Prices on necessities like food, gas and prescriptions have been climbing during the pandemic. We might be stuck with pandemic prices for now, but there are tools aplenty to help you track spending, rein it in where possible and maximize rewards and cash back on what you can’t avoid.
Purchase gas, groceries or medicine, and you’re liable to notice one thing no matter where you live: Prices have gone up during the pandemic.
Since March 2020, consumers have seen higher prices on things they buy regularly – from fresh fruit and beef to cleaning supplies and toilet paper.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were folks making the same grocery choices as a year ago,” yet noticing their bill has gone up, says consumer advocate Teresa Murray of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “And it’s not their imagination.”
During a year when many of us are tapping our debit and credit cards to quickly exit stores, doing more online shopping and automated reordering, it’s easier than ever to lose track of spending.
Want to avoid a surprise bill at the end of the month – or the discovery that you spent more cash than intended? Here are nine common purchases that have spiked in price, and tips for tracking them.
See related: 9 pandemic-related expenses that may be going down
9 items that went up in price during the pandemic
Fueling up our cars has become much more costly in the pandemic.
“Gasoline leads the pack,” says Steve Reed, an economist for the Consumer Price Index program at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Gas prices have increased 33% on average since March 2020. At that point, a gallon of gas cost $2.33, according to Consumer Price Index data. In June 2021, that same gallon cost $3.25.
But price differences are more accurately measured year over year because gas prices normally fluctuate during the year, says Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy.
“The reason this year has seen a higher peak than previous years is because of the imbalances created by COVID,” he says. “It was a seismic shift.”
Prices should decrease over the next six months, De Haan predicts. “It may not be as much as everyone is hoping.”
But by December, barring hurricane complications, prices should be “under $3 [per] gallon,” he says.
Tip: Get a break on gas prices by using credit cards that offer rewards at the pump, says Bruce McClary, senior vice president of public relations and communications for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. With loyalty programs, savings will depend on the size of your grocery bill, but McClary has found that his membership saves him as much as 10 cents a gallon. Also, consider cards that reward gas purchases, such as the Sam’s Club Mastercard, which gets you 5% cash back on gas (up to $6,000 per year) with no annual fee.
2. Beef and pork
Meat prices are up across the board, “and beef leads the way,” says Reed. Beef prices are up an average of 18.5% over March 2020.
Bacon is a close second, up 16.8% since the start of the pandemic. And pork, in general, is up 13.3%.
Tip: One challenge of the pandemic is that some items consumers use have become pricier or more scarce. The upside is that gives shoppers an excuse to try new things.
If the current grocery list results in a bill that’s becoming a stretch, check out more affordable options, says McClary. At the same time, be practical. “You have to think about priorities, and also personal tastes and nutritional needs,” he says.
That could mean opting for less expensive cuts of beef or switching to chicken, turkey or fish instead. Or trying different brands and alternative products that look appealing.
As with many items on this list, using a credit card that rewards grocery shopping can shave 2% to 6% off your meat expenses.
For healthy meals that are easier on the wallet, many consumers reach for seafood. But from fresh fish to canned tuna, the fruits of the sea are more expensive since the start of the pandemic.
Fresh fish and seafood are up 9% from March 2020, according to the Consumer Price Index. And shelf-stable options (think canned and packaged products) are up 8.1%.
Tip: Take advantage of coupons, cash-back services and card deals. One good source: Online coupon sites and apps. And you can use them to shop online and, in some cases, load them onto your credit cards or loyalty cards. Combine coupons with store specials and cash-back services (like iBotta), that electronically reward you with cash for purchases you’ve made. And if your credit or debit card gives you access to special deals, don’t forget to load those on your card, as well.
4. Household paper goods
Remember the great toilet paper shortage of 2020?
We’re still feeling the effects of consumer hoarding and supply chain disruptions. Prices for household paper products – things like toilet paper and paper towels – went up at the start of the pandemic and never came down, says Reed. So while prices are now fairly stable, they’re also 8.6% higher than they were in March 2020, according to data from the Consumer Price Index.
Tip: Keep an eye on automated purchases. “It’s the automated transactions that people lose track of,” says McClary. “You know the old ‘set it and forget it’? This is a situation where you definitely don’t want to forget it.”
From subscriptions to automated re-orders on certain products, keep a list that includes when it will bill, for what items, and the exact amount. “I have a spreadsheet that I keep,” McClary admits. “It sounds low-tech, but it works for me because it’s on one page and I have everything on there.”
He also recommends limiting recurring charges to a single credit card because they’re easier to track when they’re all in one place on one bill.
See related: Spend tracking with major credit card issuers
5. Chicken and turkey
When home cooks want an affordable meal, they often turn to chicken and turkey. While they’re still less expensive than beef, they’re pricier than before the pandemic.
On average, chicken prices have risen 8.3% since March 2020 and turkey prices are up 9.4%, according to the Consumer Price Index.
Tip: Investigate the tools your card issuer offers. “For me, personally, one big thing that’s been helpful are alerts and notifications,” says Liz Wagner, director for digital strategy at BECU (formerly Boeing Employees Credit Union).
Many card issuers and banks also offer tools that make it easy to quickly see what you’ve spent. One example: American Express lets cardmembers sign up to receive a “weekly snapshot” of their accounts, says Deborah Craft, a vice president in the card issuer’s global services group. (Cardholders can sign up for Account Snapshot and other alerts by logging in to their accounts on americanexpress.com and clicking on “Account Services.”) At a glance, this snapshot shows how much you’ve spent, “so you’re keeping an eye on things,” Craft says.
