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Saving money during inflation

Saving Money During Inflation

Al Waller: From gas to food to just about everything, higher prices are here – and a lot of folks are feeling the pinch that comes with it. And let’s face it, while inflation is out of our control, there are many things we as consumers can be doing to help our own wallets.

I’m Al Waller, your host of ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & WealthSM. With me today is Catherine Collinson, CEO and president of nonprofit Transamerica Institute®, and we are going to share some tips and even do some brainstorming on how to save money in these expensive times. Before we get started, I want to remind listeners that we would love to hear from you and understand what topics you’d like to hear about. Please drop us a line at [email protected].

Catherine, welcome back!

Catherine Collinson: Hi, Al. It’s great to be back. Wow, things have gotten expensive out there, and if there was ever a time to embrace our inner “frugalistas”, it is right now.

Just about everyone is feeling the squeeze and some even more than others. My team recently conducted a survey and found that 26% of people – that is more than 1 in 4 – 26% of people in the workforce say they are just getting by to cover basic living expenses, as a financial priority. These are extraordinary and extraordinarily expensive times.

Al Waller: Well, they are–and frugalistas, huh? There's a new entry for the American lexicon! But I suppose a little more attractive than penny pincher, right? Honestly, on today's episode we're going to take some time to cover a number of ways to save money. Based on input from our listeners, we'll be discussing ways of saving money from gas to food to everyday life.

So, Catherine, if it's okay with you, I'd like to start with costs related to driving – sharing and comparing, if you will – some techniques that I've learned over the years.

Catherine Collinson: Sounds good to me. Let’s go for it.

Al Waller: Did you know that you can save gas by …?

  • Keeping a consistent pace, aka, driving the speed limit. Similarly, it helps to accelerate smoothly and maintain a consistent speed.
  • Ensuring your tires are inflated to the correct pressure.
  • Lastly, acknowledging that running your car’s air conditioning uses a lot of fuel. In warmer months, park in the shade or use a windshield sunscreen to keep the car cooler.

Catherine Collinson: Al, I've got to confess – I had no idea that jerky driving, speeding up and slowing down, is not fuel efficient. I am going to work much more on my consistency.

I do keep track of my tires, but I did not realize that having tires correctly filled can influence… I know it influences the tires, but I didn't know it could influence gas mileage.

Now, the A/C is something I am actually well aware of. Let me share with you something that will reveal a little bit about myself – something that I'm not necessarily proud of. I am one of those people that will drive until the ‘time-to-get-gas’ light goes on or the low fuel light goes on. I say, “Oh, I've got enough. I don't need to get gas right away.” Then I put it off, and the next thing I know, I'm running on empty – getting to the scary point.

Then, of course, I do the thing related to air conditioning…because I know A/C sucks up gas. Then I end up –especially if it's a hot summer day– sweating all the way to the gas station. It is not good. The A/C is a big thing that we've got to be mindful of because it does impact our mileage.

I want to throw in another tip because this is one I learned the hard way by habitually running on fumes. Not all that long ago, I found myself in that same desperate situation, and there was no time to drive around and look for a cheaper gas station. So, I got stuck paying almost $7 per gallon.

The moral of the story is – don't wait till you're running on empty. Give yourself time, so that you do have the ability to shop around and get a better deal.

Al Waller: I just had a very vivid picture of that, and it doesn't sound like a fun ride – talk about limiting your options. I too must confess that I play that same sort of game of chicken–waiting until the last minute to fill up– “Oh I've got a little bit more”, which have led to some less than favorable travel memories and we'll leave it at that.

Let's talk about the price of gas. It's one of the most visible inflationary increases we see, since the prices are displayed all over town. But then again, there's always ways to save. For example, you might not be familiar with gas apps that can actually tell you gas prices within a locale – such as Gas Buddy, Gas Guru – and even MapQuest.

And believe it or not, there are actually better days of the week than others to fill up and buy gas. According to an early 2022 report from GasBuddy, Mondays and Sundays are generally the days when gas is least expensive.

Catherine Collinson: Wow! If only I had known this a few weeks ago when I had my scary and expensive, almost $7 a gallon experience.

I can say since gas prices have been going up and I got stuck with that big gas bill, I've just been observing around the neighborhood and driving different places and it's easy to tell some places are more expensive than others. For example, I live not too far from a freeway and the gas stations right off the off ramps are a lot more expensive than the ones that are maybe a few blocks or a half a mile away. Also, it varies neighborhood by neighborhood. Some neighborhoods are more expensive than others.

