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Expert advice on how to stay on budget as inflation makes basic necessities more expensive than ever

March 10, 2022, 9:17 PM UTC

The cost of essentials, like food and housing, continues to rise, and experts say this might just be the beginning as the Russian invasion of Ukraine impacts gas, wheat, and corn production. 

And these rising expenses are making it increasingly difficult for many Americans to stay on track financially. 

The price for consumer goods and services jumped 7.9% last month and hit a new 40-year-high. Across the board, prices increased 0.8% month-over-month in February after several months of decline, according to the latest Consumer Price Index report released Thursday

“This extra element of uncertainty — sharply rising prices — makes budgeting very difficult and often discouraging,” says Chris Diodato, a certified financial planner and founder of Florida-based WELLth Financial Planning. 

About 75% of the inflation seen in February came from three sectors: food, energy, and housing, says Lauren Melodia, deputy director of macroeconomic analysis at the Roosevelt Institute

Grocery prices rose 1.4% in February alone and represented an 8.6% increase over the last 12 months. Energy costs rose about 3.5% in February, up from just a 0.9% increase in January. That surge was driven by gas prices, which ballooned by 6.6% last month — and that’s before the true impact of Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine started to take hold. 

And housing costs — which make up about a third of the Consumer Price Index and is arguably one of the biggest monthly household expenses — rose 0.5% in February. While that might not seem like a huge hike, it accounted for over 40% of the monthly increase in all the items tracked in the Consumer Price Index outside the food and energy categories.

“These are basic necessities — people cannot delay or substitute them. You have to pay your rent or your mortgage every month,” Melodia says. “You have to eat food every day, you need electricity and gasoline to be able to show up for work and take care of your family.” 

The month-over-month increase demonstrates that current conditions are driving inflation, rather than just continued “spillover effects” of the pandemic, says PNC economist Kurt Rankin. “Inflation is entrenched across all consumer categories,” he added, noting that high inflation is likely to stick around in the months ahead. 

These persistently higher living costs mean that many Americans will need to critically re-evaluate their spending, despite seeing more money in their paychecks. Average hourly earnings for workers were up by 6.7% in February. But Rankin says “even healthy wage growth across industries will likely fall short of the pace of consumer price inflation.”

It’s time to take a hard look at your spending

So how do Americans keep pace with these rising costs? In many cases, financial experts say it comes down to common-sense approaches that limit unnecessary spending and uncover the best-possible prices for the goods consumers need. 

“My focus is usually on making many small adjustments instead of one large change, so it feels less painful,” says Elliott Appel, CFP and founder of Wisconsin-based Kindness Financial Planning. 

There’s no doubt about it, it’s tough to stay on budget when prices of basic necessities are skyrocketing, Appel adds. He and other financial planners say now is the time for Americans to review their entire budget and determine what is absolutely needed and what could potentially go. 

Jay Zigmont, a CFP and founder of Mississippi-based Live, Learn, Plan, says he breaks down spending into four categories: Musts, Shoulds, Coulds, and Won’ts. The “Must” expenses are non-negotiable, and they must be paid first to keep you fed and a roof over your head. This category also includes the minimum payments on any outstanding debt.  “Shoulds” come next as a spending priority and are things that are not required, but help long-term like saving for emergencies and retirement. “Coulds” are discretionary spending. “As prices go up, we may not be able to afford many, if any, ‘Coulds,’” Zigmont says. 

The “Won’t” category is for things that you can focus on not buying, he adds. Start with the low-hanging fruit items in your budget, like canceling a subscription service or dining out less. Maybe it’s time to consider shopping at lower-cost grocery chains or swapping that expensive gym membership for a lower-cost (or at-home) solution. “Most of us subscribe to quite a few services, and there is probably at least one that could be canceled,” Zigmont says. 

It could also be worth trying to negotiate down the price of a monthly bill, particularly television, internet, and phone bills. “Call the provider and ask them for a discount or to hear about different packages,” Appel recommends. He recently did this for a family member and saved $30 a month on a cable bill without losing any channels that were important. 

Bottom line, your budget is unique, but there are probably some items or services that you could swap for lower-cost alternatives or cut altogether.

“Most of us also have some discretionary spending that is purely wants-based, not needs-based,” says Eric Roberge, CFP and founder of Massachusetts-based Beyond Your Hammock.

Double down on discounts

With gas prices expected to continue their sharp rise, it’s worth taking a few extra minutes to do some digging to find lower prices. Free apps like GasBuddy can help you find the lowest prices at gas stations near you. 

You can also take advantage of fuel perks through grocery stores or fueling up at gas stations run by warehouse clubs. “I routinely find gasoline at warehouse clubs like Sam’s and Costco to be 15% to 20% cheaper versus other stations,” Diodato tells Fortune. “The gas savings alone often easily pays for the cost of membership, especially for frequent drivers.”

Another tip: Check your credit cards for cash-back offers — and use the accumulated savings to lower your monthly credit card bills. Certain Discover and Chase credit cards are offering 5% cash back on grocery stores through March

Additionally, using apps like Ibotta, Coupon Sherpa, and RetailMeNot can help consumers save money on their shopping through coupons and rebates. 

But keep in mind that a deal isn’t a deal if you have to spend more to get it. For example, if you have to drive 30 minutes out of your way to save a few cents a gallon of gas or score a buy one, get one deal on milk, you may be spending more on gas than you’re saving. Diodato says he’s a big advocate of buying in bulk, for example, to reduce the number of trips to the store. 

“Try to batch your errands together. I know it’s easy to hop in the car and go, but with higher gasoline prices, you might benefit from trying to do your errands that are close together on the same day,” Appel says. 

Look closely at debt

Debt falls into the “Must” category since you’re required to at least make a minimum payment each month, and that can have a big impact on where you can actually save. But financial planners recommend that Americans take a careful approach to paying down debt during these uncertain times. 

If you have extra cash on hand, it may be worth using some to pay down high interest debt, such as credit card debt, says Jim Crider, CFP and founder of Texas-based Intentional Living Financial Planning. That can free up some space in your monthly budget, depending on the size of the debt and how much you can afford to pay down.

But if your debts are fixed at a relatively low interest rate, such as a 30-year mortgage or a car loan that was established in the last few years when interest rates were at historic lows, paying any extra won’t really help your situation, Crider says. “If you have cheap debt that is fixed — not going to be reset at a higher rate or ‘called’ early — paying off early may be the wrong move during a high inflationary period,” he says. 

That’s especially true if you have to dip into savings to pay off that debt. Now is the time to keep more cash in your emergency savings to help buffer against future price shocks. You might even decide to temporarily reduce your retirement savings or delay making a major purchase if you’re struggling to make ends meet. 

These price hikes are hitting low-income Americans particularly hard — especially when they’re not able to easily find cheaper prices for their everyday purchases. 

“To add salt to the wound, the people who are most greatly impacted by inflation are those who already don’t have discretionary income to spend on nonessentials, meaning that their lifestyle just became more expensive and there’s not much room to trim the budget,” Crider says.

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