Picnic for a pound: inflation, purchasing power, and the CPI

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Money doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It has meaning. A £10 note is worth £10 because it gives you the power to purchase £10 worth of goods, services, or other assets.

What is inflation?

Inflation is when prices for goods and services increase over time. Deflation is when the opposite happens, and prices go down. When inflation rises faster than the amount of money you have to spend, there’s a conflict. You get less bang for your buck (or less sandwich for your pound), because your purchasing power is reduced. 

The power of a £10 note

Who decides how much purchasing power your £10 note gives you? The simple answer is that the markets decide. In this context, a market is anywhere cash is exchanged for goods or other assets, whether that be a stock exchange, a bank, an electricity company, or a pet shop. 

But of course, there’s far more to it than that. The purchasing power of a £10 note is influenced by world events, governmental decisions, consumer confidence, cultural trends, and even the weather (for example, if onion harvests are poor due to bad weather, the supply of onions will decrease hence onions may cost more in the shops).

A picnic for a pound?

Let’s use an easy example to illustrate purchasing power.

Say you’re on your way to a picnic and your friends are expecting you to bring sandwiches (they’re taking care of the rest of the spread). But you left your wallet at home and only have a single, solitary £1 coin in your pocket.

In 1982, this wouldn’t have been a problem. Back then, £1 would have bought you a loaf of bread and 250g cheese. In 1982, the average house price (according to the Land Registry) was around £20,000 – less than three times the average annual salary of £8,000 [source: Hansard].

But in 2022, things don’t look too good on the picnic front. You’d be lucky to get a loaf of bread for £1; and as for the cheese, you might be able to stretch to 140 grams and just go for a smaller round of ‘breadless’ sandwiches.

This example is based on ONS historical consumer price indexes for the average cost of an 800g sliced white loaf, and 1kg of cheddar cheese. 

How are inflation and purchasing power measured?

The Consumer Price Index (CPI) tracks the cost of an average shop for a typical household to measure inflation and its impact on purchasing power. The CPI is run by the Office of National Statistics, which is the UK’s recognised national statistical institute.

The CPI tracks the prices of 700 items that make up the national shopping basket, including a broad range of products and services that consumers rely on, including food, utilities, travel, and leisure.

Even though everybody buys different things, the CPI does a good job of conveying the overall trend of inflation; including price changes, and the rate at which prices change relative to purchasing power.

The Family Resources Survey, led by NatCen on behalf of the UK Government, is another source of data on how the cost of living (including inflation and purchasing power) is affecting people across the UK.

Up, up, and away?

Inflation doesn’t mean that prices continually rise at a steady pace, without ever falling back to previous levels. Instead, it’s about the overall tendency of goods and services as a whole, to cost more money over time.

Going back to the cheese from our example above, cheddar cheese was actually more expensive ten years ago than it is today – at £7.87/kg in July 2012, compared to 7.27/kg in 2022. This doesn’t mean that everything is cheaper today than it was in July 2012. That’s because cheese isn’t the only thing in our shopping baskets.

What about deflation?

When inflation drives up the cost-of-living, the idea of prices falling (deflation) may seem attractive. However, deflation brings problems of its own. Like inflation, deflation isn’t about occasional price drops – bargains, for example. It’s about a sustained trend over time.

Deflation can lead to reduced profits for suppliers, and impact negatively on the wages employers are able (or willing) to pay. It can also leave consumers with negative equity - a scenario in which you owe more on your house (for example) than it is currently worth. 

Why does inflation happen? 

Prices rise relative to purchasing power because they are ‘pushed’ or ‘pulled,’ and also in response to national monetary, or fiscal policy. A number of forces drive inflation, including:

What can consumers do about high inflation?

Individual citizens can’t directly bring down inflation or boost purchasing power.

Inflation impacts different groups in different ways, so your options for adjusting your household cash flow will depend on how much room for manoeuvre you have in your budget. 

Having an emergency savings fund can help cushion the impact of inflation and other difficult times.

What role does the Bank of England play?

Keeping inflation at the target rate is the job of the Bank of England, but it can’t single-handedly bring inflation down. The UK Government sets an inflation target for the Bank; currently it’s 2%. The goal is to maintain some level of growth, without letting the rate of inflation rise so far that it causes problems in the economy (including the cost of living).

When global inflation-driving forces like war, pandemics, and supply chain problems can’t be defeated, the Bank’s main tool for controlling inflation is through what’s known as the Bank Rate – perhaps more commonly known as the ‘base rate.’

The base rate is the rate of interest at which the Bank of England lends money to other banks in the country. A low base rate may encourage higher rates of borrowing, and can lead to more money flowing within the economy. A higher base rate may have the opposite effect, and perhaps even incentivise saving and investing, with the possibility of earning higher returns.

What about interest on my savings or mortgage?

Individual banks set their own interest rates, and may change these when the Bank of England adjusts the base rate.

When the rate goes up, you’ll usually earn more on any cash savings (provided the account has a variable interest rate); but if you have a mortgage, your monthly payments could be more expensive. 

For a sense of how interest rates can change, take a look at the historical interest rates and bonus rates we’ve offered to our Marcus by Goldman Sachs savings customers. 

Start saving from £1

Whether you like the flexibility to add and dip into your savings, or prefer to lock your money away with a fixed rate, Marcus by Goldman Sachs savings accounts are designed to help you save the way you want to.

Resources for dealing with high inflation

Those who do have room to manoeuvre in their household budgets can apply the same remedies to their finances as you would in any situation where money is tighter than usual. You’ll find a range of budgeting resources and tips on our website, including How to succeed at budgeting and a personal finance quiz.

Or, for something different, why not take a look at our Financial Personality Quiz, produced in association with The Myers-Briggs Company?

What does personality have to do with it?

You’re probably already familiar with the tools The Myers-Briggs Company have created to help organisations and individuals across the globe understand their personalities, and enhance the way we all live and work together. 

But have you ever applied a personality-led approach to managing your finances? Now you can, with an exclusive quiz from the combined powers of Marcus by Goldman Sachs and The Myers-Briggs Company. It’ll only take a few minutes, and you’ll get insights you can use immediately to enhance the way you manage your money.

The content in this article is for information only and is not advice. All content in this article was accurate on the date of publication shown above.

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