Q&A: Why Are Prices So High Now?

Q: I’m trying to heal financially as life returns to pre-pandemic norms, but the rising cost of many commodities, like groceries and gasoline, is making a financial rebound a challenge. Why are prices skyrocketing right now?

A: The jump in prices of many goods is proving to be a formidable challenge to millions of Americans who are attempting to recover from the pandemic. There are several compounding factors triggering the rise in prices across multiple industries, and the upward trend is likely to continue for a while. Here’s what you need to know about the sky-high prices dominating the post-pandemic economy.

How much more do groceries cost compared to a year ago?

A trip to the grocery in 2021 doesn’t come cheap. According to new data from NielsenIQ, all 52 tracked food categories are more expensive now than they were a year ago. The cost of fresh meat, for example, jumped by 8.6% from May 2020 to May 2021, while processed meats are up by 9.2% and the cost of eggs has seen a nationwide increase of 8.2%.

What is causing the increase in grocery prices?

A confluence of factors is causing grocery prices to rise.

For one, the pandemic has caused a shortage in many materials due to a prolonged disruption in the labor force and supply chain, which has increased demand, and the prices of these goods, to rise. Grocery items, in particular, also saw a surge in demand due to the many Americans cooking at home while on lockdown during the pandemic. Many industries are still suffering from these shortages and don’t expect to recover for a while. In fact, the Bloomberg Commodity Spot Index, which tracks 23 raw materials, is at the highest level it’s been in nearly a decade.

Second, there is a shortage in the labor market now, which can likely be attributed to the inflated and extended pandemic unemployment insurance, which made many laborers reluctant to return to work. Employers are forced to offer more pay for attracting workers, and they pass this extra cost on to consumers.

Finally, the increase in prices can be linked to the rise in transportation costs as gas prices continue to rise, which we’ll explore more in a moment. Again, this increased expense is passed on to the shopper through higher prices on consumer goods.

Why are gas prices so high?

It’s sticker shock at the gas pump these days, with prices as high as $4 per gallon in some parts of the country.

There are many factors contributing to the rise and fall in gas prices, of which the fluctuating price of crude oil is most prominent. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), approximately 60% of the money we pay for a gallon of gas goes to cover the costs of the crude oil that went into making it. Another 25% pays for the costs of refining, distributing and marketing the gas, while the rest pays for federal taxes, and state taxes in some states as well.

Crude oil prices, in turn, rise and fall in direct correlation of multiple factors. Most recently, here’s what’s causing the price of crude oil to peak:

  • Basic rules of supply and demand. The last few months saw a loosening of COVID-19 restrictions around the globe. This led to an increase in the demand for gas, and in turn, for crude oil. In contrast, at the height of the pandemic, demand for crude oil fell sharply — and so did its price tag.
  • The presidential election. Crude oil prices have spiked by an average of $0.75 per gallon since Nov. 3, 2020. The oil markets evidently see the current administration as one that will inhibit U.S. oil production, which leads to a tightening on the global oil market. Traders responded by driving up the price of crude oil.
    Seasonal market changes. The price of crude oil tends to rise and fall with the seasons, where prices generally rise in the spring and summer months as more motorists hit the road, thereby increasing demand. The changeover to summer gasoline blends also leads to a jump in gas prices at this time of year
  • Change in the value of the dollar. Oil is priced in U.S. dollars within the world market. When the dollar is strong, relative to other currencies, crude oil is cheaper for Americans and more expensive for the global market. When the dollar is weak, as it is now, oil becomes more expensive for Americans.
  • Strong discipline among the OPEC+ nations. When the nations which are part of OPEC+ stick to their agreement to cut back on oil production, prices increase.

What can I, as a consumer, do about the rising cost of goods?

Unfortunately, as a private consumer, there’s not much you can do to bring down the costs of common goods. However, there are steps you can take to help you manage these costs in a financially responsible manner.

First, you’ll likely need to make some changes to your monthly budget to accommodate the higher costs of groceries and gas. Shuffle your spending categories by trimming discretionary expenses until you have enough money to cover the costs of food and transportation.

Next, incorporate cost-saving techniques you may not have needed to use until now to help you manage these increased expenses. Think couponing, shopping the seasons and the sales, buying items you always use in bulk, and cutting back on pricey grocery items you can do without. To save on gas costs, consider walking to work or to do your errands, carpooling when possible, or using public transportation more often.

