LOCAL

'Nightmare surprise': Inflation bites Palm Beach County consumers

Hannah Morse
Palm Beach Post

Marion Winokur and her husband Alan were out hunting down a deal on a recent afternoon.

It wasn’t one of their regular shopping trips, but the Boynton Beach couple couldn’t pass up a buy-one-get-one sale on soup and pasta at Publix. Still, the groceries tucked safely in a small red cooler in the back of their trunk cost $60.37.

“Every time we go to the supermarket, it’s like a nightmare surprise,” said Marion, 83. “From one week to the next, the prices go up.”

A container of yogurt that used to cost them $1 now costs more than a quarter extra. Lactose-free milk — if there is any in stock — tends to be the more expensive option.

“We’re on a fixed income. Social Security gave us a raise, but inflation has taken that raise away,” Marion said.

Alan and Marion Winokur look at their receipt from a recent shopping trip at Publix in suburban Boynton Beach. “Every time we go to the supermarket, it’s like a nightmare surprise,” Marion said.

Consumers hit by price hikes for everything from electricity to insurance

The price war on shoppers has been a seemingly all-out assault since the start of the year.

For starters, Florida Power & Light rang in a rate increase with New Year's festivities. This week, the price to fill up a gasoline tank — up 26 cents a gallon in Florida in just the past month — hit its highest point in almost eight years.

Other costs are spiraling, too.

Looking for a home? The median price of a Palm Beach County single-family house rose by 25% to more than $526,000 in the past year.

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The premium to insure that home in Florida is up 25% as well, according to the Insurance Information Institute. And a car to park in that new home's garage, even a used vehicle, could be 42% more expensive in the West Palm Beach area than a year ago, said the data firm iSeeCars.com.

For retirees, for professionals, for students, the cost to live is inching toward the untenable, with inflation sinking its claws into savings accounts, any income increases and overall take-home pay. 

The consumer price index registered a stunning 7.5% jump in the past year, the biggest increase in four decades. A dollar last month had the same buying power as 93 cents in January 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator.

The spikes are a minor inconvenience for some, but for others, it forces stagnation in climbing the economic ladder while putting some aspects of life on hold.

Consumers say gasoline, food hikes chomping household budgets most

The cost of necessities and amenities are all rising at different speeds. But the ones hitting Palm Beach County consumers most are groceries and gas. That has led some to work longer hours, shop around for the cheapest deals or change their habits in other ways.

Gasoline, perhaps the most in-your-face sign of inflation for many people, skyrocketed in price over the last year, growing by 40% nationally despite falling by just under 1% last month, according to the latest Consumer Price Index figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the West Palm Beach area, gas prices averaged $3.62 per gallon, a number that has gone up by 22 cents in the past month and almost $1 in the past year, as reported by the AAA. These are the highest averages in the entire state.

On the higher end, regular-grade gas in Palm Beach County is selling for as much as $3.99 a gallon, according to GasBuddy, a mobile app to which drivers can report gas prices. Such stations were located in Boca Raton and Palm Beach Gardens.

Commuter Alissa Frankel reluctantly accepts that this is the reality for the 35-mile trip she makes six days a week from her Lake Worth Beach home to her job at a religious institute in Jupiter.

“If I made more money, I would probably own an electric car,” the 37-year-old said.

Frankel was among the dozens of drivers who waited in line to fill their tanks at Costco on Lantana Road on a recent afternoon this month. The membership-based retailer provided what appeared to be the lowest price in Palm Beach County for regular-grade gasoline at $3.17 a gallon, according to GasBuddy. 

That was much better than the 40 cents more per gallon she would be charged at the station near her home.

While she has no choice but to drive to work, higher prices for food have made more of an impact, with Frankel opting to buy in bulk at Costco or eat less frequently at restaurants. “You just see the cost rising. It’s out of control,” Frankel said. “You still need groceries. It’s a shift in priorities.”

Food prices up — whether at supermarkets or restaurants

Food prices across the country rose by 0.9% in January, and 7.5% in the last year, the bureau reported. The cost to eat at home has increased by 7.4% since January 2021, while eating out rose 6.4% more in the past year.

The past year’s increase in the cost of consumer goods was the highest since 1982. 

Dale Mullins, a 73-year-old retiree from Palm Springs, is concerned about how the higher prices will affect his ability to live comfortably. 

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Like Frankel, he does what he can at the grocery store to buy in bulk, like water, paper products and Uncrustables sandwiches. He, too, filled up the gas tank at Costco.

"The price goes up $1 or $2 on every item,” he said. “It’s just draining our savings and retirement.”

After shopping at Aldi in Boynton Beach, Leslye De Weever headed to BJ’s in search of more deals. “That’s how I shop. I’m a single mom and I’ve been doing that forever,” the 62-year-old said.

But even with her careful spending, she still feels the squeeze of higher prices.

People tightening belts by cutting back on simple pleasures

“I don’t over-spend anymore as I would before,” by cutting back on simple pleasures that can add up, like coffee at Starbucks, she said.

De Weever said she planned to “tighten things up and ride this out.”

“This is going to take a long time before it gets back to normal,” she said, pointing to COVID-19 restrictions in other countries and other impacts to the product supply chain that economists have cited as a source of shortages boosting price increases. “People think it’s not, but I think it’s going to take a long, long time.”

Ivan Alvarez was another one of those drivers at the Costco pump. It takes the 27-year-old West Palm Beach resident just under an hour each day to drive to work at a medical marijuana farm in Indiantown. That commute translates to shelling out $60 each week for gas.

To save on costs, Alvarez is considering carpooling with a friend. He also brings his lunch to work rather than buy it at on-site food trucks.

“Just in the time that I’ve been paying attention, since I started this job about three, four weeks ago, I’ve seen the price of gas go from $3.09, then up to $3.17, then to $3.22,” the 27-year-old West Palm Beach resident said earlier this month. “It’s pretty intense right now.”

Lorena Lopez made a quick stop at the Mobil Station on Yamato Road in Boca Raton on the way to her job at The Melting Pot, where she works four days a week. While the job is good, “we just don’t make enough,” the 28-year-old said. 

“I just put $12 in my tank because I just didn’t have enough,” she said. “I can’t because I have to save my money for other things.”

Lopez is the sole caretaker of her daughter, and has to have enough to drive herself to work and her child to appointments. 

“That’s a reality for most of us,” she said.

@mannahhorse

hmorse@pbpost.com