Inflation, TipFlation, and ShrinkFlation-The Trifecta Of Doom

Julie wanted a Coke on the way home, so we decided to stop at McDonald’s. I ordered a few food items but no meals. The drive-through display flashed, “Small Vanilla Shake Surcharge.” As we pulled forward, The screen blanked for the next customer. “Did you see that?” I asked Julie. “Yes, what was that about?” She responded. I asked the attendant; they had no clue. No receipt was offered. I called McDonald’s corporate. They noted that franchise operators set their prices. I wondered if this was why that McDonald’s stopped offering receipts a few months back.

Once a month, my siblings get together for breakfast. We meet at a local chain restaurant called “Honey Jam.” The food is average, but the location is convenient for all parties. The prices have steadily escalated, so I no longer get my usual breakfast there. Still, spending (with tip) $40-$50 for two simple meals is commonplace. Our last meeting was on a Sunday morning, typically a crowded time. We were surprised that the restaurant was half empty. Breakfast has always been an inexpensive way to go out for food. However, spending $50 for average food that can easily be cooked at home is having an impact. 

My sister went to a nicer restaurant with some of her friends. She ordered a sandwich and coffee. Her bill was almost $40, and it included a surcharge. Why a surcharge? No one knew.

My sister-in-law got her haircut at an expensive salon. She also noticed a new surcharge that no one could explain. My sister reports that many women are going more “natural” by not spending money on dying their hair. How much of this is due to costs?

Car prices have gone up dramatically in the last few years. I bought a new Ram van 2018 for $27K, and a similar 2024 van is now selling for $47K! Dodge/Ram/Chrysler vehicles have increased by around 50% since 2019, and other manufacturers’ prices have exceeded inflation. Many auto builders have stopped making sedans in favor of SUVs and Trucks, which have a higher profit margin.  

A friend bought a loaded GMC pickup that cost over $100K. He got 3-year, zero-percent financing, but his monthly payment is over $2,700! The average cost of a vehicle is now over $60K. Ford’s CEO stated that Ford would continue to focus on these expensive vehicles, leaving the average consumer in the dust. Car manufacturers and dealers have reported huge profits, but that is because of massive surcharges on vehicles (often called a “Market Adjustment”) and fleet sales. Multiple sources say dealer lots are overflowing with expensive SUVs and trucks. People can’t afford them.

Car repairs have also gone wild. I just had several repairs on my Ford, they were around or over $1000, and none involved engine work. One was to replace a single wheel bearing, and the other was to replace two pipes that were part of the exhaust system. I now see an unexplained surcharge when I take vehicles for repairs at Ram/Dodge and Ford.

Increased grocery prices are compounded by shrinkflation. A box of 8 cookies now contains 6. Two packages of a Costco meal are needed to feed a family instead of one. Loaves of bread are smaller by a third. I made a bundt cake using my mom’s 1960s pan the other day. It now takes two cake mixes instead of one to fill the pan. Essential foods like eggs, pasta, and beans have all jumped in price.

Tipping is crazy. In the past, you tipped a person who provided personal service to you, like a waitress. Then it expanded to other service industries. Now, everyone wants a significant tip for doing very little. This point was illustrated by trips to a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and a Stan’s Donuts. Both establishments charge a premium price for their products and expect a 25% tip at checkout. That is for putting a scoop of ice cream in a cup or a donut in a bag. I have heard shaming stories when clerks roll their eyes and walk away when a customer doesn’t tip enough. 

Despite being a retired professional, I have had to take significant steps to cope with these increases. My cars are older, but no new vehicles are in my future. Over the last year, I have found myself dining out only if there is a significant reason, like a celebration or a specific get-together. I now have second thoughts about fast food; when I go, I omit or downscale items. I’m not alone, as McDonald’s CEO noted that fewer people are ordering french fries, possibly in an attempt to reduce their bills.

I have deliberately tried to grocery shop wisely. I am partially or wholly supporting five adults, and food is costly. I am buying more basic foods and less convenience foods. I am making a solid effort to use our purchased foods and not let them spoil. I am cooking more from scratch and keeping my menus simple. Yet, I still spend hundreds of dollars a week on groceries. 

I am trying to drive less by planning my errands accordingly. Before I go anywhere, I think, “Do I need to do this now, or can I tag this on to another chore tomorrow? 

I need some basic yard work done. I am allergic to grass, and I’m also not tolerant of heat. In the past, I would pay someone to do this work. However, this weekend I be operating the garden clippers. 

Admittedly, my household budget strain has gone up. Julie has not been able to contribute to household expenses, and William has returned home from college. Both of these situations have had an impact on our living costs. I’m a person who loathes being in debt, so I’m more conservative than many with my fixed income. I’m able to keep my head above water. However, I worry about those earning low wages or surviving on Social Security. 

I was raised in a financially conservative culture. If we didn’t have the cash, we made due. My parents were credit card free until I was out of college. The first time I went out to a sit-down restaurant was in 8th grade when my uncle took my parents and me. My father only bought one new car, a lower-end Ford. We mainly had used cars, and if the repair was simple enough, my dad did it. My mother repaired our clothing using a sewing machine with thread tension issues (it constantly broke the thread). She didn’t buy a new sewing machine; she found ways to make the malfunction happen less often. Any vacations were a bonus and very simple. There was no such thing as a yearly family trip. 

There were some negatives to this forced frugality. When I turned 18, I went to the dentist, only to find that the lack of childhood attention left me with many cavities I had to pay to fill.

However, there were also positives. I have no brand loyalty; one catsup is as good as the next. I can do some repairs around the house. I can cook from scratch and enjoy economy foods like casseroles. I don’t feel compelled to “Keep up with the Jones.” I feel secure in myself. I don’t see things or possessions as the royal road to happiness. Instead, I see learning, connections with others, and creating as my tickets to well-being.  

Yet, all of the above financial issues do stress me. I think, “Yes, I can handle this now, but what about the future?” Others who have not adopted habits of frugality are stressed more than me. How do people survive on minimum wage or social security alone? It seems impossible. Do they run up their charge cards? Do they ignore basic needs? From my vanlife experiences, I know some have become involuntary van dwellers. To choose to live in a van is fine. To be forced to live in a car is not great.

It saddens me that we have become a two-tier society of rich and not rich. I live in an affluent suburb where it is clear that these increases have little real impact on those who live in our financial bubble. However, they are not the majority.

We have a service economy, but fewer can afford services as prices increase. The higher-paying blue-collar jobs that ranged from factory work to truck driving have evaporated with anti-union pressures and competition from abroad.  

If we stay on this trajectory, the only reasonable conclusion is that we will return to a simpler time: smaller dwellings, public transportation, simpler foods, and more DIY. In itself, that is alright. However, likely, things won’t stop there. All we have to do is to look towards Europe, where energy and food costs have risen to the point where some people have to decide on one or the other. As the separation of wealth escalates, will we become a third-world country?