No movies, less meat, more stress: How these NJ residents cope with inflation

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What Holly Schepisi earns in a day as a state senator no longer covers the cost to drive from her home in River Vale to Trenton and back. Between rising gas prices and tolls, a round trip rings up to around $170, compared to the $135 a day she makes as a legislator representing parts of Bergen and Passaic counties.

“My husband and I joke that we’re gerbils in a wheel: No matter how much more we make, our set expenses are skyrocketing, with gas, property taxes, car insurance premiums, health insurance,” said Schepisi, a Republican. “For the average person living in Bergen County, it’s become very tough to make ends meet.”

Her district office continually fields calls from people who “struggled through the pandemic, were getting back on their feet and are now just getting crushed by inflation,” Schepisi said.

Families across the country are feeling squeezed as inflation reached a new 40-year high, climbing 8.6%, according to the latest report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Robert Lukasiewicz walks in front of his family's Atlantic City home that was heavily damaged by Superstorm Sandy.  Inflation is making the costs to repair the home even more expensive.
Robert Lukasiewicz walks in front of his family's Atlantic City home that was heavily damaged by Superstorm Sandy. Inflation is making the costs to repair the home even more expensive.

Prices for goods rose 6.3% in the last year in the region including New York, Newark and Jersey City according to the report. Food receipts jumped 9.6% over that period. Home utility costs surged upwards by 22.9%. Fuel costs catapulted 53.7%.

How are New Jerseyans scraping by in a state with an already high cost of living? They are delaying dreams of homeownership, home repairs and family reunions. They're scouring the state for odd jobs. And families feel like they can’t catch a break. Here's how some are trying to cope.

Cinda Wallace: Less meat on fixed income

Cinda Wallace wants to move out of the first floor apartment in the Paterson senior living center that she has called home for two years, but can’t afford the astronomical rents in the area on her fixed income.

“Landlords want you to have an income double of what the rent is, and that’s a problem for me, so it’s stressful,” said Wallace, 67.

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Two years ago Wallace had a stroke and seizure and couldn’t go back to work at the community organization where she counseled other seniors. Without that paycheck, her $635 a month from Social Security Income did not cover her rent, even after the management lowered what she owed when she completed chores and tasks for the building.

When she was on the brink of eviction she called the statewide 211 helpline and was placed in the affordable housing facility, which offers lower rents.

She misses living in a house — apartment life is not for her. Her 24-year-old granddaughter offered to let Wallace move in with her, but Wallace isn’t sure that will happen.

Cinda Wallace, of Paterson, is having to make changes to her diet and the way she lives due to increasing prices caused by inflation.
Cinda Wallace, of Paterson, is having to make changes to her diet and the way she lives due to increasing prices caused by inflation.

So she continues to pinch pennies and “get creative” to stretch her Social Security check and monthly SNAP benefits, or food stamps, which “help tremendously.” She goes to the food pantry to collect other necessities when the food stamps run out before the end of the month. She doesn’t have a valid driver's license — she’s waiting for her neurologist to clear her to drive — so she pays for Ubers to get to the store and to doctors, and those costs are rising.

“I have to be limited and smart about where I go,” Wallace said. “There are places I would like to go that have better quality food and vegetables, but if it costs too much, I can’t. I’ve changed my diet, eating less meat because it costs more, so more salads and vegetables.”

It’s been a yearlong bureaucratic mess to get a new license after her stroke, and in the meantime, she said, “a lot of jobs passed me by.”

She recently obtained her masters degree in counseling at Pillar College, a private college with campuses in Newark and Paterson. She is "swimming in debt from college loans," she said.

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She hopes to work again at community organizations to help people obtain services they need. She and her sons also did “street ministry” in the past, working with a nonprofit as independent contractors to speak with people in the city about “bettering themselves and improving their self care, mental awareness, things of that nature,” she said.

It’s irritating to spend $80 on one bag of groceries, but Wallace said she feels blessed.

“You get less for your dollar now but it’s across the board, everybody knows that,” Wallace said. “As far as me, as an African American woman, we’ve been impoverished for quite some time. This is just another rock in the pot.”

Luis Angel Mercado Rivera: No more movies

Even the organizations that help struggling families are facing their own financial hurdles. Luis Angel Mercado Rivera sees it firsthand at the Mercer-based Arm In Arm, where he works as a case manager. The nonprofit runs a food pantry and has put a limit on 200 families to feed each day, Mercado Rivera said.

“It is so heartbreaking having to say no to these families, but inflation has hit all the way around,” said Mercado Rivera, 54.

The single father remembers sitting his 10-year-old son down and explaining why they couldn’t afford to continue their weekly tradition of seeing a movie in theaters.

“He doesn’t really know what’s going on, he’s 10,” Mercado Rivera said. “I had to say, ‘You like to eat, right? It’s either you go hungry and we see that movie or we cut out this trip we enjoyed together.’”