6. Fruits and vegetables
Reaching for an orange as a healthy snack? That could cost you a little more these days.
The price of fresh fruit is up 7.5% since March 2020. And “a lot of that increase has been recent,” says Reed.
Tip: Review your card statements. “The real thing to hone in on, especially now, is how much you’re paying in interest,” says Ken Myhra, senior vice president for credit cards at BECU. “Can you afford to carry that interest? If you carry a balance, you’re going to be paying a little more every month, and that’s going to add up over time.”
Bonus tip: When you first start recording spending, don’t worry about being precise. “You don’t have to reconcile your checkbook to the penny every month in order to track your spending,” says Teresa Murray of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. And you don’t have to go through months of old spending entries to start tracking what you’re spending now.
Just say to yourself, “Starting today, I’m going to do a better job of tracking my spending,” says Murray.
Processed fruits and vegetables
Canned, packaged and processed fruits and vegetables – everything from apple juice to marinara sauce – are up 5.7% from the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Consumer Price index.
Why this is unusual? The price of fresh fruit – dependent on weather, climate and a host of other factors – can be volatile. But prices on processed foods, which are viable for longer periods of time, tend to be much more stable.
Tip: Reconsider storing cards in browsers or online shopping accounts. Want to keep those bills from creeping skyward? Make impulse buying harder. The time it takes to input your card information to make a purchase also gives you time to rethink that buy, says Luke Reynolds, chief of outreach and program development for the FDIC.
Bonus tip: Consider a “round-up” debit card for in-store shopping. These cards round up totals to the nearest even dollar amount – and automatically bank the difference. Bank of America’s debit card does this with its Keep the Change savings program.
“It helps you build savings without having to think about it,” says BECU’s Wagner. “Then when you get that credit card bill, you’ve got a little bit in savings to offset that.”
7. Dining out and takeout
The cost of the food we eat away from home – dining out and takeout, too – is up 5.3%, according to the Consumer Price Index.
“It’s not a huge increase, but it’s more than we typically see,” says Reed. The cost of meals out is something that has been, on average, “reasonably steady,” he adds.
Tip: Save those receipts. And that’s “particularly important on purchases where you’re adding a tip – to be sure the charge on your statement is what you intended,” says Reynolds.
His hack: Either get electronic receipts or snap a picture of the receipt. “Plus, it’s helpful if you ever have to return something,” he says.
Bonus tip: Whether it’s a notes feature, spreadsheet or app, set up a way to track purchases. And you can find spending-tracker apps that don’t require sharing personal financial information, says Murray.
If you don’t mind sharing that info, many banks and credit unions also include user-friendly budgeting features in their apps. BECU’s version color codes various spending categories with green, yellow and red to show whether you’re on budget, close to the limit or over-spending. And the bubble representing that spending category shrinks and expands with your spending.
And remember: Charging dining and takeout on the right cards can get you some of that cash back. The Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card, for example, will get you 3% at restaurants and grocery stores with no annual fee.
8. Cleaning supplies
No surprise to anyone who’s tried to buy disinfectant or anti-bacterial wipes during the pandemic: the price of cleaning supplies has increased.
Stable over the past few years, prices are up 3.7% since March 2020, Reed says.
Tip: If you use auto-reorder, create a budget buffer. “Don’t set an amount and think it’s going to be the same every month,” says McClary. “Over time, you’ll get a better idea of what that budget buffer should be.”
And be careful about adding new items to that automated buy list, especially if it’s already lengthy, he says. The more you automate spending, the higher the chances those price increases can snowball.
So if you put a new item on your list, take one or two off, McClary advises.
It’s not your imagination: Prescriptions are getting more expensive every year.
But this isn’t a pandemic problem, it’s been an issue for decades, says Leigh Purvis, director of healthcare costs and access for AARP, and co-author of the group’s Rx Price Watch Reports.
“On average, brand name prescription drug prices are increasing at more than twice the rate of inflation – much more than other goods and services – and it is a concern,” she says.
Between 2019 and 2020, the general rate of inflation was 1.3%, according to AARP’s June 2021 Rx Price Watch Report. But prices on the 260 brand name prescription drugs most used by older Americans increased an average of 2.9%.
And “there’s a compounding effect when we look at drug prices,” says Purvis. “It’s not a one-year problem, it’s an every year problem. People are really struggling to pay these prices.”
Tip: There are a few things you can try to reduce the price of medications. First, talk with your doctor and your pharmacist to see if there are any ways they can help. Second, look into the Medicare Part D low-income subsidy, says Purvis. That can “greatly reduce” or eliminate your premium or cost-sharing, she says.
And with brand-name prescriptions, investigate the drug maker’s patient assistance program. Many companies have them, “you’ll need to qualify, and they have pretty strict criteria,” says Purvis. But if you qualify, you can get free or reduced-price prescriptions. The place to start: The drug manufacturer’s website.
If you have to pay more for meds, make sure you’re getting maximum cash back with a credit card that rewards purchases at your pharmacy, whether it’s Capital One Walmart Rewards® Mastercard® (5% at Walmart pharmacies) or Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express (6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets, on up to $6,000 in purchases per year, then 1%).
Hopefully, pandemic prices will settle back down when supply and demand return to normal. For now, though, you’d be wise to try out some of these tools and programs. Best to track spending and bring those bills down before (not after) you blow your budget.