Do you remember when you used to be able to buy a regular cup of coffee for less than a dollar? How about gasoline? As recently as 2004, the average gallon of gas cost less than $2. Today, these prices are a distant memory. Inflation is the metric we use to describe the phenomenon of rising prices, which is a basic fact of economic life that you should know about.
Inflation is the gradual increase in the price of goods and services over time. As inflation rates rise, you’ll pay more for the same goods and services, which impacts your daily life, as well as your investments. In the U.S., the current inflation rate is 2.2% as of July 2019.
What is inflation?
Inflation is a general upward trend in the cost of goods and services across the economy, from the price of food to the cost of housing, gas and clothing. As inflation rates rise, the buying power of currencies like the U.S. dollar falls, which means you’ll pay more for a product than you did several years ago.
However, it’s not quite as simple as comparing the cost of milk from one year to the next. Rather, economists determine inflation by looking at the prices of a “basket” of products and services and then measure the average price changes over time.
How inflation affects your money
Inflation impacts the buying power of the dollar, which in turn erodes the value of a consumer’s cash reserves. Each year, your dollars buy fewer goods and services, even if it’s a small change from one year to the next.
While inflation is largely inevitable, there are ways you can protect your money against inflation. Start by looking at your savings account. Up to 99% of savings accounts have interest rates that fall below inflation rates, which means that even as your money grows, it’s not growing quickly enough to keep up with inflation. A MagnifyMoney study found the average savings account rate is just 0.26%, well below the average 2% inflation rate.
You are most susceptible to inflation if you keep large reserves of cash rather than investing your money in vehicles that are more resistant to inflation. Look for investments that have historically appreciated at greater rates than inflation, as well as those that are specifically designed to protect against inflation. Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) are the most direct investments that can help keep your money safe from inflation.
Most bond investments set interest rates that account for inflation, but a TIPS investment has a principal adjustment mechanism increases with inflation and decreases during times of deflation. When your TIPS has reached maturity, you’ll be paid the adjusted principal amount or the original amount, whichever is larger. These investments pay out fixed-rate interest twice a year – the rates also rise and fall with inflation and deflation rates. TIPS are a good way to diversify your portfolio and the most direct way to hedge your money against inflation.
How inflation is calculated
Economists measure inflation with the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which focuses on how inflation affects consumers; the Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) index, which is more tightly focused version of CPI; and the Producer Price Index (PPI), which is based on surveys of prices businesses charge for goods and services. These three indices measure the cost of baskets of products and services, and each month reports are published on changes in CPI, PCE and PPI.
In 2016 and 2017, the CPI surveyed approximately 24,000 individuals in the U.S. Those consumers provided the CPI with detailed data regarding their quarterly spending habits, while another 12,000 provided information on their spending over a two-week period.
One easy way to understand inflation is to compare the buying power of $100 over the course of the last several decades. Think of how much rent and other housing costs have increased over the years. Those increases are likely be due to a wide variety of factors, but one of them is inflation and the declining buying power of the dollar. This graph indicates the changing value of $100 in 2019 money:
A closer look at inflation rates historically
As you can see in the graph, inflation has held pretty steady since 1940. However, there are also some aberrations that reflect the state of the U.S. economy at any given time. For example, the economy experienced deflation during the years of the Great Depression through the 1930s, when markets crashed and unemployment rates sat at historic highs. Deflation is the opposite of inflation: When the buying power of a currency increases over time.
You can also see rapid inflation growth in the 1970 to 1980 period. The Great Depression and the 1970s are outside of the norm, and the Federal Reserve Bank tempers inflation rates to keep them around 2%. The Fed aims to keep inflation rates at about this rate to provide greater spending stability for consumers, promote high employment rates and to temper long-term interest rates.