CINCINNATI — Prices for U.S. consumers jumped 6.2% in October compared with a year earlier as surging costs for food, gas and housing left Americans grappling with the highest inflation rate since 1990.
The impact can be seen on countless everyday items used by everyone living in the Greater Cincinnati region.
Grocery prices are up 5% since last fall, lumber prices doubled before falling a bit in recent months and gas prices are up 49% this year to a national average of $3.41 per gallon.
Bigger-ticket items are not immune: Home prices are up 20% from one year ago, rental cars are up 39% and used cars are up 24%.
How did we get here?
Although it might be easy to point blame only at elected officials, there are many factors at play and ultimately the biggest source of the inflation comes down to COVID-19.
There is the classic issue of supply versus demand: The supply chain crisis and COVID-related factory shutdowns means there is simply not enough supply for a world that grew used to luxuries like Amazon two-day shipping.
Ports around the world are also at a bottleneck from the impacts of COVID-19, inhibiting the shipments of goods around the world.
Rising fuel costs worldwide — not just in the U.S. or the Tri-State — have also made shipping these goods much more expensive than it was just one year ago. New vehicle prices have risen 9.8% year-over-year as computer chip shortages have slowed production.
And then there's the workforce shortage. While employers have increased pay to attract more workers, those growing paychecks have been quickly cut down by the rising costs of goods everywhere. In turn, to offset higher labor costs, some businesses raised their prices.
The rising costs of energy
Energy is the item that saw the largest 12-month increase out of all the other items affected by inflation and supply shortages.
The cost of energy is up 30% from this time last year, just as the Greater Cincinnati region prepares to enter the coldest months of the year.
Heating bills are expected to rise in cost by 54% this winter when compared to 2020. Sally Thelan, Duke Energy spokesperson, said as the weather gets cold, winterizing homes can help cut down on the demand for energy.
"Making sure now is the first time, before it gets bitter cold, that you're able to go around your home and look for any, you know, leaks around windows, doors, improve any of your weather stripping, if you need to add caulk around windows," she said. "You want to make your home as airtight as you can."
Thelan said taking the steps to winterizing a living space can drop a heating bill by 2% per degree.
The local impact
In Newport, with a full cart of fresh groceries for his family, Alex Wittich is now $300 poorer. He said that's at least $50 more than it used to be for the same cart with the same contents.
His family is already buckling down.
"Definitely clipping coupons," Wittich said. "Packing lunches and stuff. We realized that helps."
There are a couple of specific aisles that Wittich said have been much more costly to shop from recently.
"Anything for kids, like juices and snacks and stuff like that, just seems to be way more expensive," he said.
In the grocery store, bacon is up 27%, eggs are up 25.5%, coffee and milk are each up 7%.
The effect isn't just felt in the grocery store aisles — it's hitting local businesses, too. Chef Kymberly Wilbon stopped taking new catering clients at The Passion Plate to focus on current clients who want family meals or meal preps.
Wilbon said the sticker shock of food items has been significant. Her major pinch point right now is chicken and containers to package meals in.
"I'm grilling the mushrooms and barbecuing the mushrooms because I'm going, not more plant-based, but I'm using more vegetables," Wilbon said.
She said the best advice she can offer fellow shoppers in the Tri-State area is to buy in bulk and plan ahead.
"Buy that big bag of rice, cook it down for the week," Wilbon said. "Plan your meals, keep track of what's going up, talk to the butcher at the grocery store."
To combat the rising cost of chicken, Wilbon said, people should buy a whole chicken and learn how to cut it up. Prices on whole chickens are actually down 7% from last year, unlike their pre-cut, pre-packaged counterparts.
At Freestore Foodbank, where members of the Tri-State turn for help feeding their families, the costs at the grocery have them strapped, too.
"Last year, during a time when we would have spent $800,000 on food, we spent over $4 million on food," said Kurt Reiber, president and CEO of the Freestore Foodbank.
Reiber blames the ongoing issues with the nation's supply chain for some of the cost increases. He said problems with meat processing plants and transportation shortages mean they either can't get some food items they normally get, or they have to pay more money.
As inflation and costs rise, the demand on the Freestore Foodbank only increases, too — just like their bills.
"That's the challenge that we have," Reiber said. "Increased prices, increased delivery times requires us to work doubly hard to make sure that we're keeping the shelves stocked so that our families can get the food that they need to support themselves."
How will this affect the future?
Today's inflation pinch could mean increased debt in the future for those who find themselves unable to make ends meet or are tempted by loans and credit cards.
Northern Kentucky University economist Janet Harrah said debt levels are rising again after a brief dip during the pandemic.
"When we compare 2019 prior to the pandemic to today, total household debt has increased by $1.1 trillion," she said.
Much of that new debt came from car loans and mortgages, but inflation is increasing pressure to turn to more expensive loan options for those feeling the biggest pinch.
"All of the stimulus money is coming to an end," Harrah said. "The enhanced unemployment money is coming to an end. So, their reserves are pretty low."
The debt trend will eventually aid in slowing down the economy as people tighten their belt and turn away from luxury items, or buying new when used might be available.
"So that's going to crowd out things like, 'I might not go out to eat,'" Harrah said. "'I might not go to the movies. I might not buy my kids a new pair of tennis shoes.'"