Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Though inflation cooled slightly last month, U.S. consumers are still paying significantly more for nearly everything they buy.
If that's the bad news, the good — or at least slightly better — news is that not all price increases are created equal, meaning consumers can reduce their personal inflation rate if they know where to cut back.
For many consumers, dipping into savings accounts is the only viable alternative to spending less on groceries, gas and other essential items, creating a catch-22 with bad financial options on either side.
"I feel like to meet our budget, we're going to have to shave off someplace else," said Carolyn Adamson, 85. "We do have savings, but we are very reluctant to get into our savings. I've really noticed a huge difference, not just this year, but growing and gradual inflation."
Adamson and her husband, Nathan, 93, both remember living through the 1970s — the last time U.S. inflation was this high — and are especially concerned because this round feels just as bad, if not worse, than what they experienced previously.
As a great-grandmother, Adamson said she feels the pinch of inflation not just at the grocery store, but when giving gifts to grandchildren.
"We used to give our children and our grandchildren $20 for their birthdays," she said. "Twenty dollars almost seems like it's not even worth the buying power that $10 was 10 or 15 years ago."
Still, she's grateful she doesn't have to provide for children every single day, because without kids, it's much easier for her and her husband to scale back on things like eggs or bananas if the budget is tight.
Necessities like food, medical care and energy costs can be difficult to reduce, but even a few small tweaks can make a noticeable difference.
Here's how you can minimize the impact inflation has on your budget:
Changing what you eat
Unfortunately, food has been one of the most notable categories for inflation. Food has seen an annual increase of 9.4%, according to the latest Consumer Price Index. That's higher than the overall price increase of 8.3% in April.
"This is one of the real struggles," said Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, who is also the senior economist and public policy officer for Zions Bank. "There aren't a lot of alternatives that people can shift to. ... Food is a basic part of life and it's difficult for people to find alternatives."
Still, it will help to avoid some of the costlier food items, which includes meats, poultry, fish and eggs, which have risen 14.3% nationally in the last year. Consumers in Utah face even steeper prices for meat, as the category is up 18.4% in the Mountain West region, according to Spendlove.
Things aren't all bad for Utahns, though, as the region boasts lower rates of inflation for bakery and dairy products when compared to the national rate. And while produce prices have increased considerably, fresh fruits and vegetables — other than lettuce — have increased at a slower rate than frozen or canned varieties.
For Tom Faircloth, 65, meat has become a luxury, reserved for one or two nights a week, or if family members or friends come over for dinner. Faircloth said he tries to visit the store only once every two weeks or so, and buys food items that can be used in a variety of dishes over the course of a couple of weeks.
"I think we're buying less overall," he said. "We'll have soup and a grilled cheese or something like that. We just do simpler things. Where we might have cooked a meal and had mashed potatoes and gravy and the whole thing — we rarely do that or have family over for meals like that."
Will transportation prices fall anytime soon?
Prices for used cars surged 22% in April, but compared to a 35% bump in March, things might be starting to move in the right direction. Unless it's absolutely necessary, Spendlove said holding off on buying a new or used car could save money in the long term, even if prices continue to climb in the short term.
As the Federal Reserve raises interest rates, Spendlove said, financing for vehicles may initially increase, but hopefully the price of vehicles will eventually begin to decrease. Vehicle maintenance and repairs have gone up just over 5%, so regular preventative maintenance to keep your car on the road is probably the cheapest option for now.
Adamson has children and grandchildren in Rexburg and Meridian, Idaho, and said a recent trip to Meridian cost three times what it used to in gas. She worries that she and her husband will have to reduce the number of visits if gas prices stay high or climb even higher.
"This last time that we went up that's one of the things we talked about," she said. "Are we going to be able to comfortably do this? Or are we going to have to pick and choose which grandchild to go and see what they're doing? That kind of hurts when you get old. Really, is your wallet kind of squat? And to pay that much for what we consider a short trip."
Even with a gas discount card, Faircloth said he still ends up paying nearly $4.50 per gallon, and rarely drives at all if he can avoid it. Faircloth said he eventually canceled his insurance policy for one of his cars because he had stopped driving it altogether.
"After spending a few hundred dollars for my trip to the store, I had a quarter of a tank left and it still cost me $112 to fill up," he said.
The war in Ukraine has created a lot of uncertainty in the fuel market, but Spendlove is optimistic that the nation is close to topping out when it comes to gas prices.
"I tend to think that we're at a high point, and that gasoline — or at least oil prices are at kind of a peak," he said. "And they should trend down, but as we've seen so much in the last couple of years, there's a lot of uncertainty, and it's really hard to predict where those oil prices will go."
Until gas prices do finally drop, he said, cutting down on driving time by walking, riding a bike or taking public transit may be the only viable alternative for most people.
Know your personal inflation impact
The Consumer Price Index is just a snapshot of inflationary increases in general, and personal inflation rates can vary greatly from person to person depending on geography and spending habits. Knowing which items in your shopping cart are most inflated can help avoid the most overpriced goods.