They may seem like little things.
The price of gas inches up a few cents a gallon. The power bill rises 1 or 2 percent a year. Milk costs just a wee bit more.
But taken together, all those little hikes add up to a big increase in monthly living expenses at a time when salaries are stagnant or perhaps dropping if you can find a job at all.
Meagan Campbell, a 28-year-old hair stylist and single mom from West Columbia, feels like shes being nickel and dimed to death.
Everything that goes up affects me greatly, she said. Its part of life, but its hard to deal with. Just when you think things are getting better, the expenses go up but the pay doesnt.
South Carolinas unemployment rate rose to 9.4 percent in June. But the real undercurrent of misery in the present economic mess is that prices on everything from phone service to garbage pickup are going up by about 2 percent a year and wages are rising at half that rate, if at all, according to Mark Vitner, chief economist with Wells Fargo bank.
Thats cutting right to the forefront of a lot of the frustration that consumers are feeling in South Carolina and the rest of the nation that their paychecks arent keeping up with inflation, he said.
The income for an average household in South Carolina dropped from $44,625 in 2008, to $42,018 in 2010, the last year for which information is available from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Campbell, the West Columbia mother, tried to keep up with rising costs by working as a bartender at night in addition to her day job at the salon. But she found herself exhausted from the long hours and frustrated that she was losing quality time with her 6-year-old son, Dylan.
I cant work at night and go to work in the morning, she said. I cant do it.
Campbell said she has cut as many expenses as she can. And she does hair and makeup for weddings on the side to make extra income.
We dont use credit cards, she said. We dont have cable. We dont eat out. And Ive changed my phone to a pre-paid card so its a flat rate each month.
SOMETHING WE HAVE TO HAVE
But some expenses cant be cut significantly. For Campbell, the price of gas is the biggest, most immediate concern.
She drives more than 50 miles each day: From her home in West Columbia, dropping her son off at the YMCA and then on to her salon in Lexington then a reverse trip in the evening.
All in a car with no air conditioning, she said. Its going to cost $1,500 to get it fixed.
Gas prices in South Carolina over the past five years have risen to $3.10 today from $2.80 a gallon in July of 2007 with some major ups and downs along the way. While that doesnt seem like much of a jump, for the average driver buying 50 gallons a month it translates to an extra $15 out of each months paycheck, according to AAA Carolinas.
Drivers like Campbell have tried to mitigate those increases by driving less. We dont drive anywhere we dont have to, she said.
Others have responded by buying more fuel-efficient cars, consolidating trips and just being more conscious of their driving habits.
Drivers got a break in recent months from gas prices that were spiking well above $3.50 a gallon in South Carolina earlier this year. But in recent weeks, prices have begun to edge back up above the $3 mark. Still, thats not as bad as in 2008 when a gallon of unleaded regular gas skyrocketed to near $4 a gallon.
Drivers can try to keep the miles down, but that and food is something we have to have every day, AAAs Tom Crosby said.
TRYING TO STRETCH THEIR BUDGETS
Food prices also have jumped significantly in the past five years.
The average family with school-aged children was spending $5,476 a year or more than $450 a month at the grocery store in 2010, the latest figures available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Thats up 9 percent from 2005 when they spent $5,031.
Those figures dont include last years skyrocketing food costs. A survey by The State newspaper last year showed grocery prices for a typical market basket in Columbia increased 14 percent in 2011.
Campbell gets $365 a month in food stamps. I spend all of that and probably an additional $50 month, she said.
And things may get worse.
The present drought affecting more than 50 percent of the country especially Midwestern breadbaskets like Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas are likely to drive prices up in the future.
I dont see this getting better anytime soon, Vitner said. Income growth is not going to increase anytime soon and given the drought, food prices are going up. You can make your clothes last another year, but you gotta eat.
If gas prices continue to rise, that also will push up the cost of food and other items, said Steve Rondone, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, because of the cost of transporting it to the market.
Ultimately, the price of food will start rising, he said. Those prices are shifted to the consumer.
To offset rising costs, consumers are shopping more and more at discount stores like Walmart, Family Dollar and Costco, Vitner said.
The share of groceries bought at grocery stores is only about 50 percent now, he said. They are trying to stretch their budgets.
Campbell said she has received food stamps for three years and that helps.
But three years ago that money went a lot farther than it does today, she said.
A VICIOUS CYCLE
In addition to gas and food, the price of just about everything else has risen in the past five years, as well.
Property taxes have gone up across the board in the Midlands. For instance, taxes in the city of Columbia in Richland 1 for a $100,000 house have risen to $722 from $671 a year.
Water rates for that same house for a typical 800 cubic feet have gone up to $52 per month from $44.02.
The monthly bill for cable television from Time Warner has risen to 85.49 from $71.34, albeit with expanded services.
And the typical utility bill from S.C. Electric & Gas has risen to $131.78 today from $101.10 in 2007 for 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity.
All of those little increases add up to more monthly bills when paychecks are rising hardly at all.
The recession pushed many workers out of their jobs and made it hard to find comparable ones and it has made employers reluctant to hire. Many of those who could find employment took jobs that paid less. Many of those who held onto jobs saw their pay slashed through hours reductions or furloughs.
More and more people are having to figure out ways to get by with less, Vitner said. They are keeping the car for a couple more years, or not updating their wardrobe.
That scenario less consumer spending hurts the overall economy, which leads to less hiring, which leads to more unemployment and lower or flat paychecks.
The one bright spot has been that mortgage rates have dropped dramatically.
Mortgage rates have reached a series of historic lows this year, dipping last week to 3.53 percent for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage an all-time low. That has helped drive up home sales this spring and summer from one of the worst years in Midlands real estate on record last year.
The one thing that hasnt gone up is my rent, Campbell said.
STUDENT LOANS ADD
Education is one way out of the economic doldrums, Vitner said. But even that is becoming harder for the average American to accomplish as student loan debt soars.
There are jobs available, in fields like information technology, nursing, even air conditioning and heating.
But those jobs take training, and training means school. And with paychecks shrinking, bills rising and tuition going up, parents and young people living on their own are finding it hard to find the money to go to technical schools or college.
Tuition at the University of South Carolina has spiked 26 percent in the past five years. At Clemson University, rates have jumped 28 percent.
Campbell is still struggling to pay off the student loan she took out to get a certificate in cosmetology.
Weve seen an explosion in student debt, Vitner said. Thats the biggest casualty weve seen. Folks cant afford to spend as much on their childrens education as they would in the past, so they are borrowing more money when they go to college.
Adding to the unhealthy economic mix is the rising cost of health care and pensions, Vitner said.
Most of the price increases you are seeing and being driven by higher labor costs, Vitner said. I dont think its a case of the water company or the utility company trying to gouge customers, because people dont have much money to be gouged out of. What this country needs is stronger economic growth.
Still, for Campbell, watching her bills increase every month while her paycheck stays about the same causes constant worry.
It just sucks, she said.
Staff writer Kristy Eppley Rupon contributed.