Rising fuel and food prices are blunting the gains from the economic recovery, hurting Americans’ ability to save and weighing on consumer sentiment, according to a new survey conducted for the American Institute of CPAs by Harris Interactive.

With oil at a 2.5-year high, 6 in 10 Americans have changed their behavior to contend with surging prices at the pump, according to the survey. Of those who have made changes, 78 percent are traveling less, 58 percent are cutting back elsewhere and 53 percent are consolidating trips.

The national phone survey of 1,005 adults was conducted March 23-27 in advance of Financial Literacy Month in April. 

Almost half of Americans (48 percent) have also modified their behavior because of higher food costs. Not only are they eating at home more often (72 percent), switching to generic or store brands (66 percent), and using coupons more often (56 percent), many of those who have modified their behavior report changing their diets (49 percent), growing their own food (35 percent), or shopping at farmers’ markets more frequently (35 percent).

“The American economy seems to be improving, but many Americans say they are not yet on solid footing,” said Jordan Amin, chair of the National CPA Financial Literacy Commission. “They face fundamental budgeting challenges brought about by basic needs — food and transportation — that are dampening benefits of the recovery.”

Indeed, only 16 percent of Americans feel better off financially than they did a year ago, according to the survey. Twenty-nine percent feel worse off, and 54 percent are about the same financially. A majority of Americans, 56 percent, don’t feel like they’re able to save. And only 15 percent are splurging more on “fun” purchases like meals out and gifts for the kids than they were a year ago.

“If there is a silver lining here, it is that many Americans seem to be adjusting their lifestyles to manage budget strains rather than using debt to close the gap,” Amin said. “Positive changes like this are so important to achieving long-term financial well-being. Fuel and food prices are stinging all of us. Tacking on double-digit credit card interest only extends and exacerbates the pain.”

Americans are optimistic that their finances will be better in the future, according to the survey. More than twice as many, 35 percent, believe they will be better off rather than worse off, 14 percent, in a year.

The National CPA Financial Literacy Commission offers these tips to help make that hope a reality:

• Carpool. Always think about ways to share a ride—and not just to work. Perhaps you’re heading to a spring wedding. Check with other guests to see if you can share a ride. Talk with neighbors before heading to the grocery store, shopping mall or school event. Saving one gallon of gas a day adds up to $25.50 per week, based on current average rates, or $1,325 on an annualized basis.

• Check benefits. If you commute to work using public transportation or van pool, check to see if your employer offers a pretax plan for transportation benefits. By buying your transportation to the office through such a plan, you can use pretax dollars, saving at a minimum your marginal federal tax rate on such expenses.

• Can food. During the summer, stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables from the farmers’ market and can or freeze extras for the winter. You’ll eat healthier and save during the winter months.

The National CPA Financial Literacy Commission oversees two programs to help Americans achieve financial well-being. The first, 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy (www.360financialliteracy.org), is a volunteer effort of the CPA profession to educate Americans about financial issues affecting them at 10 life stages, from childhood to retirement, and includes free information and tools on budgeting and cost management.

A second program, Feed the Pig (www.feedthepig.org), created with the Advertising Council, encourages Americans aged 25 to 34 to begin preparing for long-term financial security. Ad Council research has shown that individuals who have seen or heard a Feed the Pig public service announcement are more likely to change their financial behavior for the better.

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