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Living On Your Income When Prices Rise

June 2008

Elizabeth Gorham, South Dakota State University Extension Family Resource Management Specialist
Debra Pankow, North Dakota State University Family Economics Specialist
Barbara O’Neill, Rutgers Cooperative Extension Specialist in Financial Resource Management

The increase of prices of goods and services, such as gasoline, food, and health care, can be traumatic, especially if you are retired and/or living on a fixed income. No matter what your present circumstances, it can be alarming to realize that your income does not go as far as it used to in covering the basics.

Increases in prices are often due to an increase in the price of one essential product that triggers an increase in the price of other products and services. An example is an increase in price of a barrel of oil on the global market that results in an increase in the price of gas at the pump which, in turn, increases transportation and heating and cooling costs. It doesn’t take long until you personally feel the effects of price increases to the extent that you have little or no discretionary funds and/or you strain to pay all your bills.

When prices rise, don’t panic, but don’t become complacent either. You need to adjust your spending and develop a spending plan (budget) to pay bills. Financial affairs are still within your control. It will take work and planning, but you can survive a financial crisis and come out stronger when it’s over. Don’t stop credit payments or ignore the fact that you are facing financial difficulties. Make an action plan as soon as possible.

Jot down how you spend your income. If you do not already have a good idea of your spending habits, track your household expenses for a month or two. This will give you a good idea of where you will be able to make changes in future spending. Family living expenses can be separated into fixed and variable (or flexible) expenditures. Fixed expenses include regular payments such as rent, mortgage, and car loan payments, other types of installment credit, health and life insurance payments, and equal payment plans for utilities. Flexible expenses include recreation, leisure, food, clothing, personal care, and so on. It is these flexible expenses, especially, that a family can examine and then make choices on ways to cut spending when times are tough.

Household expenses are the key to how well you do when dollars are scarce. If your family does not follow a spending plan (budget), now is the time to start. Family input is essential, as is being realistic and flexible. Be creative about spending cuts. Remember, you still want to survive comfortably. Below are some suggestions:

  • Agree to discuss purchases over a certain dollar amount with other family members before buying.
  • Control impulse buying; make a shopping list and weigh the importance of each item.
  • Practice effective consumer skills. Comparison shop. Buy the specials. Use coupons. Go to price-competitive stores. Buy in bulk. Look for cash discounts. Shop at thrift stores or discount stores.
  • Do NOT drop insurance coverage. The need for insurance is magnified by the stress you may be experiencing. However, make sure you are not paying for duplicate coverage by having several policies.
  • Do NOT cancel essential medical and dental appointments. In the long run, this may prove to be costly. Some professionals may be willing to negotiate payment schedules if details are worked out in advance.
  • Conserve resources by using them wisely – make your home energy efficient and consolidate shopping trips and other errands.
If you can pay some bills, but not all, set priorities. Pay those that: maintain vital services (e.g., utility, phone, transportation, insurance), have the highest interest rate, cost the most to delay (e.g., late penalty, repossession, or disconnect/reconnect charges), and may be vigorously collected (but not before paying for secured loans or basic essentials). Be wary of quick, short-term, high interest loans (e.g., payday loans). If you miss just one payment, you could become saddled with a long-term, high interest debt payment that, seemingly, never ends.