So, I am learning to plan ahead.

Al Waller: And that's a good thing. Allow me to impart some further wisdom – for instance, higher octane gas isn't necessarily better. Some of the car gurus say to buy the least expensive grade that your vehicle's manufacturer recommends. As a matter of record, I paid those premium prices for a number of years, when I was driving a larger SUV with a V8 engine. But I gradually backed off, going to midrange and then to 87 Octane level fuel – and felt absolutely no discernible difference. So, that's something people may want to consider.

Here's another. You may want to try scoping out discounts, such as using the station's credit card or paying in cash. Some gas companies even have loyalty programs and others partner with grocery stores, where your grocery purchases earn you reduced prices at the pump.

Catherine Collinson: All great ideas – I'm going to add a couple more thoughts before we move on to our next topic. At risk of stating the obvious, we also need to remember, we can save by doubling up on our errands, walking more, and even taking public transportation.

Things in the workplace are changing too. As employers are trying to lure their employees back to the office, they may have some transportation incentives that weren't previously available. So, it's good to look into that too. There may be some ways to save on that area.

Then lastly, I hear many people are dreaming of doing the great American road trip this year. Especially now with websites and gas apps, you're in a position where you can do a little homework and find out the best places (the best prices) of where and when to refill your tank – so that you're not driving on empty and paying top dollar when you find yourself in a bind.

Al Waller: Good points all around there. Now, let's take a spin over to restaurant and food expenses because according to the National Restaurant Association, going out to eat at either a full-service restaurant or even a fast-food place – it's costing you about 7 to almost 9 more this year than compared to just a year ago in 2021.

So, Catherine, could you share some thoughts on how our listeners can save on food costs?

Catherine Collinson: The easiest and best way to save money is to buy your own groceries, prepare your own meals, and eat at home. For many, working from home has made that somewhat more practical, but it is still hard to carve out the time given all of our competing priorities. A few tips to share:

  • First, consider carving out some time on Sunday before the work week to do your meal prep for the week. That's going to help in a couple of ways: 1) you'll have the meals available and 2) it will help you resist the temptation of going out to eat or getting takeout, and it might even help you plan your caloric budget as well.
  • A second idea that I've even seen at my local grocery store – more and more stores are offering complete meals. They're more expensive than preparing the food all by yourself – buying all the ingredients and doing it yourself. However, they're cheaper than eating at restaurants, and they can be economical for people who live alone because often buying all the ingredients to cook for one – there's food that's going to waste. So, be on the lookout for those, and see if there's anything healthy and nutritious that looks good.
  • The third tip is those coupons – our moms and grandmas used to cut coupons. You can research them online or on their apps and shop the specials – just like earlier generations did.
  • My fourth and last suggestion is – and this is a pervasive one that just seems to have come up – it’s what feels like “out of the blue”, but it's happening. Have you noticed “shrinkflation”? I have – there were a couple of things like “how did I run out of this so quickly?” What certain manufacturers are doing is they're holding their prices constant – they're just reducing the amount or quantity of their products. So, they reduce the quantity and charge the same price. So, it's really important as you’re shopping, to pay attention. On the grocery store shelves, you notice that they'll have the price and then they'll have the price per ounce or the price per unit. Comparison shop to ensure that you're getting the best deal there.

Al Waller: All these ideas sound great and do make a lot of sense, but after spending nearly two years in lockdown, sometimes I just want to dine out, or maybe just pick something up on the way home. So, are there any bargains out there to be had for those types of occasions?

Catherine Collinson: Well, just like we were talking about gas and other products, it can really pay off to do your homework and shop around. With restaurants, I think there's still some deals to be found. Some restaurants offer specials or deals on their slower days of the week because they want to pull customers in. Some restaurants now have loyalty programs where you can build points and bonuses towards free food. There's one near me that you can actually pre-purchase credits towards future meals at the restaurant – and it's at a discounted rate. So that's kind of an interesting thing too.

Lunches are generally less expensive than dinners, and there are lunch specials. Some restaurants extend their lunch specials until as late as four or five o'clock. So, be on the lookout for those.

Then lastly there are restaurants that may offer discounts for older patrons or students or other groups. So, kind of scope that out – figure out who they are, and maybe they'll be part of your restaurant plan or your dining out plan as well.

