See more of the story

For the last few months, Shirley Hatfield has bought mostly generic brand foods and has gone as far as to unplug her lamps and microwave when they are not in use.

Hatfield, who is 54 and works in a middle school nurse's office in Robbinsdale, never saw herself as a big spender. But now, the constant monitoring of her spending has started to become all-consuming.

"There are things I never would have thought of before, but now with the price increases ... it all is adding up," she said.

Facing the biggest jump in consumer prices in decades, many people in the Twin Cities have dramatically changed their routines to cut costs. This adjustment comes after COVID-19 upended everyday life and left many exhausted.

"We've had two years of uncertainty, loss, anxiety and fear and now inflation, too, so the one thing that's been stable over 40 years, inflation, is now uncertain," said Mark Bergen, a professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

Consumer prices in January were 7.5% above year-ago levels, the biggest year-on-year increase since 1982. In the Twin Cities, the jump was 7.2%. The price hikes have been led by cars, gas, heating and food, particularly meat.

At her home in New Hope one evening last week, Hatfield used half the amount of ground beef she would normally cook for her chili because she needed to save it for another meal. Hatfield joked her tabby cat, whose picky eating keeps her buying name-brand cat food, ate better than she did.

"I'm sure there's probably more meat content in his food than in this chili tonight," she said.

When the pandemic began to unfold two years ago and she could no longer go out with friends, she would order from a restaurant occasionally as a treat.

But today, she says, "It is those little indulgences that have just gone by the wayside."

Hatfield keeps her fridge and cabinets meticulously organized, writes down her yearly and monthly budgets to include the cost of everything, from children's birthdays to vet visits. She recently decided not to attend a family member's funeral because she didn't know if she could afford the gas.

Shirley Hatfield worked on her budget for March one afternoon last week.
Shirley Hatfield worked on her budget for March one afternoon last week.

Jeff Wheeler | Star Tribune, Star Tribune

She said her penny pinching reminds her of when she used to struggle to save money as a young mother, a lifestyle that Hatfield had hoped at her age to have left behind.

"I know how to survive, but I'm tired of surviving," she said. "I want to live a little."

Money is one of the top contributors to stress, but many people don't like to talk about it and the emotional aspects behind why they spend money, said Derek Hagen, a certified financial therapist who runs Money Health Solutions in Minnetonka. Change, even for the better, is often stressful especially when it has to do with money, he said.

"'I used to be able to buy this much and I now have to save a little bit more.' Anything that threatens this status quo — it's going to be stressful," Hagen said.

The pandemic has made consumers' relationship with money even more complicated. Many people coped with the disruptions and risk to health by buying things because it gave a sense of temporary pleasure, Hagen said.

And consumers more often turned to shopping on the computer or phone, which have lower obstacles to purchases, Hagen said. The end result for some was that it was harder to keep track of spending.

"We fully acknowledge that our finances are not just numbers. Our feelings are interwoven in our financial decisions everyday," said Kim Miller, a financial counselor at Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSS).

"When we need to reduce spending, our brains fight us because we don't like less," Miller added.

Bridget Littlefield has been living on the financial edge for years, but the anxiety around the pandemic and skyrocketing prices has pushed her to focus on building savings for future emergencies.

"I want to get myself in shape and my family in shape and make the best of the situation," she said.

Five years ago, her husband, Kevin, quit his job to care for his father who suffered from dementia. Ever since, things have been tight for the Rosemount couple.

They have two teenage daughters as well as a niece living with them, all on Bridget's $35,000 income. The couple's car died months ago so she walks or uses public transportation. Her father-in-law passed away in recent months and so did her mother.

Meanwhile, she sees higher prices everywhere, even the Dollar Tree, which has raised them to $1.25.

"I was floored when I went in to get my toilet paper and it was at $2.50," said Littlefield of the two four-packs she purchases there. She sometimes stops at the Open Door Pantry food shelf to fill in the gaps.

Still, Littlefield is optimistic about the future. She is starting a new job at the airport with a $40,000 salary. Her husband is returning to lawn work. They plan to use a tax refund for a car.

"We're in the rebuilding stage," she said.

Cindy Ferris of Minneapolis has a successful career in digital marketing but, at 65, is being intentional about countering inflation as she prepares to retire.

"I have a good job but my salary isn't going as far as it used to so I've dialed down my spending because inflation is increasing at a faster rate than my annual bonus and raise," she said.

Ferris has cut her costs by about 7%. She used to set her thermostat at 69 and has turned it down to 67 and, at night, 64. Ferris also trimmed her cable bill. No more Target runs. She still shops at Lunds & Byerlys but skips the salmon frequently and no longer eats sugar, a plus for her health.

Ferris makes a pot of soup every week and freezes portions and she eats produce she grows in her basement.

"Sometimes I'll even have eggs for dinner to save money and yet get protein in my diet," she said.

Ferris wants to be prepared for the worst. "I took steps in all of those areas because I felt it necessary," she said. "It wasn't that there was a crisis in my life. It's that I wanted to be prepared because we're in such a state of the unknown."

As Hatfield stirred her chili over the stove, she tried to think how far she could make the dish stretch. Her guess was four meals.

"I do find that you have to treat this more like a game," she said. "How much can I save?"