These are the times that try consumers’ bank accounts.
Amid mounting signs of an economic slowdown, Washingtonians are still grappling with price increases that are starting to feel as permanent as the pandemic that fueled inflation in the first place.
True, price increases for a few items, such as gasoline, have eased slightly in recent weeks. But they remain painfully high on everything from groceries to housing to home repairs.
And as the following six stories make clear, that’s meant new worries, tough choices and even sacrifices for many Washingtonians, especially those who were struggling before COVID or who took a hit early in the pandemic and still aren’t back on their feet. It’s also adding to stress for business owners, particularly smaller ones, caught between soaring wholesale prices and unhappy customers.
‘Survive in this city’
After customers complained about his $17 entrée being too expensive, Kottu food cart owner Syd Suntha slashed prices $2 to appease the tech workers at Expedia’s campus in Interbay who lined up for his Sri Lankan street food.
Yet customers still gripped that $15 was too much for lunch. So Suntha, who had already absorbed gas and food cost increases, returned fire on Instagram:
NO MORE EXPEDIA SHIFTS FOR ME.
NOT FUN HEARING FROM PEOPLE THAT MAKE WAY MORE THAN YOU THAT YOUR PRICING IS TOO HIGH.
COOKS NEED TO SURVIVE IN THIS CITY TOO.
Rising prices have crept into the often-overlooked mobile food circuit, which was already skating on thin margins during the pandemic because employees were working remotely instead of in office buildings — a big revenue source for food trucks and carts.
To keep costs down, Suntha tows his cart mostly around North Seattle near his Ballard home. The single dad to two daughters spends up to $80 on gas and propane per outing to fuel the SUV and portable flatiron grill upon which he fries roti flatbread with meat, veggies and curries.
Since launching his business in March, Suntha said, he hasn’t raised prices even though food costs have risen at least threefold, including a 45% increase in cooking oil.
— Tan Vinh
‘Should I just give up?’
Y’ana Goddard, 28, wonders whether she should drop out.
A math major at South Seattle College, she knows a degree is her key to a high-paying job as a data analyst someday.
But rising prices have added pressure to Goddard’s already-strained financial situation. Goddard’s bank account regularly gets overdrawn, she said, “and that’s just through fixed bills,” like utilities.
Goddard works a campus job, and about half of her income goes toward rent. She relies on her school’s free food pantry for basics like vegetables and eggs. When she does shop for groceries, the sticker shock is intense. Pork chops, her go-to affordable meat choice, have nearly doubled in price. Across the Seattle area, meat prices overall were up nearly 14% in June compared to a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Milk and cheese had climbed even more steeply, rising 21% in a year.
Her breaking point came three months ago, she said, when her car broke down. She couldn’t afford the $600 repair estimate. Now she takes the bus from her home in Beacon Hill to school three days a week. Even if she could afford to fix her because that languishes in the driveway, Goddard said she would still probably take the bus to school — gas is just too expensive.
As her money troubles pile up, Goddard said she finds herself questioning whether she’s making the right choice to focus on school.
“You start feeling hopeless,” Goddard said. “Should I just give up and get an entry-level job to make money and survive, rather than following my dreams?”
— Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks
‘A constant need’
A can of Progress used to be $1.99. Now its chicken noodle soup is $4 at some stores, and no longer on Ashley Johnson’s grocery list.
Johnson, 34, is a single parent of a soon-to-be 10-year-old and recently moved back to Kirkland, where she grew up. Her rent is $2,200 and expected to increase by $100 to $300 when her lease renews. She knows her rent is high, but she feels lucky the increases aren’t as bad as other tenants’ in the area.
Gas is expensive, but prices are coming down. The rising costs of groceries—like canned soup—impact her household the most.
“Kids don’t stop eating, and with how much they eat over summer break, it’s not something you can necessarily adjust,” she said. “We can always choose to carpool or not do day trips, but groceries are a constant need.”
To make ends meet, she works for a grocery delivery startup and has side jobs caring for pets, making deliveries and organizing homes. She also started a job at a small fulfillment warehouse in Seattle at the end of the school year, so she had to factor in highway tolls and extra gas.
“It’s helping where at least I am not having to go to the grocery store and think, ‘How much can I get with $60 to get us through the week? Can I put gas in my car and get groceries?’” she said.
