What Is Inflation?

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April is Financial Literacy Month, and our goal is to help you raise your money IQ. In this series, we'll tackle key economic concepts -- ones that affect your everyday finances and investments -- to help you make smarter choices with every dollar decision you face.

Today's term: inflation.

You probably think you've got the term down pat: Inflation means prices rising over time. Well, yes, that's pretty much right. But there's much more to inflation, and it's much more relevant to your life than you might think. Inflation can go in the opposite direction, for example, and it can spiral out of control.

First, a quick review.

Inflation is about purchasing power. It's a way to measure the changing purchasing power of our currency by tracking changes in the prices of things we buy. The national banks of various countries try to keep inflation under control through their actions and policies (such as via the interest rates they set); many aim for an annual inflation rate of about 2 percent to 3 percent.

If inflation is at our long-term national average rate of about 3 percent, you can expect that something that costs you $100 today will cost you $103 next year, and $116 in five years. Plenty of online inflation calculators can give you a peek into the past, too. For example, per the U.S. Department of Labor's calculator, it would cost you $62 in 1993 dollars to buy what costs you $100 today.

It's not as simple as it seems

While the concept of inflation seems simple, as in the examples above, it's actually a bit more complicated. For one thing, prices of various goods and services tend to grow -- and sometimes shrink -- at significantly different rates.

Think of college tuition, room and board, for example. Between the 2000-2001 and 2010-2011 school years, that cost has grown by an annual average of 5.5 percent overall, at both private and public schools combined. Meanwhile, the average selling price of a new vehicle rose just 1.7 percent, on average, annually between 2001 and 2011, and the price of gas averaged 8.9 percent annual growth during that same period.

Changes can be quite different in different time periods, for different items, and even in different regions -- think of the housing market, for example.

Inflation is calculated in different ways, too. Its most basic form, as calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is the Consumer Price Index or CPI, which reflects the changes in prices of a basket of goods and services, such as food, gasoline, newspapers, postage, lodging, furniture, dental services, socks, cigarettes, pet food and more. There's also the "Core CPI," which excludes energy and food prices, as they can be especially volatile.

Another key thing to understand is that each of us will experience a different level of inflation over time, depending on what we spend our money on. If you live in a city and have no car, for example, you've been far less affected by the surging price of gas. If you're feeding a family of 8, you're much more affected by the price of food.

Going to extremes

Finally, know that there are related phenomena such as deflation, when the prices of items fall over time, and hyperinflation, when inflation is at nosebleed levels.

Deflation may sound good, and it does offer an increase in purchasing power and an incentive to save. But it can also hurt the economy, with people putting off purchases as they wait for even lower prices. (Conversely, high inflation can lead people to purchase more, before prices rise further.)

Then there's hyperinflation, which can result when economies get out of control, such as in Germany between 1922 and 1923, when average prices doubled every 28 hours. In July of 1946 in Hungary, inflation averaged 207 percent per day. More recently, in late 2008, Zimbabwe experienced inflation of about 98 percent daily, and ended up issuing a $100 trillion bill.

Learning about simple economic concepts like inflation can make you a better financial thinker and decision maker.

More money terms:
Net worth
Cash flow
Compound interest
See all Money Terms to Know

What Is Inflation?

From taxes and credit to saving and money management, you can get lost in the complexity and abundance of financial issues. But by learning some simple fundamentals, you can take control of your finances and feel secure in your money management skills.

How well do you know the basics of personal finance?

Put your knowledge to the test with this 12-question quiz.