Rising prices might be hard on the wallet, but with some proactive steps, you can still stay on top of your finances and help bring your financial health back to pre-pandemic norms.

Your Turn: How are you budgeting for the rise in the cost of groceries and gas? Share your tips with us in the comments.

Post-Pandemic Money Moves

Re-acclimating to normal life as pandemic restrictions are lifted and businesses reopen across the country will mean more than just getting used to wearing real pants again and working without your cat on your lap. You’ll also need to consider your finances. How has your overall money management changed during the pandemic? Have you dipped into your savings? Have you been letting your retirement accounts slide? Or, maybe you’ve been waiting for the chance to hit your favorite retailers again, and you can’t wait to splurge after a 15-month financial fast.

As you prepare to leap back into normal life, proceed with caution. Be sure to consider your full financial picture as well as long-term and short-term goals.

Here are some forward-thinking money moves to make as you adjust to post-pandemic life.

Review and adjust your budget

Pandemic times required their own budget, as people cut down on costs like dining out and updating work wardrobes, but spent more on things like at-home entertainment. Others may have had to adjust their spending to fit a changed income level or to help them coast during a stint of unemployment. The pandemic may have also shifted something in some people’s mental list of needs and wants, as they found they can live with a lot less than they’d believed.

As you adjust to post-pandemic life, take some time out to review and tweak your monthly budget. Be sure to incorporate any changes in income, as well as a readjustment to pre-pandemic spending or changed priorities. You may need to review and adjust your budget, and maybe even your spending behaviors, every few months until you find a working balance.

Rebuild your savings

If you are one of the many Americans who were forced to dip into savings, or even to empty them completely, during the pandemic, create a plan to get your savings back on track. Tighten up your spending in one area until you’ve built up an emergency fund that can keep you going for 3-6 months without an income, or use a windfall, such as a work bonus or tax refund, to get the bulk of your emergency fund in place.

Once your emergency fund is up and running again, continue to practice basic saving habits, such as setting aside 20% of your monthly income for savings, or whichever approach you prefer. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that it’s always best to be prepared, because you never know what can happen.

Rethink your long-term and short-term financial goals

The pandemic has prompted many people to reevaluate their goals. Retiring before you hit 50 or spending a month in Europe next summer may not be as important to you as you’d originally believed; or it may be even more important now. Similarly, you may realize your family has outgrown its living space and that moving to a new home is your number one financial priority. Or maybe you’ve decided you can live without a second car.

Take some time to rethink your long-term and short-term financial goals and adjust your savings and budget accordingly.

As you move through this step, be sure to consider any long-term goals you may have put on hold during the pandemic. Have you stalled your contributions to your retirement accounts or toward your child’s college tuition fund? Have you been making only the minimum payments on your credit cards? If any of these apply to you, be sure to revert your savings and debt payments back to pre-pandemic levels as soon as you can.

Spend with caution

It’s perfectly fine to enjoy a shopping spree in celebration of a return to pre-pandemic norms, but it’s best to spend with caution.

First, prepare to encounter inflated prices wherever you go. Gas prices have jumped recently, and costs of many consumer goods have spiked as well. If you planned to purchase a big-ticket item like a new car or tickets for a cruise, consider waiting it out a bit until prices cool off.

Also, you may be eager to make up for lost time, but no amount of nights out on the town will bring back the months you spent at home. Similarly, overbuying for this fashion season won’t bring back the seasons you spent at home in a hoodie and sweatpants. To avoid irrational overspending, set up a budget before you hit the shops and only spend what you’ve planned.

The restaurants and movie theaters are open for business again, and mask mandates are dropping all over the country. As life returns to pre-pandemic norms, be sure to consider the state of your finances and to make responsible, forward-thinking money moves like those listed here.

Your Turn: What post-pandemic money moves will you be making now? Tell us about it in the comments.

Second Wave of Stimulus Checks Brings More Scams

The second wave of stimulus checks only started hitting checking accounts a few weeks ago, and the BBB  and the FTC are already warning of related scams.

According to the FTC, American taxpayers lost more than $211 million due to COVID-19 scams, with $20.9 million of that amount connected to the first round of stimulus checks.

Don’t get scammed! Protect yourself by learning all about these scams so you know when you’re being targeted.

How the scams play out

Stimulus check scams can take the form of phishing scams, in which a criminal asks victims to provide personal information to receive their check, and then instead uses that information to empty the victim’s account.

