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Pain At The Pump

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Gas prices stretch some to the break point – others are more prepared

By Chris Levister –

Just when Theta Abrihet Taylor put a year of unemployment in her rear view mirror – comes yet another blow to her weekly paycheck – pain at the gas pump.

Taylor is already seeing the effects of higher gas prices. She has a new job but unlike the 8 minute commute to her old one she now drives an average of 21 miles each way.

“It’s getting harder and harder living from paycheck to pay check,” said Taylor filling up her small sedan at a busy station in Riverside. “My paycheck used to last four days now it might last half that long.”

The price of oil has had an unnerving ability to stretch paychecks and blow up family budgets. The Middle East has often provided the spark.

Taylor whose parents migrated from Ethiopia in the early 80s is torn. “On one hand I’m happy to see the people of Egypt and now Libya fighting for their freedoms, on the other I’m not happy to see what it’s doing to our gas prices.”

Taylor who works as a billing clerk for a soft drink distributor rattles off a history of Mideast oil shocks:

The Arab oil embargo of 1973; the Iranian revolution in 1978-79 and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 – all reminders of pain at the pump.

The increase in energy prices is beginning to resemble the rise in 2008. But this time, like many middle and low income Americans the part-time college student and single parent is better prepared for higher fuel costs.

She started driving less in December, when gas hit $3 a gallon. "It's like waiting for the other shoe to drop, seeing just how high those prices will go. I knew I needed to gain some control over the situation."

Experts say you can start by checking online to find the lowest prices in your neighborhood.

Or make sure your car is well maintained -- get the oil changed, put air in low-pressure tires, and replace a dirty air filter -- to increase gas mileage.

“I’m using more cash and making fewer credit card purchases. I’m driving to work 3 days and working at home 2. I started planning my errands,” she said.

“Fill up the gas tank, but make fewer trips to the hair and nail salon. Eat less for lunch so the kids can have a healthy dinner. I buy healthy discounted food at Wal-Mart and eat out less. I’m the family breadwinner. I’m at a breakpoint so I have to manage every penny.”

Taylor says she and her sons collect cans and bottles and exchange them for cash at a local recycling facility. She and her neighbors sell oranges, lemons and grapefruits from their backyard fruit trees.

“My boys love juice. Instead of paying $3.00 for a half gallon at the supermarket, we’re squeezing our own using a juicer I bought from Goodwill.”

Last semester she had to borrow text books from classmates and plans to continue buying used books to stretch her paycheck.

She says the food pantry in her neighborhood, which distributes foodstuffs to the needy, is on life support.

“They were always my backup when I got into trouble. No more,” she said.

Experts say families living from paycheck to paycheck are hurt most because of lower income levels and longer commutes.

Working families with two full time commuters spend more than 14 percent of their after tax incomes on gasoline.

From neighborhood convenience stores to mega retailers like Wal-Mart, merchants are already seeing the effects said Kiley Rawlins, a spokesperson at Family Dollar.

“We’ve noted that more customers are running out of basic essentials like food, and diapers sooner in the month.”

At this busy market on East Highland Avenue in San Bernardino, a shopper is buying deeply discounted bananas and lunch meat because he can’t afford the rising prices at the nearby big chain supermarket.

He’s hoping to get a gas voucher from a nearby church. He admits that’s iffy.

“Since gas is so expensive we now have more people coming who are saying, I need a gas voucher to get to work, or to get to the hospital.” said church volunteer Ed Cleveland.

“Sadly, we’re only giving vouchers to the neediest people.”

As for Taylor, these days she’s happy to have a job and a smaller car.

“"You might only save a few dollars but at least you'll feel like you've gained some control, like you're sticking it to Libya’s Qaddafi. Sure, these prices are painful but fortunately more people like me are better prepared.”

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