Gas toll on family budget highest since '81
It's been 30 years since gasoline took such a big bite out of the family budget.
When the gifts from Grandma are unloaded and holiday travel is over, the typical American household will have spent $4,155 filling up this year, a record. That is 8.4 percent of what the median family takes in, the highest share since 1981.
Gas averaged more than $3.50 a gallon this year, another unfortunate record. And next year isn't likely to bring relief.
In the past, high gas prices in the United States have gone hand-in-hand with economic good times, making them less damaging to family finances. Now prices are high despite slow economic growth and weak demand.
That's because demand for crude oil is rising globally, especially in the developing nations of Asia and Latin America. But it puts the squeeze on the United States, where unemployment is high and many people who have jobs aren't getting raises.
The trap has caught Michael Reed of Charlotte, N.C. He hasn't been able to find work since he lost his computer-support job in 2009. Now high gas prices are claiming more of what he has left. He and his wife won't exchange gifts this Christmas.
"I try to drive as little as possible so it doesn't take such a chunk out of my wallet," he says.
In 1981, when the economy was sliding into recession and oil prices were high because of Middle East turmoil, gas ate up 8.8 percent of the typical family budget, says Fred Rozell of the Oil Price Information Service.
Over the past decade, gas has taken up 5.7 percent of the family budget. If families had spent only 5.7 percent this year, they would have saved $1,300.
For this year, gas should average $3.53 per gallon. That's 76 cents more than last year. It's 29 cents per gallon more than 2008, when gas last set an annual record, $3.24.
Besides leaving families less money to eat out and go to the movies, high gas prices take a disproportionate toll on consumer confidence. People are more aware of small changes in gas prices because they drive past the signs all the time.
And a buck spent on gas has less bang in the economy than, say, a dollar spent at a restaurant. The United States is an oil-importing country, so many of the dollars spent on gas ultimately leave the country instead of being invested here in new ventures and jobs.