Majority Now Cutting Back Elsewhere to Afford Gas

by Lydia Saad

Appeal of fuel-efficient cars is surging among Americans

PRINCETON, NJ -- A full 60% of Americans now say they are cutting back significantly on their household spending to compensate for higher gas prices; only 38% said this when gas prices were shooting up three years ago.

The same USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted May 2-4, 2008, finds more than 7 in 10 Americans saying they have seriously considered getting a more fuel-efficient car for their next vehicle. Closer to half of Americans were contemplating this at times of rising gas prices in 2004 and 2005.

These are 2 of 10 different approaches for handling the record-high price of gas Americans were asked about in the new poll. In fact, most of the strategies have been embraced by at least half of Americans, with the most prevalent being cutting back on daily driving (mentioned by 84%) and making an effort to drive the most fuel-efficient car they own whenever possible (81%).

Additionally, at least 7 in 10 Americans say they have taken steps to increase the gas mileage of the car they already drive, have made a greater effort to find the cheapest gas they can, and have seriously considered buying a more fuel-efficient car for their next vehicle.

At least half of Americans cite carpooling, forgoing customary road trips, and cutting back on their household spending as things they are doing to deal with the rise in gas prices.

Only two approaches -- switching to a lower grade of gasoline and using mass transportation or other alternate modes of travel -- have been embraced by fewer than half of Americans.

The "Haves" vs. "Have-Nots" Divide

As might be expected, the prevalence of finding creative ways (like those tested in the poll) to compensate for the higher price of gas is inversely correlated with income -- generally, the higher the income, the less likely Americans are to be using these strategies. However, even most high-income Americans (those with $75,000 or more in annual income) say they are trying to be more efficient with their errands, have taken steps to increase the gas mileage of their car, are opting to drive their most fuel-efficient car when they can, and are shopping for the cheapest gas. (See table at the end of this report for use of all strategies by income category.)

In a sign that expanding environmentalism in recent years may be converging with today's economic realities to redefine consumer desires, high-income Americans are actually as likely as middle- and low-income Americans (those earning less than $20,000 per year) to be considering a more fuel-efficient car for their next vehicle.

By contrast, there are substantial income gaps between high- and low-income Americans in the percentages saying they are switching to cheaper grades of gas for their car and finding alternate modes of travel.

However, two approaches for handling gas costs most strongly differentiate the economic "haves" from the "have-nots" in this time of skyrocketing fuel costs.

  • Three-quarters of low-income Americans and nearly two-thirds of middle-income Americans say gas prices have compelled them to cut back on their household spending. In contrast, fewer than half of upper-income Americans say they have done this.
  • Also, those in higher-income households are much less likely than middle- and low-income earners to have opted against taking a trip they would have ordinarily taken.

Bottom Line

The impact of today's high gas prices -- record high in inflation-adjusted dollars -- on consumers appears to be qualitatively different from the impact of previous surges at the pump. It seems a tipping point has been reached.

Although the percentage of Americans saying prices are causing them severe financial hardship is not substantially higher than it has been in recent years, a much higher proportion of Americans today than in either 2004 or 2005 say they are cutting back on their household spending as a result. The same financial pressure may be boosting the mass appeal of fuel-efficient cars in the United States.

Americans of all financial means are striving to economize on their gas usage and purchases, but gas costs are having a particularly negative effect on the finances of low- and middle-income Americans. However, prices have yet to reach the point at which a majority of upper-income Americans are making significant sacrifices in their lives, such as by cutting back on household spending or canceling routine trips.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,017 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 2-4, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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