🖤 Donations of all sizes power our public service journalism Give Now

Pain from increased gas prices is mostly mental

Jennifer Collins May 4, 2011

Pain from increased gas prices is mostly mental

Jennifer Collins May 4, 2011

Steve Chiotakis: This week, we could see average gas prices across the country top $4.00 a gallon. A full dollar more than just six months ago. Sure sounds like a big deal. And to most people it is. But how much do those incremental increases really cost you?

Marketplace’s Jennifer Collins took a ride to find out.

Jennifer Collins: If you’re upset about gas prices in your part of the country, welcome to Los Angeles.

Collins: OK. I just filled up my gas tank. It’s $4.29 a gallon. My total comes to $44.25.


John Gourville is a marketing professor at Harvard Business School.

John Gourville: You know, the idea of spending $40, $50, $60 at the pump seems outrageous.

But let’s do the numbers: The average driver fills up about once a week. So every time the price of a gallon of gas goes up a dollar, it costs an extra $10 to $15 to fill the tank.

Gourville: So I think the actual increase is less than people’s response to that increase. And I think it’s because with gas prices, it’s right in your face.

He says the huge signs at the gas stations keep us thinking about gas all the time — well, most of us anyway. Michelle Saint-Germain is a professor at Cal State Long Beach. She’s been driving 300 to 400 miles a week for 16 years. She stopped looking at gas prices years ago.

Michelle Saint-Germain: I’m gonna buy it anyway. I mean, I suppose if I drove up and it said $50 a gallon, I might be really outraged but it just goes up a little bit, little bit, little bit and I just don’t even notice it.

Saint-Germain’s secretary Kathy Allan put the price of gas in practical terms.

Kathy Allan: I guess it’s you know, two days of lunch.

But has she started brown-bagging it?

Allan: No. Sorry.

Professor Soren Anderson at Michigan State University has an explanation for that.

Soren Anderson: If the reason the price is getting high is because people are doing better and wanting to buy more oil.

In other words, the economy is improving…

Anderson: Then, they might not feel like they’re worse off.

But for people who aren’t feeling the recovery, the increase can sting. And some do cut back their driving — creating what may be the very few benefits of higher gas prices.

Saint-Germain: Right. It’s a lot easier to find a parking space.

That’s Saint-Germain as she pulls into a front-row spot.

I’m Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.