A. Under your mattress
B. Stocks
C. Bonds
D. Bank savings account
You want money you plan to use within the next three to five years to be safe and easily accessible. Lock it up in a savings or money market account. You won't earn much interest on it with rates so low, but you also won't lose any of it to the volatility of the stock market. You can find search for which accounts are offering the best rates on Bankrate.com.
A. Suck up to the boss
B. Get a second job
C. Adjust your tax withholding
If you typically get a tax refund each spring (and most of you do), file a new Form W-4 with your employer to increase the number of exemptions you claim - and lower the amount Uncle Sam takes from your paycheck. Try our easy-to-use tax withholding calculator to help you figure the right number for your situation.
A. Pay bills on time and keep credit-card balances low
B. Limit applications for new credit and keep old accounts open
C. Sweet-talk the credit-card company phone rep
The simple act of paying bills on time and keeping your balances low accounts for 65% of your credit score. New credit and the length of your credit history make up 25% of your score. The remaining 10% factors in the types of credit you use. Sorry, sweet-talking will get you nowhere.
A. Treasury bonds
B. Money market account
C. Stocks
D. Residential real estate
Stocks fare best over long stretches of time. Take the 20-year period through 2012, for example. The average taxable U.S. money-market fund returned 2.8% annualized. Residential real estate, as measured by Standard & Poor's Case-Shiller index, did just slightly better with 3.0% annualized. Barclay's U.S. Treasury index earned 6.3% a year, on average. And the S&P 500 trumped them all, delivering 8.2% annualized.
A. Life insurance
B. Health insurance
C. Auto insurance
You only need life insurance if you have someone depending on you financially. Bob is unwed and childless, so he doesn't need it. However, he will need health insurance and auto insurance to protect himself against disaster.
A. 401(k)
B. 529 plan
C. Municipal bonds
D. Certificate of deposit
E. None of the above
A bank CD falls under federal protection if it's FDIC insured. That means up to $250,000 is protected in case a bank goes under, and you get up to $250,000 of insurance at each bank where you buy CDs. Municipal bonds, 529 plans, 401(k)s and other investments are not covered. You invest at your own risk.

Ashley, age 20, contributes $3,000 per year to an individual retirement account for ten years, then stops, letting her money sit in the account. Adam, age 30, contributes $3,000 each year to an IRA for 35 years. Who will have more money at age 65, assuming they get identical investment returns?

 

A. Ashley
B. Adam

Ashley comes out ahead, thanks to the magic of compounding. Even though she stopped contributing after only ten years, her money will grow to about $694,000 by the time she retires, assuming an 8% annual return. Adam, who got a late start, but pitched in more money out of pocket, will amass about $558,000.
A. Your credit score
B. Your car make and model
C. Your car color
D. Your address
Insurers look at a variety of factors to calculate your risk, but the color of your car isn't one of them. Your financial habits, the type of car you drive and where you drive do matter.
A. At age 16
B. At age 18
C. When they get their first job
D. When their income reaches certain levels
A child's age or job has nothing to do with it. Rather, the IRS cares about how much the child made and the source of the income. For example, children who have investment income of more than $950 or have wage income of more than $5,950 in 2012 need to file a return. Children who receive a paycheck and have taxes withheld may want to file even if they don't have to - they could reclaim most or all of their income taxes.

You can withdraw contributions you made to a Roth IRA at any time, for any purpose without paying any taxes or penalties, and without having to pay it back - ever.

 

A. True
B. False

Any money you put into your Roth IRA is yours for the taking - even if you aren't retired. The money your account earns, however, cannot be touched until you're 59½ and have had a Roth for at least five years. Otherwise, you'll owe taxes and a 10% early withdrawal penalty on earnings. An exception: Once the money's been in your account for five years, you can tap your earnings to buy your first home.
A. Cry
B. Notify your bank and credit-card companies
C. Contact the credit bureaus
D. Call the Social Security office
Put your tears of frustration on hold. First, notify your credit-card companies and bank to monitor your accounts for fraudulent charges, just in case your wallet falls into the wrong hands. Second, contact the credit bureaus and put a fraud alert on your report. This will require lenders to make an effort to verify your identity before issuing new credit in your name. It also gives you a free copy of your credit report so you can review it for suspicious activity.

A. Upgrade your lifestyle: You've been pinching pennies for too long. It's time to reward yourself and live it up.

B. Maintain your lifestyle: Take this opportunity to pay off your high-interest debts and boost your savings. It's time to get ahead. 

Sure, it's tempting to spend the money, but using it to strengthen your financial footing is the smarter choice that'll pay off exponentially in the long run.

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