What is it about gas prices that makes them so, well, personal?
You stand at the pump and watch the numbers roll up and up and up. It cost me $74 to fill my tank the other day, although, to be fair, I drive a 12-year old-Audi that prefers midgrade. The car is on a regular diet immediately.
I recently posted a photo of the gas prices at one of my local stations, which seemed significantly higher than much of Annapolis that day. And, just to be cheeky, I wrote “Thanks, Vlad” in a nod to my understanding that it's the Russian invasion of Ukraine that has destabilized world markets, including fuel.
The social media response was visceral.
There was the expected: “Thanks, Biden!”
The patriotic: “I think sarcastically thanking Vlad Putin is more appropriate. Unless you would have preferred the world silently wring their hands as he invaded Ukraine. Kinda wonder where he would have stopped without opposition.”
Patriotic and environmental: “We have capitulated to Putin’s aggressive moves for over 20 years. It’s time to stop. Time to drive less and walk/bike more.”
Aggressive: “We can deal with it. We’ve blown past $4.00 a gallon before, in the decades past. Some folks have really short memories … Folks in Ukraine have it far worse than us. Pull up your big girl panties and quit whining about gas prices.”
And then there was one that blew right past the meaning of a worst-case scenario: “When WWIII begins, the U.S. will not be able to unite against a common enemy- half of us will be bitching about ‘freedom’ and gas prices."
Figuring out gas prices and how to adjust your costs isn't rocket science. Anyone who's paid attention through spikes and drops -- the drops get far less attention -- has learned some lessons.
Here's what I've learned.
Sunday, gas prices in the Annapolis area were averaging $4.325, according to the AAA Fuelfinder site. The lowest price was $4.109 at Sam's Club, but you must pay a $45 annual membership fee. The highest price was $4.699 at the Forrest Drive Citgo (yes, they spell it with a double r).
You could drive across town seeking the lowest price, and if you're driving a lot for work or vacation, you probably already know the places to buy gas for the lowest price along your commute. The trip would save you a few dollars at the pump, but figure in the cost of driving to that cross-town discount in both fuel and time.
Whether that strategy makes sense is a judgment call.
If you're traveling, you can use phone apps like GasBuddy or AAA to find the lowest price, but beware that GasBuddy was outed a few years ago by Car & Driver for selling your data. Wirecutter, the New York Times consumer service, reported Friday that it's still happening. That means more spam.
Navigation apps like Google Maps and Waze also allow you to search for the best prices, usually by tapping on a fuel pump icon. The good ones will give you some idea of how dated the price is. With prices volatile things can change as much as a dime per gallon in a day.
Most of what goes into prices at individual locations around town is driven by the cost of fuel delivered. Gas retailers tend to make a very slim margin on what they're selling at the pump and have long-term contracts with one supplier.
When that tanker truck arrives, the cost of the oil, the refinery process, transporting the oil are all built-in. So are the taxes.
Just for fun, this is the 100th anniversary of the gas tax in Maryland. Good to know, right?
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and leaders in the General Assembly are moving quickly to pause the state's 37-cent gas tax for 30 days, but there's no guarantee how much of that you'll see that at the pump.
Station owners consider several factors unique to them before changing the price.
Competition with surrounding stations can either keep equal prices or set off jockeying to draw customers. A station near long-stay hotels can charge more because the clientele tends to be transitory, and many drivers are using corporate cards that shift the pain to the boss.
If a station owner is leasing the space or paying off a loan, he's paying that expense or some of it out of gas sales. The more expensive the real estate, the more costs there are to potentially pass on to customers.
Why is the Citgo on Forest Drive so consistently the highest in Annapolis? It could be ownership, or the proportion of revenue comes from gas compared to food sold there or other services.
It could be the station is exceptionally convenient for people nearby, and they're willing to pay the extra money. Consumers form relationships where they spend their money, and loyalty counts in shopping patterns.
If someone is gouging gas prices, which means raising them beyond the fuel cost and a reasonable profit, there isn't much recourse right now. The Maryland Attorney General can step in if the governor declares a state of emergency exists, but that hasn't happened.
One way to save on the price of a gallon is to hit the ATM before filling up. The cash price is almost always lower, and stations such as Bowen's on Forest Drive that only accept cash will see their lines grow as credit card prices remain high.
That will add ATM fees, though, so do the math.
There also are discounts for services, such as a car wash or buying on certain days. Different oil companies offer fuel reward cards with discounts, too.
Using programs like those offered at Giant and Safeway, where you earn money off a gallon of gas with each $100 purchase, can be helpful. But a single person has to buy a lot of groceries weekly to get 20 cents off the price. This may be the only benefit of inflation in food costs.
Knowing when the prices will adjust can help. Some stations change prices daily to bring people in on slow days or squeeze out more profit from peak travel times.
A 2019 study by GasBuddy for USA Today found that Tuesday is the cheapest day of the week to fill up in Maryland. Wednesday is currently the worst.
There are ways to save on gas that don't involve shopping around or using price comparison apps and discounts. You can drive less. Taking steps through combining trips, carpooling, bicycling, taking mass transit - but those are all changes you have to be able and willing to accept.
Common car wisdom says that you benefit from keeping your car running well, inflating tires properly and driving without lots of rapid acceleration. Keeping your tank full can insulate you a bit from experiencing the shock of a full tank as prices rise.
When the nation instituted a national 55 mph speed limit in 1974, it was in response to the oil crisis of the moment. Thinking at the time pinned that speed as best for saving fuel. Going 55 on most highways today can be dangerous because many have 65 mph limits and the actual speed can be 10 or 15 mph more.
Consumer Reports says 75 mph is the point where increased wind resistance means today's vehicles start to burn fuel at a higher rate.
And, of course, there always is the electric car. It seems like we're all headed that way eventually, but wait times for getting a new model are likely to grow the longer the high prices stay in place.
You’ve undoubtedly heard the shouting over gas prices at the national level. Conservatives are blaming President Joe Biden for finally quashing the Keystone Pipeline and liberals fretting about sudden U.S. negotiations with the Venezuelan dictatorship, which has some of the largest oil reserves in the world.
That's politics. Yes, the cost of a fillup is $20 higher than six months ago. That's also when the economy started to heat up, people started driving more and demand skyrocketed. Are oil companies banking record profits? Yes. But they also had record losses when demand was in the pandemic basement.
Once again, it's the market driving oil and gas prices.
Want to understand all this? Find an expert. Here’s one I like. Mosheh Oinounou writes the Mo News newsletter on Bulletin, going behind headlines for a deep dive into how oil prices actually work. He recently did it for oil prices.
“One of the ripple effects of the war in Ukraine is that prices at the pump, which were already nearing record highs, have now hit all-time records-- $4.25 a gallon, per AAA-- and are expected to stay there for awhile.”
He offers a more detailed explanation. It’s worth reading at monews.bulletin.com if you want to avoid hyperbole. Get the facts.
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