Travel costs tick down, over-the-counter meds shoot up

Americans plagued by surging prices over the past 20 months continue to face strain as the cost of meeting everyday necessities remains stubbornly high.

The Labor Department said Tuesday that the Consumer Price Index (CPI), a broad measure of the price of everyday goods, including groceries, gasoline, and rent, rose 0.4% in February from the previous month. Consumer prices were 3.2% higher than a year earlier.

While that measure is under the 3.4% inflation reading in December, it remains above the Federal Reserve’s 2% target.

Read more: What the Fed rate decision means for bank accounts, CDs, loans, and credit cards

Declining prices for many goods are helping slow inflation, but basics such as housing, food, gasoline, and energy continued to come in hotter than expected.

Overall, consumer inflation is 19.98% higher than in February 2020. Here’s what the latest inflation numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics mean for you:

Shelter costs remain sticky

Few Americans have felt the effects of inflation more than the nation’s renters.

And despite a surge in apartment construction last year, rents still jumped 5.8% from a year ago. While that measure has been cooling for 11 straight months from March’s peak of 8.2%, it’s still putting a squeeze on tenants’ finances.

However, rising vacancy rates could motivate landlords to lower their asking rents.

According to Redfin, asking rents rose 2.2% in February to an average of $1,981 across the nation, the biggest leap since January 2023 and up 0.9% from a month earlier.

Still, regions that haven’t been building as much, such as the Midwest and Northeast, continued to see rents climb. In the Midwest, asking rents rose 4.9% year-over-year to $1,441 — the largest increase in five months. While in the Northeast, rents increased 5.2% annually to $2,481 in February.

By comparison, rents in the South and West remained flat, rising 0.3% to $1,635 and falling 0.1% to $2,349, respectively. According to Redfin, those regions remained stable because they had more inventory available, and landlords didn’t feel as pressured to fill vacancies.

Overall, shelter inflation was up over 21% compared to February 2020, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Household repairs and utilities

Keeping your home in good shape also became more expensive.

The price to repair household items remained unchanged from January’s annual increase of 18.2%, a record high. That includes things like fixes to household appliances, pest control, and basic upkeep like gardening.

Water and sewage maintenance increased 5% on an annual basis in February and the price of garbage collection rose 6.1% from a year ago.

Notably, the cost of electricity jumped 3.6% annually and was up 1.2% from December. According to the BLS, the leap in energy prices helped drive inflation higher this past month.

Some food prices continue to climb

Food inflation, a sour point for many households, was unchanged in February. Both food at home and from the grocery store rose 0.4% the previous month and was up 2.2% year over year.

Grocery costs remained stagnant this past month after increasing by 0.4% in January — and were 1% higher than a year ago.

A few specific foods remain stubbornly high. Frozen juices and drinks jumped 27.2% year over year, an increase of 9.9% from December. Meanwhile, beef steaks cost 12% more than they did a year ago, amounting to $11.72 per pound, per the St. Louis Fed.

Sugar was up 6.1% in February, and spices were up 3.7% from a year ago, the BLS found.

The price of eggs, however, declined 29%. In other words, a dozen grade-A eggs sold for $2.99 in February, down from $4.21 a year ago, per the St. Louis Fed.

While groceries continued their rise, the cost of eating out didn’t get better either, increasing 0.5% from December and up 4.5% from a year earlier.

Restaurant meals rang in 3.8% higher than a year ago, and even grabbing a quick snack from a vending machine ballooned 7.7%.

Overall, compared to February 2020, right before the onset of the pandemic, food prices are up over 25%, according to the St. Louis Fed.

Taxes continue to be a burden

With tax season in full swing, the cost of having a professional prepare your taxes also got steeper.

Tax return preparation, along with other accounting fees, jumped 9.8% from February 2023 and rose 2.7% from just a month ago. That figure is not exactly reassuring, given how expensive getting your taxes done last year was.

Tax professionals charged an average of $218 for new clients in 2023, up 25% from $174 in 2021, the National Association of Tax Professionals recently revealed. Tax pros also increased repeat clients’ fees to $205 in 2023, a 22.7% uptick from $167 two years ago.

This tax season, getting just two W-2s and a state return prepared by a tax pro could cost you up to $238, according to a study by the Intuit Accountant. Households filling out a child tax credit, W-2s, and other forms could be charged an average of $350; while more complex tax filings could run you up to $537.

