July 7, 2008 in City

Scaling back

By The Spokesman-Review
Christopher Anderson photo

Doreen Kelsey, of Spokane, waits for a passenger to disembark before hopping aboard a Spokane Transit Authority bus bound for downtown. Kelsey switched to public transportation after her 1991 Mazda broke down and the repairs were too costly. “I see it as an opportunity to try something new and save money along the way,” she said.
(Full-size photo)

Most years, you’d find Gwen Druckrey and her husband out in their boat somewhere over Fourth of July weekend. Not this year. “I’m staying home,” Druckrey, the business manager for a Spokane towing company, said before the holiday.

It was a popular option, given the high price of gas. Steve Schennum, an electrical engineering professor at Gonzaga University, planned to do the same thing – after a trip to Colorado to camp and raft cost him $800 in gas.

“I’m tired of traveling, for one thing, and I don’t have any savings left, for another,” he said. “I’m just going to stay put for a while.”

A third of Americans say they’ve changed their vacation plans this summer due to higher gas prices, according to one national poll. Meanwhile, even with the recent arrival of the year’s first 90-degree days, people are beginning to worry about the cost of heating their homes this winter.

Since last Independence Day, gas prices have risen by more than $1 a gallon. They’ve been above $4 and climbing for nearly a month, with no relief expected anytime soon. Food prices are expected to rise between 4.5 percent and 5.5 percent for 2008 – more than last year, which saw the biggest jump in 18 years.

Things are more expensive in every corner of the economy – one seasonal example is the price of fireworks, which were up 20 percent to 30 percent, according to national trade group American Pyrotechnics Association.

The rising cost of everything squeezes the poor hardest, forcing difficult choices onto families with no room in their budgets. But the effect of higher prices is spilling through the economy, and middle-class families find themselves cutting back on things they’ve long considered staples.

In interviews with Inland Northwest residents, some people said they were giving up pricey bananas or artichokes; others were grilling burgers instead of steaks. Some have scaled back charitable giving; others have given up gym memberships or trips to visit family.

Doreen Kelsey gave up her car altogether. Her 1991 Mazda that broke down recently needs $2,000 in repairs. She’s chosen to let it sit, for now, and she’s taking the bus or walking most places. She and her husband share a car.

“I might eventually get around to replacing it, but I’m really happy with the situation we have now,” she said.

Conservation has been a priority of Kelsey’s for years, and she says that it ought to be a primary strategy for dealing with energy prices.

“The answer isn’t just biofuels or alternatives or more drilling,” she said. “Conservation is just as important and maybe a more practical solution.”

Druckrey said she and her husband usually spent lots of weekends fishing at Diamond Lake or Williams Lake. But the price of gas – to get to the lakes and then to run their 40-horsepower boat – makes even short trips expensive, she said.

“That 40 miles makes a difference,” she said.

Druckrey said she’s seeing higher prices having an effect everywhere she looks. She works at a towing company, which is considering a surcharge to cover its fuel costs. At home, she says, her two-week grocery bill is running at $400, about a third higher than last year. And in her volunteer work with the Boy Scouts, she said driving to camps and other summer events is harder and harder for families and volunteers.

“We’re going to start losing volunteers all over the place because they can’t afford to drive,” Druckrey said.

Peggy Coffey, 72, said she’s not undergoing great hardship. But she’s had to look hard at little luxuries she enjoys: scaling back on letter-writing to preserve her good paper, reusing potpourri “until it really loses its smell.”

“I’m very careful about where I drive,” she said. “I combine trips, and there are things I would like to get that I don’t get.”

Forecasters aren’t looking for any drops in energy prices in the near future, and people are already concerned about heating costs this winter. Avista last week issued a statement warning consumers that wholesale prices for natural gas have risen 73 percent in the past year.

Diana Lawson just filled her fuel-oil tank for her furnace. At a price more than double that of last year – which seemed steep then – she spent $1,100, she said. Usually it takes a tank and a half to get through the winter. This will be a one-tank year, she said, whether that means more sweaters or space heaters.

“This tank is going to have to last the winter,” she said.

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