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He scours second hand stores for clean Nike Airs instead of buying them new for his son. He is keeping the family’s inflated swimming pool in its box: Filling it would triple his water bill.

He recently got caught up on the rent and utility bills for his Trenton home with the help of side jobs, such as yard work, painting and installing drywall. He had fallen behind after handing over most of his savings — around $6,000 — to his mother to help pay her medical expenses last winter.

Luis Angel Mercado Rivera , 54, of Trenton, a single dad who works for a local social service organization as a social case manager, poses for a portrait outside of his home, Wednesday on 06/15/22.
Luis Angel Mercado Rivera , 54, of Trenton, a single dad who works for a local social service organization as a social case manager, poses for a portrait outside of his home, Wednesday on 06/15/22.

A few months ago, his brother died of a drug overdose and his mother followed shortly after of organ failure. Mercado Rivera provided another few thousand dollars to the funeral expenses, but not as much as he would have liked.

Inflation and the expenses that come along with personal tragedy are making it harder for him to save up to buy the house he is renting. Each time he manages to save a few thousand dollars, a more pressing need demands something of him.

“I’m trying to be as responsible as I can, and it’s so stressful,” Mercado Rivera said. “I’m looking around and $100 is getting me what $25 used to. That is depressing for someone like me, who could make a phone call and be back on the streets and making five times this — at the risk of going back to prison.”

Mercado Rivera served close to 20 years for robberies and aggravated assault charges, he said. He started to cry as he recounted how his 18-year-old daughter told him he was her hero for turning his life around.

“I would rather go through these struggles and these hustles,” Mercado Rivera said. “I can never go back to that, knowing that I made such an impact on her life and my son’s life.”

Raquel Kooper: 'Food and gas, food and gas'

Family members pitch in to help with dinner as Raquel Kooper make adjustments to her family’s lifestyle due to inflation as she is raises her three children in their home in Mine Hill, NJ on June 22, 2022.
Family members pitch in to help with dinner as Raquel Kooper make adjustments to her family’s lifestyle due to inflation as she is raises her three children in their home in Mine Hill, NJ on June 22, 2022.

It’s been more than three years since Raquel Kooper and her three children were able to visit family members on the reef-lined beaches of the British Virgin Islands.

It used to be a yearly vacation from their home in Mine Hill, but when a $300 round trip balloons to $600 a ticket, the cherished reunion must be delayed yet again.

“It’s tough — this is where my kids were born and spent the first half of their life,” said Kooper, 40. “It used to be that all those jobs I balance would pay off when it was time to go down and now that’s just not happening.”

For the past eight years Kooper has juggled three to four “side hustles” at once as a single mom — administrative work, a cleaning gig, bookkeeping for her friends’ auto repair shop or hair salon, driving for Instacart.

But now her friends are making cutbacks — so they are offering less work. It no longer makes sense to pick up and deliver groceries for Instacart because filling up her tank costs more than the little pay the work brought in.

She is finding as many odd jobs as she can from word-of-mouth or Craigslist. She signs up for reputable studies and focus groups.

Inflation has canceled out perks that helped her take a breath during the pandemic, including increased SNAP benefits, or food stamps, which provided families with more funds for groceries starting in April 2021. Before then, the just-under $500 her family received per month would cover about half a month’s groceries. The increase provided her $800 a month, meaning Kooper would only need to pull $200 out of her own pocket at the supermarket.

“But now we’re back to square one because that extra doesn’t cover as much anymore,” Kooper said. “It feels like the struggle is never going to end, like I’m running this rat race.”

Family members pitch in to help with dinner as Raquel Kooper with her son Josias 9 and daughter Lilly 18 make adjustments to their lifestyle due to inflation as she is raises her three children in their home in Mine Hill, NJ on June 22, 2022.
Family members pitch in to help with dinner as Raquel Kooper with her son Josias 9 and daughter Lilly 18 make adjustments to their lifestyle due to inflation as she is raises her three children in their home in Mine Hill, NJ on June 22, 2022.

Kooper is trying to figure out how to celebrate her 17-year-old son’s high school graduation — going out to eat isn’t an option anymore, she said. He’s considering community college because he doesn’t want to shoulder the debt his older sister is facing by studying at the Purdue College of Agriculture.

“I blacked out, it’s a blur, I don’t know how I’m managing it,” Kooper said. “She’s going to be $150,000 in debt by the time she’s 21.”

There isn’t enough money to buy her quickly growing 9-year-old son new clothes, or pay for the extracurricular activities she’d like to put him in.

“It’s food and gas, food and gas,” Kooper said. “Everything just has to be allocated to either one and there is no extra after that. Nothing else is an option.”

Rodney Salas: Declining invites to dine out

Rodney Salas and his wife Maria used to send $2,000 a month back to their family in Ecuador to help them pay for rent and groceries. But with the couple’s own bills growing, they’ve had to pause those remittances, said Salas, who is a member of Make the Road New Jersey, a grassroots immigrant rights nonprofit.

