Americans find simple ways to tighten their belts

By Lauren Keiper

BOSTON (Reuters) - Americans squeezed by high gasoline prices and rising costs for food and other essentials are resorting to simple but effective steps to stretch their paychecks a bit further.

Cutting back on driving is an obvious option but even non-drivers have seen living costs rise as businesses try to pass on the higher prices of energy and raw materials.

Data on Friday showed gasoline and food prices pushed U.S. inflation to a 2-1/2 year high of 3.2 percent in the 12-months to April.

Inflation is a lot lower when food and energy are stripped out of the equation, the preferred way of looking at price growth for policymakers at the Federal Reserve. But stripping them out of a household budget is not so easy.

John Bedell, 38, an architect who lives in Boston, said he has been bringing his lunch to work more often to save money.

Bedell has also trimmed his entertainment expenses -- making cuts to his cable television package and borrowing books and movies from the public library instead of buying them.

Kim Williams of Boston is brown-bagging her lunch more often too. "I don't shop as much as I used to. I try not to eat out as much, and I try to cook," said Williams, 47, who works in customer service.

The automobile service club AAA on Friday put the national average price for regular gasoline at $3.98 per gallon, up from $3.81 a month ago and 38 percent higher than a year ago.

Drivers whose cars demand premium gas are coughing up $4.25 per gallon on average.

Americans also had to dig deeper to pay for medical care last month and prices for apparel and furniture turned higher.


Many Americans have no choice but to drive to work. Still, some trips have to be canceled, whether to the shopping mall or to see friends and relatives.

"I'm driving less. You don't get to travel to see extended family as much," said Dave Bennett, 51, of Waltham, Massachusetts. "You can't really do much about commuting costs."

Bennett takes the train to his job in the financial services industry but drives from his home to the station. He expects the price of his rail pass to jump as well.

In Kansas, in the U.S. Midwest, average gasoline prices are a little below the national average, at $3.89 per gallon, according to AAA.

That is little comfort to equine enthusiast and freelance photographer Kathy Wismer, 45, of Baldwin City, Kansas.

It costs Wismer some $90 to fill the tank of her pickup truck to haul a horse trailer to and from events.

"The truck is pretty much parked in the barn now," she said. Instead, she and her husband, an air traffic controller, drive their gas-sipping subcompact car whenever possible.

Kyle Robinson, who owns a landscaping company, and his wife, Rebecca, a nurse, were vacationing in San Francisco on Friday. The Connecticut couple said the trip was possible only because they are staying with friends to cut costs.

"Between oil and food and gas, everyday expenses are much harder," said Rebecca, 37.

The Robinsons show the conundrum the new thriftiness poses for the U.S. economy where small businesses are traditionally the engine for job growth.

Every worker who makes his own lunch could mean a lost sale for a local sandwich shop. Every homeowner forced to cut her own grass means lost business for a lawn service.

"Not as many people are spending money, it seems," said Kyle Robinson, 26. That means "more hours by myself, fewer employees," he said.

(Reporting by Lauren Keiper, additional reporting by Peter Henderson in San Francisco and Carey Gillam in Kansas City, writing by Ros Krasny; Editing by Kenneth Barry)