Record gas prices cause South Shore residents to cut corners

Kaitlin Keane

Watching the gas pump tick toward $100 as she filled the tank of her pickup truck, Joanne O’Connor said she used to drive a more economical car.

But the Hingham resident gave her gas-friendly sedan to her son, who has a longer commute to work and could no longer afford to fill the truck’s large tank.

O’Connor’s decision to shuffle cars based on family members’ commutes came just as the average gas price in Massachusetts crept above $4 this week, catching up to the record national average.

And like many people feeling the pinch, it was not the only change she made to her daily routine. From driving more slowly to canceling summer travel plans, South Shore residents said they are spending less in other areas to make up for what they pay at the pump.

O’Connor stopped driving to distant grocery stores to buy items on sale because it is cheaper to pay full price at a store closer to home.

Leo Cronin of Hingham drives more slowly to get better gas mileage, has cut back on weekend trips to the Cape and stopped buying orange juice because the price rose as quickly as that of gasoline.

Cronin said his lifestyle changes are minor compared to those made by his sister, who left her job at a hospital on the Cape to work closer to home because her commute got too pricey.

Brian Case, a recent college graduate who works as a maintenance man, said he has no choice but to drive for work. So the Quincy resident has cut back on fishing trips and goes home to his native New Hampshire less frequently.

While nonessentials such as travel are the first things people cut from their budgets, gasoline prices could eventually affect their financial stability, said John Napolitano, CEO of U.S. Wealth Management in Braintree.

“It’s going to affect everything,” he said. “There will be less spending on entertainment and dinners out, but it may also mean people have to work more or get a second job.”

Napolitano said the reality of higher gas prices and a slumping economy means people may have to reconsider their long-term financial plans.

“It could be that instead of retiring at 62, it may be 70,” he said.

If prices stay high throughout the summer as predicted, economists say it won’t be long before the financial squeeze hits every industry.

When people spend less on leisure activities, those industries are often forced to lay off employees, said Janice Kapler, chairwoman of the economics department at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

“It can be a vicious downward spiral depending on how widespread the phenomenon is,” Kapler said. Many businesses are suffering now because they have higher operating costs but have not been able to raise the prices of goods and services, she said.

For people who are already struggling to make ends meet, higher gas prices can mean cutting back on more than weekend trips, said Pat Daly, executive director of South Shore Community Action Council in Plymouth.

“People commute long distances because they can’t afford to give up their jobs, so they have to pay at the pump,” Daly said. “Sometimes the only discretionary income you have is your food budget, so you dip into that.”

Some South Shore residents said they haven’t cut back on spending because they are waiting for lawmakers to step in before things get worse.

“We can plan our trips better, we can buy less milk or eat less bread, but there is only so much the consumer can do,” said Maryann McIntyre of Scituate. “I don’t think we are doing enough to hold elected officials accountable for (rising prices).”

While some national leaders have floated the idea of a gas tax holiday, there is little support from Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration and state legislators.

Rep. Joseph Driscoll, D-Braintree, filed an amendment this week to implement a gas tax holiday from July 1 to Sept. 1.

Kaitlin Keane may be reached at