Inside the East Boston Shaw’s supermarket, Armir Lee first chose four gala apples — his everyday breakfast. Their cost: $2.99 per pound, for a total of $7.12.
Then he picked up Olivia’s organic spring greens ($3.99), Mt. Olive pickles ($3.79), and Arnold whole grains oat nut bread ($4.69), followed by Sargento cheddar cheese ($7.99), 10 deli slices of Boar’s Head chicken ($4.19), and lastly, his condiment of choice.
“Do you see this?” asked Lee, bewildered. “Seven dollars — seven dollars — for Miracle Whip.” (Or to be exact, $6.49.) His total bill came to $43.26, which he said was considerably more than he would’ve paid for the same items last year.
The Boston Public Schools music teacher has watched his grocery bill balloon since September, when he returned from a three-month trip to Moscow and Eastern Europe. What once would’ve been a $40 weekly expense now nears $60 some weeks, he said.
It’s a testament to how dramatically inflation has affected the cost of basic necessities. Overall prices rose by 6.2 percent in the last 12 months, the fastest pace in three decades. But food and gas — among the heftiest expenses for many New Englanders — saw much larger gains. And while it’s hitting lower-income families the hardest, those with well-paying jobs have not been spared.
In October, gasoline prices were 49.6 percent higher nationally than a year ago, and fuel oil used for heating was up 59 percent. AAA Massachusetts placed the average price of a gallon of gas at $3.425 in its latest weekly survey; that’s up from $3.34 a month ago and $2.07 a year ago. Meanwhile, food from US grocery stores costs 5.4 percent more than in 2020, with categories such as steak and bacon increasing in excess of 20 percent.
Laura Veldkamp, a professor of economics and finance at Columbia Business School, said Americans who saw their wealth grow during the COVID-19 pandemic are now inclined to spend, while supply chain disruptions have hampered the availability of basic goods and supplies.
“When everyone wants something, it becomes scarce,” she said. “And scarce translates to expensive.”
People with tighter budgets are reorganizing their finances to keep up with higher prices, which could persist for months. Really, “no one has any idea how long this is going to last,” Veldkamp said.
Jasen Lambright, a Dorchester resident with a family of five, has been feeling the financial strain. The $300 he and his wife allot for twice-monthly grocery trips buys less food now. That means the grocery list is a suggestion rather than a mandate, he said.
“It’s less about the list,” said Lambright, “and more about, if we’ve reached the limit, I have to stop.”
He avoids his old go-to store, a Stop and Shop in Dorchester, in favor of Daily Table Food Market, Price Rite, and America’s Food Basket — all more affordable options. Occasionally, Lambright visits a food pantry or the Fair Foods truck, which sells mixed produce for $2 a bag, to stock the fridge.
Lambright, his wife, and their kids — ages 8, 6, and 3 — are not strapped for cash, he said. He just began work as a software developer; she is a counselor at a nonprofit outside the city. But they’re doubling down on efforts to stretch their income by eating less chicken, for example, and waiting longer to turn on the heat.
“We know prices are more likely to rise than fall,” Lambright said. “And we’re preparing for that.”
Christina Vanbecelaere, an X-ray technician at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Milton, thought the market-adjusted raise she received this spring would offset higher prices. She co-owns her Roslindale home with her father and budgets “almost obsessively.”
But it’s not enough. “I don’t think we’re buying anything extravagant,” Vanbecelaere said. “The money’s just not going as far as it used to.”
Bacon sells for at least $9 per pack, she said. The cereal bars her 5- and 8-year-old boys favor are often out of stock, forcing her to grab a costly alternative. Monthly grocery bills amount to $1,300, rather than the usual $1,000. Gas for the family minivan and Toyota RAV4 costs $50 more per month, too.
“It’s weird to be in this position while having solid jobs, saving, and helping our community,” said Vanbecelaere, whose husband is a college minister.
Lower-income families with less money in the bank have shouldered even more of a burden. The increase in wages has failed to keep pace with sticker prices, and people “can’t defer buying food to save money,” said Michael Klein, a professor of international economic affairs at Tufts University and the executive editor of Econofact, an online economic analysis publication.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 75 percent of total expenditures for families making $42,000 or less annually went to food, transportation, rent, utilities, and cellphone service. And an analysis by the financial security nonprofit SaverLife found that 1,300 low-income people nationwide spent an average of $152 on groceries in September, a jump from $96 the month before.
“That’s an immense challenge for people living paycheck to paycheck,” SaverLife’s director of research, Tim Lucas, said.
Sarah Buck, a 51-year-old Fairhaven resident, is among them. She collects $1,000 each month from her disability check and relies on food assistance programs to feed herself and her service dog, Little Bit. (“Because he’s like my little bit of whatever I need,” Buck said.)
But her other expenses are almost too high to handle. In May, she found a roommate to split the rent on her two-bedroom apartment. An influx of cash from the Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly helps offset her soaring heating costs. Little Bit routinely splits chicken and beans with Buck.
“You got to take a little good with the bad,” said Buck, who lives with lupus and asthma. In March, she suffered a fall that led doctors to place three plates and 12 screws in her ankle. “We squeak by.”
Others, meanwhile, are hamstrung by costs such as transportation.
Although Michael Bakshi got a deal on the Subaru Outback he bought in May 2020, gas prices have since drained his wallet. He tracks fuel expenses on the Drivvo app. On June 9, 2020, he paid $1.90 per gallon. On Nov. 13, 2021, it was $3.50.
“I live paycheck to paycheck,” said Bakshi, who commutes from Southborough to Medford daily. “Gas and [car] insurance take a big bunch.”
It’s unclear how long prices will continue to go up. Federal officials have struggled to deal with inflation, and politicians are locked in a battle over whether President Biden’s costly bills are part of the problem. Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell has repeatedly said inflation should “abate” next year.
Not everyone is so sure, including Lee, the music teacher.
After his recent travels abroad, he has even considered moving to Moscow full time to become a saxophone performer, and inflation is only aiding the argument.
“Maybe, I’d be able to live a better life over there,” he said.