8 Surprising Ways Cheap Oil Impacts Your Wallet

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By Tim Lemke

When it comes to oil prices, there just doesn't seem to be a bottom these days. Crude oil is selling for about $30 a barrel, and that's having a major impact on both the global economy and Americans' pocketbooks.

How are low oil prices affecting your finances?

1. You're Saving on Fuel and Energy Costs

It's simple: Low oil prices mean you pay less to fill up your car, or to heat and cool your home. IHS Global Insight predicted that Americans would save more than $100 billion, or $750 per household, due to low oil prices in 2015 — and savings are expected to continue this year. (See also: This Is How the High Cost of Cheap Gas Hurts You)

2. Oil Stocks Have Been Hammered

In case you didn't notice, any stock or mutual fund associated with the oil industry has been getting creamed for quite a while. I bought shares of the iShares Oil and Gas ETF last year, believing they were bottoming out and would go up in value in short order. I was wrong. Shares are down 25% in the last 12 months, and 43% in the last two years. If you have a 401K or IRA with energy stocks, you may have seen your portfolio drop quite a bit over the last year or so.

3. You're Saving Everywhere Else, Too

In America, we're currently in a period of low inflation, and the low price of oil has a lot to do with that. Low oil prices mean it's costing less to ship goods, or for plastics manufacturers to make their products. In fact, low oil prices have a ripple effect on the price of almost everything. As evidence, the consumer price index declined 0.1% in December, after rising just 0.2% in November. The CPI is up just 0.7% in the last year. (On average, it's gone up about 2% annually over the last decade.)

4. Recycling Isn't a Cash Cow Anymore

Petroleum is the key ingredient in plastics, and with oil so cheap, there's less demand for recycled plastics. After all, why buy used when new is cheaper? After decades of effort and investment, localities across the country have seen recycling rates rise, along with revenue to local coffers. For example, in 2015 the city of Washington, DC paid its waste management contractor $1.37M to take its plastics and other recyclable materials off its hands, but as recently as 2011, the city earned $550K for its reusable trash. "A real fear now," Michael Taylor of the Society of the Plastics Industry told the New York Times, "is that recycling rates might go down. That would be a horrible situation."

5. Fuel Taxes Could Go Up

Many lawmakers and even some business groups have been urging for an increase in federal and state gas taxes as a way of funding infrastructure improvements. And they say the time may be right for an increase, because a gallon of gasoline is selling for its lowest price in years. (Gas taxes are a harder sell when it's already expensive to fuel up.) President Obama recently proposed a $10 per barrel tax on oil in his latest budget, and Alabama, Alaska, and Indiana are among the states discussing a gas tax hike.

6. You're Traveling and Eating Out More

If you're paying less for gas, there's more money in your pocket. That means it's less of a financial challenge to take the family to a restaurant or on a vacation. The Wall Street Journal reported that spending on food and accommodations last summer was up 8% over 2014. Many tourists sites, including National Parks, saw good upticks in attendance last year and expect solid performances in 2016.

7. Life Is Harder if You Live in West Texas or North Dakota

For several years, places like North Dakota or Midland, TX were enjoying super-low unemployment and a migration of people looking to take advantage of the oil boom. But things aren't nearly as active there now. The state economy grew by only 1% last year, compared to 6% the year prior, according to Kiplinger's. North Dakota's governor recently presented a plan of budget cuts brought on by lower oil revenues. This has also impacted the budgets of other oil-dependent states, including Alaska and Louisiana.

8. The Ruble and Other Currencies Are Down

If you're Russian, or invest in currencies, you may have noticed that the value of a ruble against the euro and dollar has been sliding. Journalists reported in January that Russia was looking to cut 10% off its federal budget, which was originally made with $50 per barrel oil prices in mind.

Russia is one of many countries that relies heavily on oil exports to drive their economy, so low prices can have a severe impact on economic growth. Low oil prices have also impacted the Canadian dollar and Mexican peso (both down about 20% in the last two years), and the Norwegian krone (down about 25%.) The one plus side for Americans is that the U.S. dollar has remained strong, and it's now relatively cheap to travel to some of these countries or consume their exports.

Have you noticed any surprising effects of cheap oil? Lets us know in comments!
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