MAINE, USA — To some extent, every single Mainer has felt the pinch on their wallet this year.
The prices of everything from electricity to food to gas have been ticking upward incessantly, and the fluid market we're experiencing makes the future unclear.
Last month, a federal report indicated inflation hit 8.5 percent in March, which is the fastest increase since 1981, more than 40 years ago. Experts have said there are a few reasons for that happening.
The first involves the pandemic, which has largely affected our workforce, leading to a shortage of goods that can't keep up with a growing demand. The second involves the war in Ukraine, as sanctions on Russia affect price-tags on products like grains and oil.
In a lot of ways, inflation is a chain reaction. While consumers notice their bills getting higher and higher, they may not consider what actually goes into the tough decisions business owners are making every day, just to stay afloat.
Generally, local business owners don't want to hurt their neighbors, but they need to survive, so that balancing act gets trickier.
NEWS CENTER Maine's Chloe Teboe decided to take us along to a few key spots you might hit when running errands to learn how inflation is impacting all of us daily.
Watching the numbers scroll on the gas meter is never enjoyable. But these days, the final total is leaving jaws on the ground.
This week, the national average gas price hit a new record at $4.37 per regular gallon on Tuesday, May 10, according to AAA.
In Maine, the average this week is even higher at $4.40. That means filling up a 15-gallon tank in our state costs about $66, compared to $43.5 one year ago.
"I’ve been in this business 30 years, and this is the worst I’ve ever seen it, I think," Laura Hladky, the manager at Broadway Onestop in South Portland, said. "Every invoice [goes] up, up, up."
Hladky has been working at Broadway Onestop for decades. She lives right around the corner from the gas station and knows the community well. In some ways, that has made her job of pricing goods in this tough market more challenging.
"You have to find that balance. Basically, you know, what’s going to be fair to the customer, what you’re going to [need to] be able to make your profit and not under-charge or overcharge," Hladky said.
Hladky said along with the cost of gas, the cost of cigarettes and beer has also gone up.
For her, the goal is to avoid gouging people by looking at what chain stations are charging for fuel, analyzing Gas Buddy, comparing her prices to other gas stations nearby, then trying to end up somewhere in the middle.
It's a tough line to walk, and Hladky said she understands why people are frustrated. But, she reiterated, she's doing her best.
"I try to keep it fair," Hladky said.
For a lot of community members in Greater Portland, Coffee By Design has become a staple in their day. Whether they're picking up a cup of coffee to jumpstart their morning or revive their afternoon, it's a habit that can be hard to break.
"I don’t want to lose that customer that [for them], buying a cup of coffee is that luxury item," Mary Allen Lindemann, co-founder of Coffee By Design, said.
The price of a small, hot cup of coffee hovers around $2.97 now.
Lindemann said the price of basically everything has gone up, and the regular consumer doesn't typically think about all of the steps it takes to create one beverage.
"People talk about what’s going on Ukraine. How does that impact us? Well, grains, fuel, all of that impacts us," Lindemann said. "The building we’re in, electricity is skyrocketing, so really making sure we’re educating everybody. We’re doing the best we can as a small business and as owners every day, looking at our numbers, looking at where we can do a better job."
Lindemann said the cost of labor is also going up. She said her goal is to keep quality of service up to standard, and that means hiring people who want to work for decent pay and health benefits.
"I really am so thankful to the staff here and the customers," Lindemann said. "We’re doing everything we can. We appreciate the support."
Figuring out food
Morning Glory Natural Foods on Maine Street in Brunswick has been around for decades. It's a small, family-owned store that owner Toby Tarpinian runs with his parents. He said they've been seeing about a 6 to 8 percent increase in cost of goods almost weekly with each order.
"As a blanket statement, I would say it’s across-the-board," Tarpinian said about inflation. "Meat is a category that has gone up significantly. [So is] produce [and] more perishable goods — dairy, stuff like that. The non-perishable groceries seem a little more consistent."
