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Can't Afford the Basics? The High Cost of Living Is About Way More Than Inflation

Everything is expensive. Experts tell us why.

Farnoosh Torabi Former Editor at Large
Farnoosh Torabi is a financial strategist, host of the award-winning podcast So Money and a bestselling author.
Farnoosh Torabi
3 min read
shopping cart with groceries falling out and upward arrow
Robert Rodriguez/CNET

It's no news flash that the majority of Americans are having a hard time making ends meet. But what's really behind it all?

As part of the CNET Money series Priced Out: Coping With the High Cost of Living in America, I sat down with four experts on my So Money podcast to discuss the economic fragility that too many US households experience today -- and why. 

Brandon Douglas/CNET

Though inflation has recently added to our financial struggles, the root causes of why millions of families live paycheck to paycheck and can't afford basic necessities like housing and health care are longstanding and mostly systemic. The lack of affordable essentials prevents lower- and middle-income families from being able to achieve financial security and stability, which also affects their ability to reach other goals such as saving, investing, planning for retirement, advancing education or participating in cultural or recreational activities. 

In CNET Money's Priced Out feature series and these podcast episodes, we talk about how real people are coping, coming up with creative solutions, and relying on their communities for help. We also talk about the fundamental policy changes that need to take place and the essential tools and resources to navigate a changing economic world. 

Money, illness and medicine

I kicked off the conversations with Emily Maloney, author of Cost of Living, a collection of essays about her life experience dealing with illness, money and medicine, from the perspective of a patient and a professional -- an EMT, an emergency room tech and a drug rep. She discussed being a survivor of the difficulties many Americans face while navigating the health care system and offered critical advice that can help to save us money and stress. 

 Read more: Money-Saving Tips for Surviving the Health Care System

Measuring the financial toll of gig work 

Next, we explore the risks of gig work. While it's branded as a path to work-life balance and entrepreneurship, for the many contractors who work for Uber, TaskRabbit and others, the gig economy fails to offer important protections and sufficient pay. Alexandrea Ravenelle, associate professor of sociology at UNC-Chapel Hill and author of Hustle and Gig, joined to share the personal stories of millennial gig workers, underlining the volatility of working in the so-called sharing economy. 

What inflation numbers are hiding

What's the real way to measure the cost of living today? Why do trusted indicators like the consumer price index and unemployment rate fall short of providing an honest snapshot of the economic realities we face? My guest Gene Ludwig, who formerly served as comptroller of the currency and is now chairman of the Ludwig Institute for Shared Economic Prosperity, discussed his alternative metric called TLC, or True Living Cost, which provides a more accurate picture of the struggles of median-income and lower-income families while factoring in housing, food, transportation, health care, child care, technology and other miscellaneous expenses. 

Why the middle class is getting squeezed

Finally, Alissa Quart, the author of several books, including Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America, offered insights into her in-depth reporting on economic hardship. We discussed the people who now make up the "middle precariat," those considered middle-class professionals living a precarious economic life, who are just barely making it, underemployed and/or saddled with debt. We talk about how generations are being squeezed, what inequality looks like and how to get to a better future. 

Priced Out: Coping With the High Cost of Living in America 

For more, check out all the stories in CNET Money's Priced Out series. 

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