The people who pay the bills may notice, but Americans as a whole don’t seem to pay give much attention to the cost of living.
Far too often the cost of living is an abstract concept that heads of households admit they need to address but often never do.
What’s the cost of living? It’s the total amount of cash a household needs to cover basic home, career and lifestyle necessities.
Any cost-of-living list might include a mortgage or rent payment, a loan on a vehicle, health-care costs, and food and utilities.
Below the surface, the cost of living can also include ancillary household expenditures like filling the gas tank, paying for a babysitter, and a round of golf at the local public course, among other day-to-day expenses.
Cost-of-living indexes are also used by private and public enterprises for the common good.
“Employers use the cost-of-living indexes to determine wages, while governmental organizations use them to assess the need for measures such as yearly adjustments to Social Security benefits,” stated Credit Summit, in a new report on the cost of living in the U.S.
“These measures are also used by people considering relocation, particularly for employment reasons.”
What Makes Up the Bulk of Cost-of-Living Spending?
In 2020, the average annual cost of living stood at $61,334, the Credit Summit report noted. (The U.S. cost of living differs from state to state. It’s much higher in California, for example, than in Mississippi.)
That cost-of-living average appears to be considerably higher as 2023 approaches, financial experts report.
“Since the beginning of 2021, energy prices, such as electricity, gas, and other fuels, have been the primary driver of rising inflation,” said Lyle Solomon, principal attorney at Oak View Law Group in Jersey City, N.J.
“Many Americans had saved during the pandemic due to financial support and the fact that covid-19 shut down businesses and prompted people to stay at home rather than spend money on the services they had previously utilized.”
But that financial cushion is diminishing as consumer goods and services grow more expensive due to inflation, global supply-chain problems, and higher interest rates.
“Due to elevated inflation rates in particular, Americans’ savings are not going as far in 2022,” Solomon said. “In addition to affecting the value of savings accounts for those who have saved for an emergency or retirement fund, rising prices can be a more prominent source of discomfort.”
The Credit Summit cost-of-living report points to five particularly sharp expenses, and cites their average annual costs to U.S. households:
Housing-related expenses (beyond rent or mortgage): $2,838
Those prices will go higher unless inflation is tamped down.
Inflation in the U.S. was the 13th highest among the 44 nations analyzed in the first quarter of this year, averaging 8.6%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Moreover, in the United States, the first-quarter inflation rate was nearly four times higher than the same period in 2020,” the Credit Summit report noted.
U.S. inflation is currently running at an annual rate of 7.7%.
Traditional big-ticket items like housing, transportation, and food remain the top three expenses for most households in 2022.
“These three categories can consume a sizable portion of your earnings,” Solomon said. “Housing in particular is becoming increasingly expensive due to inflation, and it is the most serious issue for many U.S. households.”
Transportation is cheaper than housing, but rising gas prices have also strained people’s finances. Energy prices rose significantly in 2022 before abating somewhat in November.
Food costs are on the rise, and that’s an issue for U.S. households with low incomes.
“Food costs in the United States are actually not that expensive,” Solomon noted. “However, it can be a significant issue for low-income households. If you don’t make much money, takeout as well as healthy food can comprise a large portion of a household’s food budget.”
Getting a Leg Up On Cost-of-Living Expenses
Americans who are struggling to keep up with the cost of living need to take a step back, assess the situation, and use the financial management tools available to tackle these issues.
“It’s critical that households create a budget based on monthly earnings,” Solomon advised. “Tracking your expenses is an effective way to modify your spending habits, but it can become overwhelming if you have a large number of payments to make.”
It’s also a good idea to use personal finance mobile apps like Mint, Personal Capital, or Goodbudget to get a firmer grip on income and spending.
“With the right app, you can make better financial plans and save more money for what matters,” Solomon said.
Heads of households also should focus on wants versus needs to control cost-of- living expenses.
“You need to feed yourself (buy groceries) but going out to eat is a want,” said founder Jay Zigmont at money-management firm Childfree Wealth in Water Valley, Miss. “Keeping a roof over your head is a need, and having a nice house is a want.”
If these big-ticket items are holding you back, make an equally big decision to get them under control.
“It may be time to downsize a pricey house or rent something further away from the city, especially if you are working remotely,” Zigmont told TheStreet. “If you’re married or living together as partners and working remotely, it may be time to cut back to one car.”
“The bottom line is that everyone needs to be on a budget and mindful about their spending,” Zigmont added.
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