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Inflation is hitting the 3 big areas of household budgets

David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Inflation grew at its fastest clip in almost four decades last month — and rising costs are hitting the biggest areas of household budgets.

Inflation measures changes in the price consumers pay for goods and services.

It jumped 6.8% in the year through November 2021, the largest annual spike since 1982, the Labor Department said Friday. A consumer, who paid $100 for a good last year, would pay $106.80 for the same thing today.

That U.S. inflation reading includes prices for all sorts of items, like alcohol, fruit, airfare, firewood, hospital services and musical instruments.

Higher inflation was concentrated in a few areas like used cars and trucks earlier in the Covid pandemic — a cost burden many households may have been able to dodge. (Not all households need to buy a car.) Now, rising costs seem to be impacting a broader set of goods and services that are harder to avoid.

“In terms of core household expenses, you weren’t seeing it there [earlier this year]. You are now,” Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate, said of inflation.

“You’re not seeing price declines to offset that,” he added. “The price increases are pretty pervasive.”

Housing, transportation and food are generally the three biggest expense categories for the average American household each year, according to the Consumer Expenditures Survey.

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In 2020, housing costs (like rent and utilities) represented about 35% of the average person’s budget. Transportation costs (like vehicle purchases and gasoline) ate up 16% of the budget, and food expenses (groceries and restaurants) another 12%.

The three categories are seeing many cost components increase at their fastest pace in many years.

For example, the “food at home” index (i.e., groceries) rose 6.4% over the past year, the largest 12-month increase since December 2008. Some subcategories like meat, poultry, fish, eggs and beef grew by double digits.

Gasoline prices are also up 58.1%, their largest 12-month increase since April 1980. Household energy costs are up 12.2%. Motor vehicle insurance is up 5.7%.

Of course, some of these categories — like food and energy — are volatile; they’re subject to big price swings to the upside or downside. And not all consumers will be affected the same way. (Someone who takes public transit won’t pay inflated costs for gasoline, for example.)

While categories like shelter are up more modestly (rent is up 3% on the year, for example), some economists are concerned such prices will prove more lasting than other categories.

A landlord who raises rent by 3% (to $1,030 from $1,000, for example) isn’t likely to reduce that rent for tenants in the future. In that sense, inflation’s impact on a renter’s budget may be “stickier.”

“It puts a squeeze on the household budget,” McBride said of inflation. “Your pay may only go up once a year. But you’re getting hit with higher costs on one thing or another, month after month.”

Persisting inflation?

However, it’s not apparent that inflation will persist or continue to rise at the same pace.

Some financial experts think prices will moderate as pandemic-related distortions (like supply-chain bottlenecks and high consumer demand from pent-up purchasing power) ease.

President Joe Biden and White House officials sought to reassure Americans on Thursday that energy and other costs were starting to fall, a dynamic that wouldn’t be apparent from Friday’s inflation reading.

“That data is by definition backward-looking and so it won’t capture some recent price movements, particularly in the areas of energy,” according to Brian Deese, the president’s top economic advisor. He cited a nine-cent drop in gasoline prices nationally.

The headline inflation readings may also seem high relative to last year due to so-called “base effects” (meaning November 2021 prices are being compared to those in 2020, when they were being depressed by the then-prevailing pandemic effects).

The price increases are pretty pervasive.
Greg McBride
chief financial analyst at Bankrate

“We believe that the passing of base effects and the easing of supply chain constraints by the end of the first quarter of next year should slowly bring inflation down to more comfortable levels,” according to Rick Rieder, head of the global allocation investment team at asset manager BlackRock.

“In fact, we think both headline and core [inflation] are likely to be in the 2% to 3% range by the end of 2022,” he added.

The Federal Reserve, the U.S. central bank, aims for long-term inflation of 2%.

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