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Soaring food and rent costs hit home for families

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Inflation is felt in the reality of rising prices for almost everything Americans buy. And a lot of us have seen price increases that make food and recreational activities almost unaffordable. NPR's Stacey Vanek Smith has the story.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Home is where the inflation is right now. A lot of the biggest price jumps we've seen have been things like rent, heating, food. Grocery prices are up about 13% over last year.

STEVE BROWN: Steak - that's killing me. The same ribeye steaks that I was paying $17 for for two of them were now 32.

VANEK SMITH: Steak lover Steve Brown (ph) is an optician in South Carolina. He works at an eyeglass store fitting people with frames.

BROWN: I've been doing it for 27 years. I can fit someone up just by looking at them.

VANEK SMITH: You just know what will look good on them?

BROWN: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: The steak prices stung, but the price increase that really got Steve was gas prices up 18% over last year. Steve has a long commute to work, and his favorite way to unwind is motorcycle rides on the weekend.

BROWN: The back roads, the back roads by the marsh. There's water on both sides of the road. You can look over and see downtown Savannah. You can see the ports. It's beautiful. Total freedom. It's a good way to clear your head. I put music on, and all my problems just go away.

VANEK SMITH: What do you listen to?

BROWN: I listen to a lot of heavy metal.

VANEK SMITH: Really? Like, what's one of your favorite songs?

BROWN: "Raining Blood" by Slayer.

VANEK SMITH: But earlier this year, Steve noticed something else getting a bit bloody, his gas bill. Filling up the tank of his motorcycle went from costing him around $25 to around $50. So now...

BROWN: I just stay home and watch Netflix.

VANEK SMITH: But staying home isn't that cheap these days either. Rent is up more than 7% over last year. Electricity prices are up more than 15%. Natural gas is up more than 30%. Steve Brown says it's not missing out on the rides that's keeping him up at night. It's retirement. He's only 46, but he sees how rough the future might be every day at the eyewear store.

BROWN: I see some of these elderly patients that come in. And, you know, they're like, do I pay the electric this month, or do I get glasses? And my heart goes out to those people.

VANEK SMITH: Inflation analyst Omair Sharif says a lot of people are anxious about the future. He's been tracking inflation numbers for years, but lately he's been getting calls from family, friends, neighbors. They all want to have a conversation about inflation.

OMAIR SHARIF: It's like the last thing that I want to do, but this is what - you know, it's kind of on everybody's radar at this point.

VANEK SMITH: But Sharif is starting to see signs that prices will be dropping for rent, clothing, health care. He thinks this could be the darkness before the dawn.

SHARIF: I'm hopeful that we should see a lot of relief coming. And actually, I feel better about the outlook than I have in quite a while.

VANEK SMITH: A lot of economists and forecasters are not so optimistic. A new survey shows Americans expect prices to keep rising. Steve Brown says he is just going to keep doing what he's doing, hoping that if he gives up a little bit now, he will still be able to afford the future he wants. He just got engaged. He has a whole plan.

BROWN: I just want to have a nice piece of property on the outskirts of town, have a garden, have some animals, you know, not a huge house but, you know, a nice sized house.

VANEK SMITH: Listen to a little Slayer every once in a while.

BROWN: Of course. You've got to have that.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

BROWN: Got to have that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLAYER SONG, "RAINING BLOOD")

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLAYER SONG, "RAINING BLOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.