Pinching pennies and clutching dollars

Rising gas and electricity costs force residents to get creative

May 02, 2006|By SUMATHI REDDY | SUMATHI REDDY,SUN REPORTER

And so it has come to this.

Bessina Williams, 49, ponders replacing her passion for baking with assembling scrapbooks. William Mills, 73, goes on walks to the grocery store instead of driving. And a red van sits idly on the driveway of Donna Brust, who has put her diesel 1986 Mercedes to use instead.

"I'm going to choose to fork over the comfort to get better gas mileage," said Brust, 42, of Perry Hall.

From the mundane to the creative, residents across Maryland are fine-tuning their daily habits in ways large and small, adjusting to the shock of skyrocketing gas prices and bracing for a spike in residential electricity costs.

At home, the frugal are finding ways to be more tight-fisted than ever. Fans replace air-conditioners. Dirty clothes pile up until half-loads of laundry become full. Children are scolded for leaving lights and televisions on in empty rooms.

"I'll penny-pinch every penny we can," said Debbie Haber, 54, of Hampden. "I'm just going to have to my foot down and not spend, just spend on what we need to spend."

Haber says she's refinancing her house to pay off debts, lecturing her 10-year-old twins to turn off the lights and television when they're not using them and cutting out her weekly bingo.

"I really can't afford an extra $20 a week," Haber said of the bingo. "There's a lot of things I like to do with my kids, but if we don't have the money, what do we do?

"And if things get too tough, maybe we'll pull out and move to another state. It can't be worse."

Many Maryland residents were already worried about BGE's anticipated 72 percent rate increase. So this week's steady rise in gas prices - to often more than $3 a gallon - was none too good for morale.

From the well-heeled to the paycheck-to-paycheck to those on fixed incomes, the impact of the rising prices of commodities so crucial to everyday life is not being taken lightly.

Not everyone is bemoaning the rising gas prices. The Center for a New American Dream, a consumer group in Takoma Park, hopes the increased prices will encourage consumers to become more environmentally friendly and less dependent on gas and electricity.

Sarah Roberts, communication director, said its members have adjusted their behavior by opting to bike, carpool or take public transportation to work. Others have bought hybrid cars or decided to telecommute once or twice a week.

In terms of saving on electricity bills, the group recommends controlling your thermostat, replacing windows and blinds, and even landscaping. "Trees outside can cut down on air conditioning," Roberts said.

But Roberts wonders how much adjusted behavior will last. "We have to ask the hard question of, `Will this behavior change permanently?' Or when gas prices decrease or the government steps in, will it go back to the same way?

"Right now it's about taking money out of your pocket. There's still a lot of educating that needs to be done to get people to really change. ... But any steps to help the environment counts, even baby steps."

For some, the adjustments have been a pleasant change.

Several months ago, Peggy O'Behan, a Spanish teacher at Liberty High in Eldersburg, and three other teachers began carpooling to work from their homes near the Pennsylvania border. The carpooling saves O'Behan about $100 to $150 a month.

"It has been very convenient," said O'Behan, who lives in Hanover, Pa. She speculated that the carpool will continue even if gas prices go down.

But for others, the prices are affecting the most vulnerable people in a harmful way. Nancy Rhead, 69, of Columbia says high gas prices already have The Arc of Howard County, which assists people with developmental disabilities, in the red on transportation costs.

Then there's the impact of the utility increase. "These folks are fixed-income people," said Rhead, who chairs the governmental affairs committee. "Many people have retired."

Rhead, who retired seven years ago, is also on a fixed income. Now she's ready to head to the library for air-conditioning relief on those unbearable summer days and use the bus for the first time. "I'm going to hate it probably, but I'm happy that I live near the mall where it comes," she said.

For Bessina Williams, the looming electricity rate increase means she will likely give up her love for baking and switch to something less energy-dependent, like scrapbooking. "My gas and electricity bill is ridiculous, particularly around the holidays, because I bake a lot of cakes for gifts," said Williams, 49, an assistant principal at Southside Academy in Cherry Hill.

Williams has also stopped picking up her daughter in Bowie and lets her catch the train when she comes home on weekends. And those leisurely drives and short trips to the drugstore? Gone.

"You wait until you have to go to Rite Aid, Safeway and the dry cleaners," she said. "I'm just not driving as much."

The Baltimore Youth Hockey league is encouraging more carpooling and has even compiled a master list by ZIP code to aid families.

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