ARTICLE

Fuel costs take bigger bite out of Iowans' budgets

East Iowa families tell of strain rising prices cause

Shaun Clasen of Monticello takes her son Austin Tullis, 9, to Wilkins Elementary in Marion for school and after-school care on her way to work in Cedar Rapids. Clasen and her husband work in Cedar Rapids, but commute separately due to their children's schools and their transportation needs for a combined 150 miles a day. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Shaun Clasen of Monticello takes her son Austin Tullis, 9, to Wilkins Elementary in Marion for school and after-school care on her way to work in Cedar Rapids. Clasen and her husband work in Cedar Rapids, but commute separately due to their children's schools and their transportation needs for a combined 150 miles a day. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Iowa is still one of the cheaper places in the nation to buy gas, but it’s also among the states most affected by this year’s run-up in gas prices, a new study suggests.

Using data from the U.S. departments of Labor, Commerce, and Transportation, economists for Wells Fargo Securities found fuel costs eat up 5.66 percent of Iowans’ household budgets — the seventh-highest share in the nation and higher than all but Indiana in the Midwest.

"Now, you’re budgeting for gas," said Shaun Clausen of Monticello, who commutes to Cedar Rapids. "You just have to play the numbers game with your bank account: Can I do $15 today, and that will get me through to payday?"

Higher gas prices prompted Kelli Kennon-Lane to trade in the Mitsubishi Eclipse she drove during her college years, even though it was paid for.

"It was a perfect financial situation," said Kennon-Lane, 26, of Marion. "But it got terrible gas mileage."

Besides its 35 mpg, her new Chevrolet Cruze sedan allows Kennon-Lane, a journalism and English teacher at West Branch High School, to carpool with two other teachers who live in Cedar Rapids. So now she drives the 90-mile round trip just twice a week.

"It changes my finances, because now I have a car payment," she said. "But now I’m not filling up twice a week."

Gas prices prompted the Clausens to put off a replacing the two mid-sized sedans that haul around their blended family.

"It just doesn’t make sense to invest in a vehicle that doesn’t get good gas mileage right now," said Clausen.

So Clausen and husband Mike Clausen, both 34, continue to commute separately to their jobs in Cedar Rapids, where she manages client accounts for Rausch Productions and he sells advertising for Dex One. The routine means a combined total of about 150 miles a day.

Mike Clausen was working in Dubuque when the couple moved to Monticello about 2 1/2 years ago. Both wanted to keep their children in their respective school districts and make things easier for their ex-spouses, so Mike Clausen drops Samantha, 11, and Max, 8, at the stop for their Western Dubuque bus while Shaun Clausen drops off Austin Tullis, 9, at Wilkins Elementary in Marion.

"We’ve always said we must really love each other to have such a crazy schedule and make it work," said Clausen.

While disposable incomes nationwide rose by only 3 percent over past year, motor fuel prices are up 9.4 percent since January, and "after accounting for population growth, real disposable income per person has declined," according to the study.

Higher fuel costs are felt more in rural areas of the South and Midwest, where incomes are lower, prices higher and commutes longer, according to the study.

It’s not just gas: food prices are among the most directly related to fuel costs. It’s reasonable to assume food costs are more apparent in the same areas more affected by gas prices, but the Wells Fargo study didn’t specifically address that, one of its co-authors said.

"There’s a lot of transportation costs built into the cost of groceries," said Michael Brown. Fuel and groceries "are the two goods consumers can cut back a little bit, but they’re still going to have to buy them — the demand is inelastic, we’d say."

Kennon-Lane said she and her husband John Lane, a union electrician, are planning the biggest garden they can fit on their corner lot.

"Gas prices, food prices, self-sustainability, an eco-friendly movement, they’re all intertwined," she said. "We have the option of growing our own food, being more sustainable, buying locally."

"You shop differently or you just don’t shop," said Clausen, who said she buys more generic products lately. "You have a whole lot less of that fun money."

As her car pool rolls along Interstates 380 and 80, "we are some of the only people who have more than one person in their car," Kennon-Lane has noticed. "It’s disheartening at times."

Iowa Department of Transportation spokeswoman Dena Gray-Fisher said the agency is considering steps to encourage car pooling. The DOT has a link to a carpool-organizing website that has 76 Iowa names, but few 2012 postings.

Gray-Fisher said Des Moines and Council Bluffs-Omaha maintain their own independent sites, "and we’re looking into that." 

Kennon-Lane said she and her husband chose their home five years ago largely for its location, about two blocks from Marion’s uptown neighborhood.

"Teaching jobs are kind of hard to come by, especially now in Cedar Rapids," she said. "Once my husband gets home and parks that vehicle, it doesn’t leave the driveway unless we go somewhere out of town."

  

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