4 ways to beat inflation

It’s been a while since the U.S. economy endured serious inflation, but we now have price hikes for some products that are denting the family budget. Year-over-year inflation was 4.2% in April and economists think it could go higher. San Francisco Federal Reserve President Mary Daly recently predicted this bout of inflation would persist into 2022.

Price hikes are hitting certain types of products suffering supply disruptions as the economy rebounds from the coronavirus pandemic much faster than many expected. A shortage of microchips has cut into new-car production, so buyers are snapping up used cars, pushing prices up 21% during the last year. Rental-car agencies slashed inventories last year, and with travel recovering, rental rates are up 82%. Lumber prices are four times higher than they were a year ago, pushing up construction costs. Home values have risen by record levels, exasperating buyers. Gasoline is up, too.

When consumers start to worry about rising prices, it can distort spending decisions and depress the entire economy. That happened in the late 1970s, when inflation got as high as 14% and “stagflation” caused two recessions. We’re probably not headed for stagflation now, since consumers have options and most supply-demand mismatches will sort themselves out. Still, it may be time for some careful budgeting. Here are 4 ways to cope with inflation.

Wait. When consumers see prices rising, they might force themselves to buy so they don’t get stuck paying even more a few months from now. But waiting might be a better move, if you don’t need that home or car or stovetop right away. Most economists think the current inflation is “transitory,” though there’s a debate over whether “transitory” means a few months or a few quarters. The broader point is that prices don’t always go up. Market dynamics often adjust in ways that bring prices back in line and sometimes even produce gluts that lead to price drops.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller told Yahoo Finance recently that he expects the red-hot housing market to cool, and prices to fall. He’s not saying when, but the housing bubble that began around 2003 gives some clues. Home prices soared from 2003 to 2006, then tumbled for the next six years, bottoming out in 2012. The current boom began last year, and probably won’t end as badly as the last one. The lesson from the past, however, is that the housing market could look more favorable than buyers expect in just a year or two.

Other prices will moderate or decline as producers respond to strong demand by increasing supply. Lumber prices, while still sky-high, have begun to fall for products to be delivered over the summer. That’s because mills are producing more. Automakers have had to halt some production because of the chip shortage, but production could get back to normal levels by later this year. By 2022, barring surprises, inflation could subside as the kinks in the post-pandemic economy smooth out.

Substitute. Most consumers are shrewd with their own money, and when one thing gets expensive, they often substitute it with something that’s cheaper. That’s what is happening in the car market, as shoppers who can’t find new models or digest the high prices shift to used cars instead. While that’s pushing up used-car prices, it’s actually saving consumers money, since used cars cost $16,000 less than new ones, on average.

There are creative ways to do this, beyond comparing beans and rice on a store shelf and choosing what’s cheaper. Families finding themselves priced out of the housing market might commit a little more money to travel or renting a getaway property. If remote work is a long-term possibility, that’s an opportunity to swap an upgraded home office for a commute. Remote work even provides some people the opportunity to move from a higher-cost place to a lower-cost one.

Push for a raise. Most people think of inflation as a hike in retail prices, but wage hikes can be a part of it, too. Wage inflation isn’t pronounced right now, but employers report 8 million job openings—the most in at least 21 years—and difficulty finding workers. Some big companies are already boosting wages for new hires, to get the workers they need. That could make them amenable to bigger raises for current workers. It always helps to tell your boss new ways you can add value to the company, and justify more pay.

Just don’t worry about inflation. Everybody likes a bargain, and it’s a bummer to buy something today then see the price drop tomorrow. That’s one reason to put off purchases. But anybody who needs a home or a car or something smaller today, and is worried about inflation, should just buy what they need, and not look back. Not every purchase is an investment that needs to generate the highest possible return. A home is where we live, and a car gets us to work, so we can earn money. Those are things worth paying for, even if they don’t come at a bargain price. There will always be other deals in the future.

Rick Newman is the author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips, and click here to get Rick’s stories by email.

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