In other variants of the stimulus check scam, a victim receives an email prompting them to download an embedded link to receive their check.The link, of course, will infect the victim’s computer with malware.

In yet another stimulus check scam, a criminal impersonates an IRS official or a representative of another government office demanding a processing fee before the check can be sent.

Finally, there have been reports of taxpayers receiving checks that appear to be authentic stimulus checks, but are actually fraudulent. They deposit the check and, soon afterward, a scammer reaches out to them to inform them the check amount was incorrect and they must return some of the funds. Unfortunately, a few days later, the financial institution finds that the check is fake and it will not clear. The victim is now out the money they returned to the “IRS.”

Red flags

Unfortunately, technology has made it easy for scammers to spoof a Caller ID and to create bogus websites that look authentic. If you know what to look for, you can beat them at their game and recognize a scam before it gets past the first step.

Here are five red flags of stimulus check scams:

1. Unsolicited calls or emails

It’s best to avoid answering unsolicited calls and/or emails from unknown contacts to protect yourself from a stimulus check scam. Similarly, never click on a link in an unsolicited email or text message, as it may contain malware.

According to the BBB Scam Tracker, scammers have also been contacting people through robocalls and leaving messages about the stimulus checks and direct deposits. These calls should likewise be ignored.

2. Messages that ask you to verify or provide sensitive information

The BBB is warning of emails and text messages asking citizens to verify or supply information to receive their stimulus checks. Sometimes, the victim will receive an email instructing them to click on a link to receive their benefit payments. This, too, is a scam. The IRS will not call, text or email any taxpayer to verify their information.

3. High-pressure tactics

If a phone call or email demands immediate action on your part and uses a threat of losing your stimulus payment, you’re likely looking at a scam. There is no action you need to take to receive your check.

4. Fee solicitations

There is no processing fee or any other charge attached to the stimulus payments.

“If you do answer a call, and it’s about your stimulus payment, keep in mind that U.S. government agencies won’t ask you to pay anything up front to receive your funds. Anyone who does is a scammer,” cautions Jennifer Leach, associate director for the FTC’s division of consumer and business education.

There’s also no way to pay extra for receiving your stimulus payment earlier.

5. Inflated check amount

“We’ve seen a lot of scams involving bogus checks that look like government checks in the past year,” says Paige Schaffer, CEO of global identity and cyber protection services at Generali Global Assistance.

For the best way to protect yourself from this scam, the BBB recommends that all taxpayers receiving their stimulus payment via paper check verify that the check is authentic before depositing it in their checking account. Look up the agency or organization that allegedly sent the check to see if it really exists, and check the status of your payment to see if you actually should have received it.

Stay safe!

Your Turn: Have you been targeted by a stimulus check scam? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
wwmt.com
marketwatch.com
cnbc.com
bbb.org

Check Out Our Super New Look!

Hello again everyone!

Five children dressed up in colorful homemade superhero outfitsWell, as you can see, we’re kicking off the new year with some fancy new spandex  for the blog! Out with the dark knight inspired theme, and in with a colorful new interface more in line with our corporate brand.

We plan on making a few more changes in the near future, including moving to a new domain, but have no fear, the good folks at WordPress will make sure that you continue to see our content whether you are a brand new follower or someone who’s been with us from the start.

We look forward to bringing you even more super-informative articles in 2019! Thanks for your continued support, and Happy New Year!

-The AOCU Blog Team

Here We Go!

Boy wearing aviator helmet with rocket strapped to back launching into cloud filled sky.New look, new name, same great content!
Hi Everyone! We wished to take a moment and let all of our subscribers know about an exciting change that will be happening over the course of the next month or so. We’ll be designing a brand new look, adopting a new name and will eventually be moving to a new domain. This will be rolling out over the next month, so when everything looks different one day, don’t freak out, you’re still in the right place. ;O)

What won’t change
We’re very committed to sharing information that keeps you safe online and helps you make sound financial decisions. And our content will still be written by the same authors, we will simply cover some additional topics that we haven’t touched on in the past.

Why the change?
Well, it’s because the blog was initially just sort of an experiment. Because all of YOU fine people actually read our articles, it’s become an integral channel for us to get important information out to everyone. (Thank you very much for that, we’re glad you like what you’ve seen so far!) Because of your interest, management has given us the green light to give the site a new, broader scope and a facelift. Needless to say, we’re very excited to roll out blog v2.0, so stay tuned for more details!

-The Blog team