Higher food and fuel costs are making it hard for many consumers to make ends meet. Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta reports a 31.5% increase in the number of people asking for budget and credit counseling sessions during the first half of 2008, compared to the same period last year.
The price of oil has slowly receded from its high of $146 per barrel at the start of July. But it remains almost double what it was just a year ago, exacting a toll on consumers at the pump while leading to higher prices on everything from milk to electronics as companies pass along higher fuel costs.
The Consumer Price Index (an index of common goods used to measure price inflation) rose 5.0% since this time last year, according to
by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
If you are having trouble meeting your bills, it's high time you take a second (or even third) look at your household budget. Consider the following recommendations from CCCS:
Look for "buy one, get one free" deals -- but only on products you need and would buy normally.
Cut coupons and use them. Again, use them only for products you need: Don't buy a luxury item just because you'll get 50 cents off.
Compare unit prices, such as cost per pound or per gallon. (You usually can find unit prices on the shelves underneath the goods in a supermarket.) Try to buy nonperishable items in bulk when you find good deals.
Save on gas by planning your errands ahead of time, and limiting your driving time whenever possible. Carpooling to work (and for getting the kids to school) can lower travel costs significantly.
Don't buy lunch or snacks at work. Instead, bring your own food from home.
Consider getting rid of your land-line phone and using only your cellphone. If you do, be careful to make sure you're not likely to incur high fees -- for example, by exceeding your plan's allowable minutes.
Unsubscribe from premium cable channels.
Don't waste your money buying lottery tickets. Instead, use that money to shore up your emergency fund.
Call each of your current utility providers and make sure you are paying the lowest competitive rates for service. You also might consider asking to be placed on a budget-billing plan.
You can probably free up a few extra dollars, even if you think you already have squeezed everything out of your budget.
A budget counselor may be able to help you trim your expenses even more by working with you to reduce debts. For example, you might be able to improve your cash flow picture by using a portion of your savings to pay off a credit card, thereby eliminating its pesky minimum payment.
"Everybody these days can benefit from reviewing their family budget very carefully," explains Dick Reed, Regional Counseling Manager at CCCS of Greater Atlanta. "We're here if they need help with that job. Working with us can give consumers a road map to reducing their expenses."
Peter McDougall is a freelance writer who lives in Freeport, Maine, with his wife and their dog.