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.