What High Gas Prices Made Me Realize About My Perspective on Money


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  • I grew up in a household that struggled to make ends meet. 
  • My parents always filled their gas tank for $20 at a time. 
  • After I started taking a long-term approach to finances, I could fill my tank all the way. 
  • Compare the best savings accounts with Fiona.

I learned to drive in a Suburban. It was what my mom always drove: Since we were a family of six and often traveled with a gaggle of cousins and friends, we needed the nine seats and spacious cargo hold. Unfortunately, the gas tank was also massive, so my mom would stop a few times a week, peel out a $20 bill, and send me into the gas station, where I learned to ask for “$20 on pump four.”

We were busy — running to four different children’s activities — so it would have been easier to make one weekly stop to fill the gas stank. But my parents needed to earn each $20 before they could spend it on gas. They would scrounge the $80 or so needed to fill the tank, but they didn’t have it all at the start of the week.

Of course, I never thought much about the why of our frequent gas stops as a kid. But when I met my partner and he moved in with my family, he pointed out that we were stopping for gas every other day.

“Why not just fill up?”

That’s when I realized that filling up was a privilege. It wasn’t until I made financial changes to move beyond paycheck-to-paycheck living that I could fill up without a second thought. This summer, with gas prices higher than ever, I moaned and groaned at the pump like everyone else. But I took a moment to appreciate the financial progress I’ve made.

Budgeting let me take a longer-term approach to money

Shortly after that conversation with my partner, I started thinking about budgeting. I realized that I could think of money not just in terms of what was in my bank account that day, but what would come in and go out over the course of the month.

It was such a simple shift in perspective — one that many people probably intuitively understand. But I had been raised in a family where we were constantly dealing with financial crises. Limited funds were directed where they were needed most in that moment, whether that was for the gas tank or to buy groceries or to keep the lights on. Tomorrow’s expenses were tomorrow’s problem. There was an immediacy to spending choices.

By laying out a budget, I began to unwind that logic. My partner and I had enough coming in to cover our expenses, so for the first time I had breathing room. If I had already budgeted $80 a week for gas, I could fill my tank confidently without worrying about my card being declined or not being able to afford groceries the next day because I’d spent too much on gas.

High gas prices made me realize how different life is now

It’s been years since I had to put just $20 or $40 in my tank. When I was a kid, seeing how low you could get the gas tank was a family art form. We ran out of gas more than once. Now, It’s rare that my warning light comes on. Once I’m below a quarter tank I just fill back up, even with record-high gas prices.

This sounds so mundane. But it’s representative of the ways that not having enough money affects all areas of your life. It cuts through your ability to make logical decisions or plan ahead. It leads to more expenses — like AAA calls and missed work on those times we broke down because we didn’t have $10 to spend on gas.

When you’re on the other side, the right way of doing things is clear, as my husband pointed out all those years ago. Fill up once and save yourself time and stress for the rest of the week. But when you don’t have that option, you’re simply trying your best. Little changes like budgeting and planning ahead won’t make a difference for everyone — they can’t make up for income that’s too low or expenses that are too high. But for me they were an important tool that let me reach a goal I hadn’t realized I was striving for: a full gas tank every time.