Twice a week, Myriam Garcia puts snow chains on her 22-year-old gas guzzler and noses two miles down the hill from her trailer in rural western Montana. Then, instead of turning south and driving the 45 miles to Helena for grocery shopping like she used to, she parks on the side of the road and waits for a friend or neighbor heading into town to give her a lift.
In Helena, Jackie Merenz loads her beat-up SUV with juice boxes, graham crackers and apple sauce she bought at Walmart for her 6-year-old daughter's birthday party. The 60-mile round trip she makes twice a week for groceries hits her wallet hard — the food stamps don't go far, gas prices are skyrocketing and to top it off, her husband had to stop working after getting injured.
Living out in Montana's Big Sky Country often means driving long distances for the basic necessities, and people on tight budgets like Garcia, 49, and Merenz, 26, have long been creative in making ends meet.
But with food prices up nearly 4 percent last month — the biggest leap in 36 years — and the national average for a gallon of gas at a whopping $3.57, this economic double-whammy is stretching family budgets to the breaking point.
"It took me $50 to fill up my car yesterday. And it will be gone in three days, probably," Merenz said. "We already live in HUD housing, we're already on Medicaid, we already have food stamps — and we still struggle."
Merenz and her husband Richard moved to a small house in Boulder, Mont., two years ago after he had sinus surgery and the doctor told him the Oklahoma humidity was not good for him. He got a job at the Montana Developmental Center, which caters to people with developmental disabilities and behavioral problems.
But then in December, a patient broke his nose, knocking Richard Merenz out of work and leaving him in need of two operations. It couldn't have come at a worse time, with the rising prices of milk and baby food for their three children ages 6, 2 and 8 months.
"Right now, we're just kind of winging it," Jackie Merenz said.
Merenz, balancing 2-year-old son Taylor on her hip as she loads the last boxes of Capri-Sun, said she's had to pay $200 more a month in groceries the last couple of months — on top of the food stamps she uses. Her daughter Andrea's birthday party will be simple, featuring pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey with her kindergarten friends.
About 75 miles north of the Merenzes, Garcia lives on 20 acres of pristine country near Craig. She's lived there for 12 years in a trailer that's off the electrical grid, raising chickens and three sons. The children are now grown. Garcia is disabled and receives Social Security payments.
Now gas prices have forced her frugality to an extreme. She runs her generator three hours a day, flipping it on to watch the news at 5 p.m. and for chores afterward. Sometimes the choice comes down to paying for fuel for her home and car or buying food.
"Before, I had three boys so I was always creative with a limited amount of funds. Now I have to be even more creative because gas is so high," Garcia said.
She uses a wood stove and a propane heater for warmth and takes housesitting jobs in Helena whenever she can to cut down on expenses.
"That is a big, big help. Especially in the wintertime. I get to eat, I get to do laundry and there's no expenditure on gas once I get there," she said. "It is kind of a nice little break where you have electricity at the flick of a button and you don't have to arrange your day around electricity and gas."
When she's back home and has to make the twice-weekly journey into town, she tries to avoid driving the long stretch of highway into Helena by carpooling whenever she can. She'll arrange rides with friends and neighbors, splitting the cost of gas.
"I can't really afford to drive to town. If I can drive into town once a month, I'm lucky," she said. "A lot of time people from Craig are leaving for town and I'll catch a ride with them. But I'm too scared to get in with strangers."
She's holding out for summer, when her garden will yield fresh vegetables and her chickens start laying again, giving her some relief from rising prices. But she is convinced the cost of gas and food will only keep going up, and she is preparing for even more frugal measures.
Garcia said she'd like to see the nation's lawmakers take a page from Lee Iacocca, who took an annual salary of just $1 when he set about turning around Chrysler in the 1980s. Politicians should do the same now to help turn around the U.S., Garcia said, and funnel the salary they forego back into Medicare and food and services for children.
"I'd like to see them step up. They already have income, they're already very wealthy — many of them are," she said. "Our country's in trouble. It wouldn't be forever. But it would give me faith and hope because I love America."