You see the price of gas even if you’re not the one pumping it (not so with the price of eggs if you aren’t the one who does your household grocery shopping). And if you are the one who pumps it, you stand there watching your purchase, cent by cent, bite into your bank account. Imagine the psychological toll if you paid your rent this way: $656 … $657 … $658 …
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Gas is also particularly uniform as a product. There are generally only three options: regular, mid-grade, premium. It’s not like milk, which comes in half or whole gallons, skim or 2 percent, organic or not, in a dozen brands. And when you buy gas, it’s not bundled with other goods.
That makes it easy to track the price. And it makes it hard for vendors to obscure price hikes. A box of cereal might shrink over time to conceal rising prices. But a gallon of gas is a gallon of gas (with a little nuance for summer and winter blends). And it’s also more or less the gallon of gas you’ve been buying your entire driving life.
“What other price series have I been monitoring casually since I was 16?” said Chris Severen, an economist at the Philadelphia Fed.
He and a colleague have found that people who learn to drive as teenagers during gas price shocks like the oil crises of the 1970s drive less even 20 years later in life. For many teens, this is the first time they’re regularly buying a good or service, Mr. Severen said. Gas is their introduction to consumption, and to the broader economy in personal terms.
As most drivers eventually learn, it’s also hard to substitute for gas. When other goods become more expensive, economists generally expect people to cut back on how much they buy, to buy something else instead, or to delay their purchase. But those strategies are trickier with gas, unless you live somewhere walkable or with good transit. Most Americans can’t just drive the kids to school four days a week instead of five, or put off going to work until the gas price falls.
“Even if it’s just gas, it’s just a car — it’s a lot for a family like mine, where we depend on this for a job,” said Denange Sanchez, who works as a cleaner with her mother in Palm Bay, Fla. They fill their tank three or four times a week driving to apartment complexes and private homes. When prices go up, they have no choice but to bear it.