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How Americans are rethinking their spending habits

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

For the last several months, this is what the news about inflation has sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

LINSEY DAVIS: Inflation is hitting Americans hard.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Its highest levels in four decades.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Inflation spiraling out of control.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Inflation rose 7.5%. For the month of January...

MATT EGAN: The latest numbers suggest that inflation may get worse before it gets better.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

So we wanted to hear what inflation has felt like for people just trying to get by.

VIOLET OLSZYK: It was, like, $10 for a 12-pack of soda the other day. And I'm like, what the heck?

ARELY TRUJILLO: There's a lot of anxiety that we've accumulated over these past couple of months.

ROBERT HART: It really began to hurt us when we realized that everything was going up.

OREN JENKINS: I'm loath to sell my Jeep, but I have no other option.

ANDREW PHAM: I may not have a job to go to. It feels good not having to drive somewhere with the way things are currently going.

SHAPIRO: That was Andrew Pham, Oren Jenkins, Arely Trujillo, Robert Hart and Violet Olszyk.

SUMMERS: Unsurprisingly, they've been feeling anxious about how much food prices have gone up in the last year.

HART: My name is Robert Hart. I'm a retired veterinarian. I live in Ormond Beach in Florida, and I'm 83 years old. When I go grocery shopping, I certainly look for things that are on sale. Very seldom do we buy any meat. We are turning much more vegetarian. We make our own bread, make our own pasta.

PHAM: My name is Andrew Pham. I'm 28 years old. I'm currently living in Columbia, Miss. Sometimes I notice that I can't get as much chicken or, like, beef. I can't get enough of this because, like, the prices have increased. But I can't really, like, afford it right now, so I'll sub it in for something else.

SUMMERS: Oren Jenkins has also had to make substitutions at the grocery store, from where he shops to what he buys.

JENKINS: I'm going to stock up on cheap things that are filling yet somehow healthy, hopefully, as opposed to going to a more upscale store, possibly Whole Foods, throwing down a bunch of money for things that are more delicious and better for me but cost more than twice as much.

SHAPIRO: Last month, Jenkins graduated from law school in Rhode Island. Then he moved to Montana and drove all the way there.

JENKINS: The cost of gas coming out of New England through the Midwest, through the flyover states, stayed at a constant $5, if not more. It effectively ate through all of my savings, leaving me with practically nothing.

SHAPIRO: Jenkins isn't alone. Violet Olszyk says she's starting to wonder if she should stop working to save on gas.

OLSZYK: We can't afford for me to not work, but it's a lot easier financially if I am working. But if it's going to cost so much money just to fill the car up to take the kids to child care so I can work, it might not be worth it anymore.

SHAPIRO: And Arely Trujillo says she's considering alternatives to driving.

TRUJILLO: I'm actually thinking of taking the train. I'm lucky enough to have that option. My husband doesn't due to his commute and just where we live and where he works.

SUMMERS: Now, food and gas are things that don't easily come out of a household budget, so people are pinching pennies in other areas, like going to the movies or a restaurant for dinner.

SHAPIRO: For Trujillo, that's meant cutting down on luxuries like an Amazon Prime subscription.

TRUJILLO: I think we also canceled Hulu. We're kind of on the fence on Netflix right now. We're kind of just waiting to see if they increase their prices. And if they do, then that will be our sign to just say no.

SHAPIRO: Trujillo also worries about the lasting effect this could have for her and her family. She'd worked hard to pay off her debt and hoped it would mean a brighter future.

TRUJILLO: With the pandemic and then the economy, the state of the economy, it feels like whatever work I've done - feels like very little of it has mattered because due to the economy and the pandemic, I haven't actually been able to - I don't know - plan anything or do activities that, at this stage in life, one would think I should be able to do.

SUMMERS: Voices of Americans reflecting on how rising prices have impacted them.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUN B AND STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "STILL TRILL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.