Tarpinian said the cost of fuel to get items to his store is playing a role in the mark-ups. So is the conflict overseas when it comes to grains.
"I would say oats is the best example" Tarpinian said. "Pretty much for the last several years, for a thing of organic oats by the pound, like the Maine oats, we’ve charged $1.29, $1.39. And now, they’re anywhere between $2 and $3."
Vendors are also reevaluating pricing.
Ed Friedman is the owner of Particular Produce Farm in Bowdoinham. He sells a Peruvian pepper pate to Morning Glory. Friedman said he tries to grow his own ingredients but often needs to resort to buying garlic and jalapeno peppers. Over the years, he said, the cost of garlic has nearly tripled. Friedman has kept the retail cost of his pate the same so far, but he said it's getting hard to keep up.
"The garlic has gone up, like a gallon of garlic, from probably $20 or $22 per gallon to close to $60 now," Friedman said.
Tarpinian said he has noticed shopping habits change during this strange and unpredictable period.
"We used to have a lot of people who came in here three, four, or five times a week and just kind of got what they needed for the day, or for a few days," Tarpinian said. "Now, you can tell they’re being a lot more methodical about their purchasing, clearly working off a budget."
For him, the cost of labor has also been challenging to meet.
"What we would start an inexperienced hourly employee at three years ago is dramatically different than what we are today," Tarpinian said. "That’s just to keep the store staffed and to have competent people to do the job."
Going to the greenhouse
Since the pandemic began, greenhouses have been bustling. Employees at Skillins Greenhouses in Brunswick said that hasn't changed, and they credit some of the craziness to inflation.
"We’re finding people buying a lot more vegetables, wanting to do their own gardening" Cindy Osgood, a greenhouse worker, said. "I think part of that is because the cost of groceries has become very expensive."
Osgood and her coworkers said pricing for plants raised at Skillins has gone up a little bit, mainly because of labor costs. It's a different story for goods coming from elsewhere, though.
"Two or maybe three years ago, they were probably around $69 to $70," fellow greenhouse worker Renee Tourtelotte said about the price of fruit trees. "I’m noticing today that they are about $110."
"I was told to be happy that we have it, but the price for a 50-pound bag of grass seed for us is $219," manager Gordon Merrill said. That's compared to $150 in normal times.
Merrill said demand is also hurting the supply chain, pushing orders for some bulk products out about three weeks. He said his tip to customers is to buy an item when they see it, because there's no guarantee when it will be back on shelves.
The practical questions every consumer seems to be asking are how long will inflation last, and who is the most affected? The hard truth is there are no definitive answers, and those already struggling with money are typically most at-risk.
"I think we saw at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of stimulus out in the economy. People were saving a lot more," Sarah Austin, director of policy and research at the Maine Center for Economic Policy, said. "The most recent data has shown that there is still a lot of savings in the economy, but especially lower income households are now getting back to that paycheck-to-paycheck status."
Austin said the issue of inflation really began last year and peaked in March of 2022. She said in some ways, there is some hope. Home heating season is ending, so that will likely save some Mainers some money. She also said there's work going on at the state level to provide help.
"We’ve seen efforts from the Legislature to get cash to Maine households. That should be helpful," Austin said. "There are efforts to help low-income households file for taxes, so they can get refundable credits right now. That should help boost incomes."
Craig Joncas with Penobscot Financial Advisors said he recommends people try to plan day by day and trim the "fat" where they can in their budget. A recent survey by CNBC+ found Americans are primarily cutting back on eating out, driving, big vacations, and monthly subscriptions.
"I think maybe there’s some light at the end of the tunnel," Joncas said. "We should be at peak right about now, and maybe in a year or so we could normalize."
A message he wants to get out to people: Markets go through cycles, and inflation has happened before.
"I just think there’s also some value in looking at inflation without a sense of panic," Joncas said. "That’s kind of a big part of our job right now. It’s just normalizing this."