Salas feels stress and depression, especially when he sits down to budget out the next month’s expenses.

The couple subleases a room in Fords, an unincorporated community in Woodbridge Township, paying $850 a month. The person they sublet it from said rent would likely increase next month and Salas, 52, couldn’t find another apartment in the area for anything cheaper.

The weekly grocery bill ballooned from $120 to $180 a week. Salas pays $50 a week for a carpool ride to the warehouse where he works, but that is increasing to $60.

The roughly $3,000 the couple stashed away to buy a car so they could stop paying the weekly carpool fee has dwindled to $1,200 because they tap into it to cover new costs. They hope that will be enough to cover any emergency expense that could arise.

Rodney Salas and his wife Maria are struggling to pay expenses due to inflation and seeing their hours cut at the warehouses where they work. Rodney Salas and his wife Maria at their home on Wednesday, June 15, 2022.
Rodney Salas and his wife Maria are struggling to pay expenses due to inflation and seeing their hours cut at the warehouses where they work. Rodney Salas and his wife Maria at their home on Wednesday, June 15, 2022.

They are also trying to negotiate with their lender on the house they own in Ecuador, but the process has been slow. Their 27-year-old daughter and 21-year-old son live in the home, which the couple bought five years ago. They need to refinance if they want to keep making payments on time, he said.

They decline invitations from friends and family to go out to dinner. Weekends used to be the time when they would unwind from the strains of their jobs, going to New York City and “doing touristy things,” or meandering through the mall or relaxing at the movie theater.

The stress follows them home. Both work at warehouses where their managers are cutting hours and staff. Maria replays the anxiety-inducing roll calls in her head: The boss reels out names appearing on two lists, one of the workers who can come back the next day, and those who didn’t make the cut. She hopes she keeps appearing on the right list.

Robert Lukasiewicz: Supply costs slow his Sandy rebuild

Turning a profit by delivering meals through DoorDash has morphed into a complex math equation.

Robert Lukasiewicz runs the numbers on each potential job. Avoid trips that would earn less than $1 a mile. Stick to a quarter tank of gas a day for his 17-year-old Chevy Silverado, not exactly a fuel efficient vehicle.

“When I started last December, I was working as many hours as I could and would bring in four to six hundred bucks [per week]," said Lukasiewicz, 59. “But even then I was burning $300 a week in fuel. And when my rent is $1,600, how much does that leave me with?"

Even more crushing, though, is how inflation increased costs for lumber, materials and labor. It’s been a decade since Superstorm Sandy ravaged his shingled, three-story home in Atlantic City situated four blocks from the boardwalk and the fourth house off of the inland thoroughfare. At this rate, who knows when he’ll have the money to finish repairs and move his family back in.

He periodically drives the 25 minutes from his Somers Point rental to the Atlantic City house — where his mother, aunt and uncle grew up and where he raised his children — to cut the grass, check the mail, and “make sure the place is still standing.”

Robert Lukasiewicz stands in his family's Atlantic City home that was heavily damaged by Superstorm Sandy.  Inflation is making the costs to repair the home even more expensive.
Robert Lukasiewicz stands in his family's Atlantic City home that was heavily damaged by Superstorm Sandy. Inflation is making the costs to repair the home even more expensive.

Lukasiewicz no longer tosses through nightmares, but the ordeal of trying to recover and rebuild continues.

A contractor reneged on a deal. The government demanded back $96,000 that he can’t afford to pay, though thankfully the governor froze the collection of clawbacks, at least for now. His hopes were dashed when his family didn’t qualify for supplemental aid to help Sandy families rebuild. These blows came as Lukasiewicz lost his mother, father and aunt in succession after spending years as their caregivers.

A nonprofit helped them install temporary framing and windows, but the house "is just a gut job down to the studs," said Lukasiewicz, who is a member of the grassroots group New Jersey Organizing Project. The home needs permanent framing, siding, electrical, plumbing, running water, drywall, insulation, fixtures and mold remediation, he said.

"Everything has increased beyond the reach of mainstream families," Lukasiewicz said. "You can’t walk into a Home Depot and buy a three-quarter-inch 4x8 sheet of plywood for $25 or even $30 anymore. They are anywhere from $60 to $70 for a board. That’s huge because how many boards do you need to sheet a property?"

In the summertime, Lukasiewicz sells ice cream on the beach, which helps him catch up on the property taxes he still has to pay on a "shell" of an uninhabitable house.

"We poured through our life savings, our credit was destroyed, I'm swinging on the end of a fricking rope," Lukasiewicz said.

"It's tough living on the edge."

Ashley Balcerzak is a reporter covering affordable housing and its intersection of how we live in New Jersey. For unlimited access to her work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: balcerzaka@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @abalcerzak 

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Inflation in NJ: How 5 families are coping with rising costs