Al Waller: I must say the older I get, the hungrier I get a little bit sooner – and those early bird specials that I use to sort of snicker at, are a little more appealing and a little more relevant.

So, it would appear your frugalista research has certainly paid off. Any other ways we can be successful in saving some money?

Catherine Collinson: One thing that's been on my mind is sustainability. Even as I take out the trash, I say to myself, “Wow, this is a lot of trash.” Not only environmentally speaking, but there's an expense associated with it.

To help sort of quantify this, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that each person in the US produces an average of 4.9 pounds of trash per day, with about half of that trash going to landfills. Reducing waste can also help us save money. We can save our environment and we can save money.

Simple steps…start in the kitchen. I know somebody who just no longer buys paper towels. Talk about shrinkflation, I think that's one area where that's happening. Paper towels are expensive – my friend just uses kitchen rags and washable items – and gave them up and has not missed them.

Other things that we're all well aware of are things like plastic bags and plastic packaging, which is terrible for the environment. And we have good substitutes now, with reusable grocery bags and other ways of transporting food and preserving food in our refrigerators. So, if you just think about these small steps – in their totality, they can make a big difference.

Al Waller: It really is a win-win. One of the ones that are out there – my daughter in-law turned me onto these beeswax wraps that are extremely practical and very effective in terms of wrapping up and preserving your food instead of buying a bunch of plastic bags.

It's also – I think – wise to check your local energy company's website for tips. As we head into warmer weather, it'll be important to be conscious of our use of air conditioning, especially when working from home. For instance – this is a small step, but when I run my air conditioner (A/C), I intentionally cut out other electric use by turning off lights not being used, maybe unplugging idle appliances. These are small steps admittedly, but collectively they do add up. Let's face it – while I'm looking forward to the summer, I'm not so thrilled about those high energy bills that come along with it.

Many homes here in the Baltimore region where I live now – they have “smart meters,”. This is so people can reduce their use of gas and electricity at peak times and lower their bills. My wife Edie and I have been able to see some very tangible results – not just in dollars and cents savings – our bills reflect a steady improvement in our energy efficiency compared to our neighbors, because it does do a cost comparison. I can personally validate and appreciate that this helps homeowners in general and at the same time, our environment.

Catherine, I really enjoyed today's conversation – the more we talk the more ideas just keep popping into my head.

Catherine Collinson: I think this is a great opportunity to once again, encourage our listeners to send any ideas that you have to [email protected]. Maybe we can do a follow-up on this.

Then as a reminder, there are organizations out there like AARP or AAA that through their programs, they offer extensive discounts. One other thing, which is applicable to employees especially of large companies – often, the large company will have arrangements with their key vendors or suppliers extending employee discounts. So, that's something to look into as well.

Anyway, the ideas just keep coming – and look forward to continuing this conversation.

Al Waller: Clearly, we could go on a good bit longer, but talk about being a fount of information.

Catherine, great to have you with us today and thanks so much for helping us find some much needed relief in this intense sticker shock we're all currently experiencing.

We hope you’ll join us for future episodes. If you missed them, look for previous episodes on inflation explained and preventing skin cancer.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is brought to you by Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit private foundation dedicated to identifying, researching, and educating the public about retirement security and the intersections of health and financial well-being. You can find our weekly podcast on WYPR’s website and mobile app, wherever you get your podcasts, and at transamericainstitute.org.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is produced by Transamerica Institute with assistance from WYPR.

If you have comments, feedback, tips to save money, or ideas for future episodes, please reach out to [email protected].

Until the next time, I’m your host Al Waller. Stay safe, be well and thanks for listening.

The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as insurance, securities, ERISA, tax, investment, legal, medical, or financial advice or guidance.

Al Waller is a long-time Baltimore native and employment expert with a 30-year career in leading and advising locally and globally based corporations on matters including: Talent Acquisition and Retention, Employee Relations, Training and Development.
Catherine Collinson is the founding president and CEO of nonprofit Transamerica Institute and its Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, and she is a champion for Americans who are at risk of not achieving a financially secure retirement. With two decades of retirement industry-related experience, Catherine is a nationally recognized voice on workforce, aging, and retirement trends. She was named a 2018 Influencer in Aging by PBS’ Next Avenue. In 2016, she was honored with a Hero Award from Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER) for her tireless efforts in helping improve retirement security among women.