To save some cash, the Internal Revenue Service lets qualified taxpayers prepare and file their federal income tax returns at no charge through IRS Free File. The agency also launched its Direct File pilot program, available to residents of selected states and available both in English and Spanish.

Cost of driving ramps up

Another blow to consumers’ wallets was auto insurance, which remained up by 20.6% year-over-year — the largest increase since 1985.

Owning a car generally seems to have become pricier. Motor vehicle maintenance and servicing increased 5.8% year over year, while repairs jumped 8.5%. Parking fees and tolls were 4.5% higher than they were in February 2023, up 1.3% from December.

However, gasoline prices (of all types) declined by 3.9% year over year in February and were down 3.3% from December. Still, the modest decline wasn’t necessarily notable at the gas pump.

By March 2024, the average gallon of gasoline cost $3.37, up from $3.05 at the start of the year. While that’s down considerably from the nearly $5 peak of June 2022, it’s still 39% higher than prices in February 2020, the St. Louis Fed found.

Those in the market to purchase a used car or truck also caught a break as prices continued to moderate. Used vehicles registered an annual decline of 1.8% over the same period and were 3.4% down from December. New cars dipped 0.2% from a year ago, according to the BLS.

Some travel relief on the horizon

With spring break approaching, those looking to book a trip this past month also got an inkling of relief.

Airline fares declined 6.1% compared to last February but remained 3.6% higher than a month ago, according to the BLS.

According to a study by booking app Hopper, airfare for vacations in March and April averaged $256 per round trip on domestic flights, down 2% from the same time a year ago and 11% lower than 2019 prices.

Folks looking to travel to the Caribbean and Mexico, spring break hotspots, saw tickets averaging $447, down 11%. Meanwhile, travelers eyeing a Europe trip saw tickets averaging $640, 7% lower than last year for March and April departures.

Certain drugs also on the rise

While prescription drug costs grew little, over-the-counter medications are on a hot streak.

The cost of nonprescription drugs rose 9.3% from a year ago, while prescription medications were up just 0.3%. Overall, medicinal drugs were 2.9% higher than a year ago, just 0.5% down month over month.

Being a sports fan got more expensive

Backing your favorite team is going to cost you.

Specifically, tickets to sporting events rose by a whopping 11% from a year ago. The cost of participating in a recreational club, fraternal, or other sports club organization also bumped up by 2.7%.

For instance, an NFL ticket cost an average $120.94 in 2023. According to Statista, that’s up from $111.75 in 2022 and a low of $62.38 in 2006 when it first began tracking that metric.

If you were to livestream the event, those services also registered an uptick.

Cable, satellite, and live-streaming television services jumped 4.4% year-over-year in February 2024 and were up 0.6% from a month prior. Video subscriptions were also up 2.9% from a year ago.

Fubo TV, for example, raised its subscription plan by $5 to its existing customer base in January if you were in any Pro, Elite, or Premier plan. Those members were looking at a new price point between $79.99 and $104.99 per month, without including fees or taxes.

Meanwhile, those subscribed to Fubo TV’s regional sports network faced a $1 monthly increase, hiking their membership to between $11.99 per month and $14.99 per month.

Pet owners also face inflation

Pet owners have also struggled under the weight of inflation as rising costs of food, veterinary care, and supplies continued to surge this past year.

Veterinarian services jumped 7.9% from a year ago in February 2024, up 0.9% from a month ago.

The uptick in costs over the past year caused some pet owners to delay visits to the veterinarian, according to data from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). While vet practice revenue increased by an average 5.7% between August 2021 and August 2023, the number of clients fell 2.7%, suggesting that some clients have had to forego medical care for their pets.

Animal lovers saw other costs rise: Pet food increased 2.6% in the past 12 months, and the cost of pet supplies and accessories also registered an uptick of 0.9% over the same period.

Overall, the cost of pet food is nearly 22% higher compared to February 2020, the St. Louis Fed found, despite showing subtle signs of declining since last fall.

What’s next

While inflation has fallen substantially from its peak of 9.1% in June 2022, everyday prices have failed to reflect relief across the board.

“It’s important to remember that a lower inflation rate does not mean that prices of most things are falling — rather, it simply means that prices are rising more slowly,” Lisa Sturtevant, chief economist at Bright MLS, previously noted.

Overall, food prices are up by over 25%, gas prices are roughly 39% higher, and rents are up 21% compared to February 2020, right before the pandemic began.

Gabriella Cruz-Martinez is a personal finance and housing reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on X @__gabriellacruz.

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