Inflation means prices are rising. With inflation, a dollar buys increasingly less. Really bad inflation can destroy economies and governments. In post-World War II Hungary, prices doubled every 15 hours, says The Atlantic.
American inflation concerns aren’t in the same ballpark. Not even on the same planet. Still, you feel it when prices rise. See for yourself: The American Institute for Economic Research’s cost-of-living calculator shows the purchasing power of money over time. For example:
- Today, $1,815.38 buys what you got for $100 in 1936, during the Great Depression.
- In 1936, prices dropped; you needed just $65 to get what had cost $100 in 1920.
- Today, you need $137.21 to duplicate $100 worth of purchases in 2000.
If inflation is low, why am I hurting?
Prices rose in 11 of the last 12 months, says the Consumer Price Index, a government report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The CPI tracks changes in prices of items and services bought by urban consumers, which most Americans are.
Officially, inflation was 2.1 percent in June compared with the same time the year before. Energy prices were up 3.2 percent, food 2.3 percent and everything else was up 1.9 percent, says The Wall Street Journal.
If you’re an economist, or if you’re making good money and getting regular raises, this small rise is a welcome sign of economic recovery, a sign that spending is picking up. But for people on a fixed income, workers who haven’t seen a raise in years and those making less now than before the recession, rising prices really hurt.
Inflation is on target for the government’s goal of 2 percent yearly price growth. No need to worry, at least right now. But if inflation is OK, why are we feeling so pinched by prices?
As Stacy Johnson, Money Talks News’ founder, explains: “We all have different inflation rates, depending entirely on what we buy.” In the video below, Stacy tells the story of rising prices and how they hurt. After watching, keep reading for more on how to fight back against inflation.
Your personal inflation rate
Inflation’s effect depends on how much of your income goes to things whose prices are rising: food, electricity, gasoline, airfares and housing. Lower-income families are hit harder when prices rise for the basics because that’s the bulk of their spending.
Does your favorite dish rely on romaine lettuce (up 17.5 percent year-over-year according to the Labor Department) or white potatoes (which are down 10.3 percent)? If you’re a vegan, do you buy only organic? Do you cook at home with cheap, basic ingredients like beans, grains and veggies, or do you buy prepared foods like meat substitutes that can be pricier than real meat?
Inflation for everything the CPI measures has grown 47.4 percent since 2000. The American Institute for Economic Research created an alternative measure, the Everyday Price Index, which puts more emphasis on everyday necessities, like gasoline. The EPI shows prices growing 69.1 percent since 2000.
Here’s how the EPI says individual prices changed since 2000:
Price changes: Jan. 2000-June 2014
|College tuition & fees||130|
|Water and sewer bills||106|
|Medical care services||79|
|Public transportation fares||71|
|Movie & theater tickets||52|
|Food at home||44|
|*Source: American Institute for Economic Research|
Inflation actually can be helpful in some cases, for example, if you are paying off a loan. A student loan payment of $400 eats more of your income today, for example, than it will after 10 years of inflation, assuming your income grows with inflation.
Inflation also helps if you paid pre-inflation prices for something you’re selling at today’s prices. For example, suppose you’re making mortgage payments of $900 a month on a rental property you purchased. As the cost of rent rises, your profit grows because your mortgage payment remains the same. And if you sell the property, it will probably fetch a higher price than you paid.
10 ways to cope
You can’t stop inflation. But here are 10 tips for softening its effect on your finances:
Enjoy the same types of purchases but substitute lower-priced options. Go ahead and buy that new car, for example, but get a Chevy Spark ($12,170 to $16,435 manufacturer’s suggested retail price) instead of the Mini Hardtop ($20,450 to $24,100 MSRP) you had your eye on. (Better yet, buy a used car for even more value.)
Consumers already are making some price-conscious substitutions to keep up with inflation. Writes the Wall Street Journal:
Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. this year raised steak prices by about 9 percent and chicken prices by about 5 percent. “We have, in fact, seen some customers shift from steak to chicken,” chief financial officer Jack Hartung told analysts Monday.
2. Buy generics
Giving up your loyalty to brand names gives you protection from inflation in many categories. You can find equivalent quality (read and compare labels to be sure) by switching to grocery store brands, generic prescription products, store-brand over-the-counter medicines and store-brand clothing, to name a few examples.
3. Shop smart
Make sure you are getting the most for your money by buying used vehicles, tools, clothes and household gear, using coupons and buying in bulk. Use discounted gift cards and try the frugal hacks found at Money Talks News.
It doesn’t matter which system you use, a spreadsheet, an app, tracking software such as our partner PowerWallet, or the back of an envelope. But do track your spending if you really hope to rein in expenses.
4. Buy I savings bonds
I savings bonds “are a low-risk, liquid savings product. While you own them they earn interest and protect you from inflation,” says the U.S. Treasury.
Currently, they pay 1.94 percent, based on a fixed rate of 0.10 percent and an inflation rate of 0.92 percent. The fixed rate remains throughout the bond’s life and the inflation rate changes every six months, rising or falling with inflation.
I Bonds help, but to beat inflation, you’ll need to take some risk by investing in the stock market. See: “Ask Stacy: How Do I Get Started Investing?”
6. Buy a home
Over the long haul, home prices have kept up with inflation, the Journal says. However, don’t buy a home if:
- The payments and upkeep would leave you financially strapped.
- You may need to move quickly for work.
- You can’t stay at least five years.
- You aren’t the type to do the maintenance.
If homebuying is a prudent move for you, now’s a good time. Depending where you live, homeownership still can be cheaper than renting. Buying today lets you fix your housing costs relatively low. Your mortgage payment will look increasingly better as rents rise around you. (Here’s help with the rent vs. buy decision.)
7. Don’t wait to borrow
Inflation can include higher interest rates. If you’re thinking of borrowing money, now’s the time to swing into action because the economy is slowly improving and the Federal Reserve eventually will end its support for low interest rates.
8. Drive a fuel-efficient car
Gasoline prices can fluctuate suddenly depending on events like international conflicts, bad weather, and scheduled and unscheduled maintenance of refineries. There are two ways to protect yourself from rising fuel prices:
- Drive less.
- Drive a vehicle that sips fuel, not guzzles.
9. Don’t go in debt over college tuition
Don’t get sucked into the name-brand college game if you can’t afford it. There are ways to get a good education without bankrupting your future. A few examples:
- Attend a local school and live at home.
- Go to community college for two years and then transfer to a bigger school.
- Earn pre-college credit in high school.
- Work off loans through college loan forgiveness programs.
The cost of medical services grew 79 percent since 2000, according to the EPI.
Insurance helps, but it doesn’t cover the whole bill. Even seniors on Medicare can’t escape: A 65-year-old couple retiring this year can expect to pay $220,000 out of pocket for medical expenses over their retirement.
Here’s how to drive down your costs: Up the odds of staying healthy by exercising hard. This New York Times video of one physician’s free regime shows how simple it can be to get started. “Exercise is the best medicine,” Dr. Jordan Metzl told the Times.
What are your tips for beating inflation? Chime in by posting a comment below or on Money Talks News’ Facebook page.