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Inflation is driving the gig economy as Americans try to make ends meet

April 14, 2022, 11:00 AM UTC

The monthly budget started getting tight for Wendy Allen, 44, around the start of this year. 

“Last September, we were very comfortable on the income we have. And then after Christmas, it was like, whew, things were getting a little tight. And getting a little tighter,” the New York–based mother of four tells Fortune.

Allen says that it was the basic necessities that really started to cut into her family’s budget. “Food costs doubled for us—and that’s just food. Never mind gas, cleaning supplies, clothes for growing children. Everything has gone up in price, dramatically.”

Allen isn’t alone in noticing prices climbing across the board. Annual inflation rates in the U.S. hit 8.5% in March, according to the latest consumer price index, the highest in more than four decades. But unlike previous recent inflation spikes that were driven by skyrocketing car prices amid a semiconductor shortage, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent gas and food prices soaring, while housing and rent costs continue to climb.

A month ago, Allen says she felt it was time to do something to offset her rising expenses. So she started working for Spark Driver delivering Walmart and Home Depot orders. Allen now works from four to six hours a day through Spark, about five days a week. And while her weekly earnings vary because of shifting incentives, she’s adding a minimum of $400 a week to the family’s budget.

“I was actually only looking to make about $150 to $200 a week, but it just added up so quickly. And I mean, who can’t use the extra money?” Allen says.

She’s one of an increasing number of Americans who are looking to gig work, many of whom are doing so to make up their budget shortfalls. About 85% of independent workers have recently increased their gig work in the past six months, or plan to going forward, according to the 2022 Gig Payments Report published by workforce payments platform Branch and card issuer Marqeta. About 45% said they have done so because of inflation. 

Another 13% of independent workers surveyed say they plan to take on more gig work to combat rising prices. 

Inflation is taking a bite out of the budget

A majority of workers surveyed, 84%, say inflation has impacted their personal or work-related expenses in some way. 

The biggest work-related expense? Gas. About 61% of workers say their biggest cost for work is typically gas, followed by equipment and supplies, as well as the car or truck they drive for work. 

The average gas price nationwide was $4.08 per gallon on Wednesday, but those filling up in states like California and Hawaii are paying well over $5 per gallon on average, according to AAA

The Biden administration’s move to tap into the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve for the next six months has helped bring prices down from the $4.33 average notched last month, but average national gas prices are still about 43% higher than they were a year ago. 

Beyond gas, the top three financial concerns for gig workers echo the main drivers of inflation: housing affordability, utility bills, and grocery costs, according to the survey. 

America’s gig worker population is on the rise

Nearly a third of workers surveyed by Branch, 31%, only started picking up gig work within the past six months. About 44% have been at it for less than three years. 

Overall, about 16% of U.S. adults, or about 41 million Americans, have earned money using an online gig platform, according to Pew Research Center. And more are expected to try it out. Freelancing site Upwork predicts there will be 86.5 million gig workers by 2027.

But gig work is still a side hustle for most. The majority have another full-time or part-time job that they use to pay the bulk of their bills. Only about 27% rely on gig work as their primary source of income. About 24% of those surveyed left their full-time job within the past year and now work in the gig economy. 

About a third of the independent workers surveyed work two gig jobs, and 56% get their jobs from apps or websites like Uber, Fiverr, Handy, and Instacart. The most popular industry to work in for gig work is food and grocery delivery, followed by cleaning.

Although she got into the gig economy to offset inflation’s impact on her family’s budget, Allen—a former retail manager who was laid off twice during the pandemic when her stores closed—says that she’s not ruling out picking up more gig work even if inflation starts to ease. Especially since her family is planning a Walt Disney World vacation in October. 

“That’s very expensive,” Allen says. “After the pandemic and everything being shut down, we just need a family vacation. This is the perfect way to put the money aside for it.”

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