She told her son that for his birthday, instead of renting a space for a party, they’ll invite a few friends over to their apartment.
There’s a lot more saying “no” than there used to be.
She thinks about inflation at least every time she goes to the grocery store, and every payday. “You get the money in your account and it feels so nice, and it’s gone within hours, between bills, groceries and filling up the car,” she said. “There’s just nothing left.”
‘You’re racing somebody for the fish’
Inflation hit Dave Franklin even before he could get his fishing boat out of Fishermen’s Terminal in Seattle and underway last week for the season in Alaska.
The diesel Franklin, 67, buys 6,000 gallons at a time for his 58-foot purse seiner costs twice what it did a year ago. The $10,000 he just spent on repairs is roughly double what it would have been three years back, and insurance is up 35% to $30,000.
Franklin’s main hope now is that prices for the pink and chum salmon he nets all summer stay high enough to do better than break even. “Catching fish is fun,” says Franklin, who has fished commercially since 1980. “Going broke is not.”
Across much of the Seattle-based commercial fishing fleet, operators large and small are reeling from sharp increases in everything from fuel and bait to packing materials and groceries for their crews.
That’s likely to squeeze profits — and change how fishing crews operate. To conserve costly fuel, boats will likely travel slower and may stick to fishing grounds just a few hours from port, instead of making 12- to 14-hour trips. Rather than returning to port whenever regulators temporarily close an area, “now some of the guys are staying on the grounds,” Franklin says.
But in the business that’s often highly competitive, some costs are unavoidable, Franklin says. Slowing down to conserve on pricier fuel isn’t an option when “you’re racing somebody for the fish,” he says.
‘I had to take the brunt’
Security officer Kayla Haughey can spend as much as $100 a day to commute from Kent to her job at Amazon’s Blackfoot building in South Lake Union. Three days a week, she can carpool 30 minutes with her boyfriend. But on Mondays and Tuesdays, the carless Haughey has two options: a combination of bus, light rail and walking, or a service like Uber and Lyft.
Neither is a perfect option. The trip to downtown Seattle via bus and train can take her three hours, and, in the past few months, an Uber to work soared to at least $50 each way as the ride-hailing company added fees to cover rising fuel prices.
Haughey’s costs add up quickly. Ubers haven’t gotten any cheaper, and, with gas above $5 a gallon, she has spent $70 to $90 every other week to fill up her boyfriend’s gas tank. Neither her employer nor Amazon offset her transportation costs, she said, even as transportation costs are up 22% since last year in the Seattle area.
“I had to take the brunt of that every single day on my own,” she said.
Haughey, 31, says the price of reliability is worth it. Her employer has a strict tardiness policy that doesn’t take traffic or transit delays as an excuse for being even a minute late to her 2 pm shift. She said the managers tell tardy workers who blame the commute, “Well, you should have planned better.” If she’s late to work three times, she could be fired.
“That’s something I don’t like to play with,” she said.
‘A really vicious circle’
A few years ago, Diane Coate remembers, “I was doing quite well.” Making $17 an hour at Walmart, she could cover her monthly essentials.
Then, Coate says, she was diagnosed with cancer, lost her job and was left unable to walk. Without work, she fell behind on months of rent for her two-bedroom apartment in Tukwila. This year, the landlord increased the $1,220 rent by an additional $80.
Relying on Social Security payments and food assistance, 69-year-old Coate is bringing in less each month than the cost of her rent. Hiring movers and paying the deposit on a new place feels out of reach. And anyway, nothing feels affordable. The apartments she has priced nearby are renting for $1,200 to $1,400.
“It’s a really vicious circle we’re going in right now, and I never thought I’d get in the middle of it,” Coate said.
Rising rents are one key part of inflation measures that have spiked in recent months, squeezing tenants all over the region. A median one-bedroom apartment in King County now rents for nearly $1,700, up 9% since the start of the year and 13% from the same time in 2019, before the pandemic, according to Apartment List.
Add to that the rising cost of food and essentials. Like others, Coate has tallied the price spikes.
Loaves of Oven Joy bread that once cost 88 cents now ring up at $1.89. A jar of cherry jam for $2.88 is now $4.29. Coate has cut back on extras, like soda and food from the deli. She uses cleaning supplies sparingly.
“You go down every lane there is,” she said, “and everything’s up.”