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Low Gas Prices May Ease Economic Pinch, but Will They Last?

Although gas prices are hitting new highs for the year, drivers today are still paying less than they were even a year ago. Those low prices are prompting Americans to take more road trips this summer while delivering some financial relief to poor families — but they're also making people more cavalier about saving money and paying down their debt.

With an expected active hurricane season waiting in the wings, something as simple as a bad storm hitting the Gulf of Mexico, potentially spiking prices at the pump, could erode the tenuous financial foothold many have today.

Recent research by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that although Americans are spending more on both core and discretionary purchases, wages aren't keeping up, leaving many families barely treading water when it comes to their finances.

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"By 2014, median income had fallen by 13 percent from 2004 levels, while expenditures had increased by nearly 14 percent," the report said. Wage growth has been stuck at roughly 2 to 2.5 percent in the years since then.

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The lowest third of the income spectrum aren't even making ends meet, Pew found. This population actually ended 2014 an average of $2,300 in the red. "These households may have had to use savings, get help from family and friends, or use credit to meet regular annual household expenditures," the report said.

As a percentage of their income, "They spend more on transportation. They spend considerably more on housing," said Erin Currier, director of the financial security and mobility project at The Pew Charitable Trusts. While wealthier Americans can pull back on discretionary spending, lower-income households don't have that option.

"They're being squeezed by things that aren't easy to cut out of a budget," Currier said.

The cost of getting to work — especially for workers whose pay hasn't materially risen in years — is on the rise as robust demand for housing pushes them further out into the suburbs, often outside the reach of public transit networks.

Renter advocacy group Make Room, which campaigns for affordable housing policies, conducted a recent survey that found 30 percent of respondents who were pinched by the cost of their rent or mortgage within the past year had to cut back on gas or automotive care. About a third said they couldn't afford to live near their jobs.

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Pew's research found that the poorest third of Americans spent roughly $2,100 on gas in 2014, an increase of $850 from a decade earlier. Of course, wealthier workers paid more to commute, as well — the richest third spent about $4,000 on gas and motor oil in 2014 — but the impact is felt most strongly further down the income spectrum.

A 2012 Brookings Institution paper found that low- and moderate-income families would pay an average of $530 more a year for every dollar gas prices rise. For the nearly 20 percent of households that get by on an annual income of $20,000 or less, this increase alone eats up about 3 percent — or more, for the lowest earners — of what they make.

The big wild card this summer is the weather. The Weather Channel predicted that this year will be the most active one for hurricanes since 2012, the year Superstorm Sandy swept through the Northeast. Its forecast calls for eight hurricanes, three of them "major."

"If we were to have something like that, that could change everything in a hurry, and that's just a weather pattern," said Jeff Lenard, spokesman for NACS, the National Association of Convenience Stores. Of consumer sentiment today, he said, "There's optimism — but it's tenuous."

Nearly half of the country's oil refining industry is located along the Gulf Coast, so storms there can have far-ranging impact.

"Severe weather can disrupt operations in this region, which can lead to shortages in supply, and historically we have seen this lead to spikes in the price at the pump nationwide," AAA said in May.

In the short term, higher prices at the pump would put a squeeze on people's budgets. If fuel stays expensive for long enough or prices rise high enough, that will also have ripple effects: Retailers will pass along the higher cost of transportation to customers, and discretionary purchases like travel and eating out at restaurants will decrease, putting at risk the jobs on which many of the working poor depend.

"Should we see a major disruption in the Gulf, [it's] hard to predict, but it won't be pretty," Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com, said in an email. An increase in summer travel — the AAA estimated that almost 34 million Americans went on a road trip for Memorial Day weekend alone — could exacerbate the situation.

"High demand could make any supply disruption all the worse," he said.

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If this does happen, the average household budget is in no shape to withstand the shock.

A survey conducted last month by the financial website WisePiggy.com found that slightly more than half of Americans would need to charge or borrow to pay for an unexpected expense, mirroring the findings of a Federal Reserve study published last year that said 47 percent of Americans can't afford an unexpected expense of just $400.

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Data from credit bureau Experian indicates that Americans already are leaning more on their borrowing ability — and that is even with today's low energy prices. For the 12 months ending last March, the average credit card utilization ratio — how close a borrower is to being maxed-out — rose slightly, and the percentage of people who were either close to or entirely maxed out on their cards increased.

A new study from personal finance site WalletHub.com found that Americans barely put a dent in their outstanding credit card balances last quarter, although the new year is usually when we pay down debt with end-of-year bonuses and income tax refunds.

WalletHub spokeswoman Jill Gonzalez said if the current trajectory holds, credit card customers will accumulate a record-setting trillion-dollar balance by the end of the year, leaving little room for error or extra expenses.

"When you look at years back, you find that's the smallest first quarter pay down since 2008 and 25 percent below average," she said. "Instead of paying off our debt, we're buying new things instead."