Surging inflation hurts seniors

With the price of food, gasoline, medical care and almost everything else on the rise, seniors are getting serious about finding ways to save.

"We use a lot of coupons," said Fresno resident Margaret Banuelos, 66, a retired Fresno County employee. "When we go out to eat, we try to be economical, and we buy less groceries."

Her retirement income is less than $2,000 a month, leaving her little room to cope with prices rising at the fastest pace in 27 years.

Inflation has hurt Americans of all ages. But seniors on fixed incomes from retirement plans -- or just Social Security -- have few ways to cope except by cutting back.

"I would say they're definitely struggling," said Jean Robinson, assistant director of the Fresno Madera County Area Agency on Aging.

"Most seniors don't have disposable income," she said. "They're not prepared for any increases," let alone the steep rise seen recently in prices for food and fuel.

Food and energy have led the upward charge in prices for much of the past year. Over the past 12 months, wholesale prices shot up 9.2%, the largest year-over-year surge since June 1981.

The bad news continued Tuesday, as the U.S. Labor Department reported that wholesale prices shot up 1.2% in July, pushed higher by rising costs for energy and a variety of other products from motor vehicles to plastic goods.

Wholesale energy prices rose 3.1%, on top of a 6% gain in June, as increases in the price of natural gas and home heating oil offset a slight dip in gasoline costs.

And food prices rose 0.3% percent in July after a 1.5% surge in June, driven by a 7.4% jump in beef prices, the largest in nearly four years, and a 5% increase in the price of milk, the biggest rise in the year so far.

Marilyn Temple, 65, said she's seen the price of her favorite foods going up every time she visits the grocery store.

"A box of cereal was up a dollar," said Temple of Fresno. And while she likes to comparison shop and use coupons to get the best deals, she isn't going to travel too far to get those deals "because of the gas prices," she said.

Roy and Shirley Andersen, also of Fresno, say they have a comfortable financial cushion that comes from retirement packages that offer pensions and medical care.

Still, Roy Andersen, a 76-year-old retired Caltrans engineer, said the couple have been saving money by avoiding restaurants and by combining doctors visits, shopping and other errands to cut down on driving.

Rising fuel costs also can be a barrier for seniors who are trying to take care of their health, said Toni Mares Cortez, manager of the Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program in Fresno. Her organization has set up sites throughout the county in hopes of giving seniors closer-to-home locations to seek help, she said.

For people whose only monthly income comes from Social Security checks, rising prices are hitting even harder, said Jack Christy, public policy director for the nonprofit Aging Services of California.

Social Security benefits increase every year to reflect inflation, both for general recipients and those who receive Supplemental Security Income, which is a "boost available to the poorest of the poor" as well as the disabled, he said.

But those increases -- 2.3% for 2008, according to the Social Security Administration -- are "not generous," in Christy's opinion.

About 66,395 retired people were receiving Social Security checks in Fresno County as of December 2006, the most recent period for which figures are available, said Patricia Nicasio, Social Security Administration spokeswoman. Those recipients got a total of $64,013,000 in that month, or about $973 per person per month, she said.

As for Supplemental Security Income, the roughly 41,000 recipients in Fresno County collected about $24 million a month, or about $600 per person on average, said administration spokesman Lowell Kepke.

Fresno resident Vern Kelzer, 72, said he can see why seniors with such limited incomes are holding back, even on essential items.

"There's a reluctance to let go of your money, in case there are too many other bills to pay before the month's over," he said. He and his wife have combined their shopping trips with their drives to their weekly line-dancing classes, and are using their ceiling fans instead of air conditioning to save on utility bills, he said.

"We do a lot more cooking at the house," he said. "We used to eat out a lot more."

At least they have a house. The situation for seniors seeking affordable housing is much grimmer, said Christy of Aging Services of California. He said there's an average wait of about 34 months to get into the limited spaces available.

But seniors who own their own homes have another worry, he said. Falling home prices have left many of them without the ability to cash in the home equity that is often their primary asset.

"We're finding that the rate of people coming into continuing care retirement communities has slowed dramatically, mainly because of their inability to sell their houses," he said.