Editor’s Note: This is the first part of the CNN Opinion series, “America’s Future Starts Now,” in which people share how their lives have been affected by key issues, many of which are resonating in this fall’s midterm election campaigns. Experts from across the political spectrum will also put forward their ideas for addressing these issues. Linda Stewart retired in 2021 from the University of New Mexico. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
One year into the pandemic lockdown, I retired from my job of 14 years as program coordinator and academic adviser at the University of New Mexico’s School of Engineering. I loved the work I did, but it was time to move on. I was in my early 60s, and being old enough to retire suddenly made that option more appealing. Finances would be a little tight for a while, but some outside projects would supplement my income, so I felt confident I would be able to handle it.
But by the end of the second year of lockdown, inflation started taking a toll and money was getting uncomfortably tight. Soon I was in the red each month, just trying to keep up. The usual suspects were groceries and gas, which meant cutting back on some of the more expensive food items and cooking meals at home.
I stopped driving for anything other than essentials. And with the continuing drought here in the Southwest, utility bills went through the ceiling. I cut back on watering my garden and turned the furnace down a few degrees in the winter and the air conditioning up a few in the summer. I switched to washing clothes mostly in cold water and only running the dishwasher once a week.
I also take care of my elderly mother, who lives alone, and we are both on fixed incomes. My freelance projects slowed down during lockdown, so my income did, too. The COLA (cost of living adjustment) for our Social Security benefits was very welcome, but it certainly didn’t cover price increases elsewhere.
Everything medical jumped at the beginning of the year. Co-pays went from $35 to $45. Prescription prices rose from $10 for a 90-day supply of medicine to $20 for a 90-day supply. Meanwhile, insurance benefits dropped from covering 90% of surgery costs to 80%.
My mother now hesitates to go to a doctor until it’s really necessary due to her higher co-pays, and I’ve switched all of my medications to generic brands that my insurance fully covers. They only cover the name brand of my asthma medicine.
Medical expenses for our pets were also impacted. My mother and I both have older pets, so the higher costs of their medications and food meant drawing from savings. I maxed out my credit card paying for my dog’s surgery, which was $4,500. My mom’s elderly cat is now diabetic, and it’s no secret how expensive insulin is. These were just some of the things we really had to worry about, but there were, of course, others.
Many of the things the pandemic demanded to keep the world entertained also saw large price increases. From cable TV service to streaming to meals out, I was regularly blowing my budget just trying to keep my sanity. I eventually cut cable TV and gratefully turned to reading to fill the void.
Next on the list were the self-care items that were actually costing a bundle. Out went mani/pedis and the occasional massage. (They do make great gifts, if anyone needs to know what to get me for Christmas!) Since I keep my car in the garage, car washes weren’t as necessary anymore. Besides, I wasn’t driving very much.
With the (almost) end of the pandemic, life is slowly getting back to normal. The price of gas is thankfully coming down again, but groceries are still high. I still feel squeezed by inflation, counting pennies and making sure to get the best value for my money. I use coupons more, and always look for sales. It’s sometimes cheaper to cook for two, so I cook larger meals at home on occasion and share them with my mom.
I also hit matinees instead of movies on weekend nights. And I combine errands instead of making single trips to the grocery store, the drug store and restaurants to reduce the amount I drive and spend on gas. I also have potluck meals at home with the family instead of eating out.
I’ve been very pleased with the legislation Congress has passed, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, because I know it will help our economy in the long run, especially lowering the cost of prescription medicine. But so far, I haven’t felt the benefits of it.
I was really grateful for the stimulus checks that the government distributed earlier in the pandemic – it would be nice if we could get one more to get us through until inflation cools. Temporarily reducing our taxes would also offer some much-needed relief. And raising the federal minimum wage would certainly help those who are lower-income and would put more money back into the economy.
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I would also like to see some oversight into companies that have engaged in price gouging. Hopefully it won’t be long before Congress is able to push through a longer-term solution to help people like me who are still dealing with the effects of inflation.
There is a silver lining to my story, though. When you have a lot of time to sit and think, it’s amazing what comes to mind. I carefully examined what I thought was important in my life. What things in my home could I live without, and what was essential to my well-being?
I cleaned out a lot of clutter that was merely a distraction and now yearn for more time with loved ones. I want to get out hiking with the dogs more often and see more of this beautiful state we live in. I want to share the simple joy of living with those around me. I want to laugh out loud. Great adventures await me.