in your budget that are increasing. It can also help you decide what items are the most important for you to spend money on — and which to skip.
For many families, the rising cost of food and groceries are one of the first things that becomes noticeable when prices increase. In 2020, U.S. consumers spent almost 9% of their disposable personal income on food, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So any increase in food prices — no matter how small — can translate to less money to save, or pay down debt, or even just to spend on other everyday essentials.
It’s important to note that inflation hasn’t hit all types of food evenly. For example, fruit and vegetables haven’t increased nearly as much as meat. “There’s a lot of opportunity to try to avoid the things that have really gone up a lot in price,” Baker says. Cooking also tends to be cheaper than buying pre-made food, according to Harzog.
Those are a few strategies that Mike and Brit have deployed to avoid going over their $575 food budget every month. Because they shop at the same supermarket every week, they’re familiar with its deals and sales — and try to take advantage of them when they come around. They’ll also use coupons whenever possible to save even more. Additionally, they don’t eat out often.
“Some things are going up in price, but other things may be going down. We try to look for the things that are going down rather than buying things that are going up,” says Mike. “And we are also very intentional about how much we spend.”
If you’re in need of government assistance, food stamp benefits recently increased to $36 for the average recipient per month, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That means a family of four could see nearly $150 more in monthly benefits. To apply or check your eligibility, connect with your state office or website.
Gasoline, Heating, Energy, and Other Utilities
Because prices are surging worldwide for heating oil, natural gas, and other fuels, anticipate higher gasoline prices and bills for heating this winter. Households should expect to see their heating bills jump as much as 54% compared to last winter, according to a report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
“I received an email from our natural gas supplier, telling us we should be prepared for our prices to go up and what we should expect the increase to be,” says Sprung.
That can be especially stressful for anyone having difficulty paying their utility bills, or who has a long commute to work that requires a large budget for gasoline each month. If you are required to go to work in person, you can’t do much to avoid higher gas prices other than take public transportation if available or carpool with others in your area. But it can be an opportunity to have a conversation with your employer about having a remote option for work, at least temporarily, says Sprung.
“That’s probably the best tool. A lot of it is dependent upon the industry you’re in and what the company you’re working for will allow,” says Sprung. “But if you have a super long commute, it might be worthwhile having a conversation with them to see if they’re open to a virtual situation.”
It’s also worth getting on the phone with your utility provider and asking them what assistance they’re able to offer, according to Sprung. “If this was something that’s uncomfortable to you or your family, you can contact them now to make arrangements,” he says. Based on our reporting over the course of the pandemic, experts consistently point out that proactive communication is key in these situations, rather than falling behind on bills.
Beyond that, you could look into federal programs that help low-income families with their energy bills. There’s two main programs: the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). Eligibility requirements will differ depending on the state you live in.
In addition to LIHEAP and WAP, many states offer relief programs intended for low-income families struggling to pay utility bills. Check out this list of additional statewide public and private programs.
Cars and Car Repairs
Fewer cars are being made, but demand for cars stayed relatively strong thanks in part to low interest rates, shifts in spending during lockdowns, and stimulus payments, says Baker. Prices for new and used vehicles are increasing, at the same time car repairs are getting more expensive.
If you’re in the market for a new or used car, but you still have a functioning one, consider waiting until prices drop. The same goes for minor car repairs that can wait a few months.
According to Baker, car production should increase at some point and people who already bought recently won’t be buying again soon, so the supply and demand for cars should balance out in time. Baker says he’s putting off trading in his vehicle until the end of next year.
“If you’re not desperate and you know you have a car that works, I think it might be reasonable for you to wait a few months and see how things shake out,” says Baker. “It’s very hard for me to envision the price going higher.”