My father used to use the expression that people were going to do something “by the numbers.” The idiom means to do something in a strict sequence or order. The term originated during the Civil War, when recruits were taught to load and fire using a series of numerical steps. For example, there were nine distinct steps involved in loading and firing a Chesterfield rifle.

The term was revived during World War II in the training of basic operations. There were a certain number of steps involved in packing a parachute or loading a machine gun. As the war ended, the term began to be used by soldiers in civilian contexts, like “checking out a library book by the numbers.”

Dad returned from the Second World War and used the expression in the context of playing the card game euchre. His belief was that most players played “by the numbers” — playing the cards in an expected order. He played the game by anticipating people to follow a certain order. It helped him save the right card and play to beat an expected move.

A few years ago, ABC News began a segment of its television broadcasts executives titled, “By the Numbers.” The segment would take a number — not necessarily staggering, but significant — and build the story around the number and its importance. There were some numbers that stood out this week. Using my father’s understanding that most people “play by the numbers,” let’s examine the numbers and begin to anticipate how we can beat the numbers and win the hand.

The first set of numbers worth catching the eye were 1% and 2% and 3.5%. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics periodically releases figures indicating the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The CPI is a measure of the average change over time in the prices that urban consumers pay for a basket of consumer goods over a certain amount of time. The CPI is an indicator of the health of an economy and speaks to the level of inflation.

Connected to the CPI is another indicator called the PPI, the Producer Price Index. The PPI measures the cost of goods produced in the United States. The PPI rose 1% this past March. When it costs more to produce goods, businesses have to charge more for their product in order to cover the costs. Wholesale prices are up 2% for the year.

This 2% increase is the largest spike in wholesale prices since the year 2011. The number is much higher than what most analysts had predicted. When it costs the retailer (or “re-seller”) more for a product, can you guess what the retailer has to do?

You are probably correct in your assumption, but there are other factors that are involved, as well. Have you noticed what has happened at your friendly neighborhood gasoline station lately? Analysts will argue that the increases have come since Biden became president, but blaming him is both naïve and presumptuous. Gasoline prices have seasonal fluctuations because of supply and demand (there is a greater demand in the summer), and the pandemic had placed demands at record lows. But the result is the same — higher prices to ship products.

Gasoline prices are up 8% in the month of March.

Throw into the mix several other rising costs for the retailer. Many people are talking about the need to raise the minimum wage. The result sees wages paid many entry-level positions increasing. Energy costs — to light and heat the retail stores — is up. The pandemic has created a host of supply chain problems for many products and for food.

And that packed paragraph doesn’t even address the “weird weather we’re having.” Or the effects of social distancing. Or destructive behavior. Or shoplifting.

The result affects the CPI — the cost of the basket of goods at the grocery store. Right now, the cost of that basket is up 3.5% for the year. The cost looks to continue to increase.

The economy tends to operate “by the numbers” — both literally and figuratively. If that is true, then the last number I saw this week is frightening. Thirty-eight percent of Americans have not created a personal budget in at least 10 years. Here are three suggestions to help you “save the right cards” and beat the game of inflation.

• First, build a budget for yourself that is wise and will actually work. Budget is not a word we like to use, but in times of increasing inflation, it is important to know how much money is coming in. It is just as important to know how much is going out — and where it is going. Budgets do no good if we do not, cannot or are not willing to keep them.

• Second, begin saving money right now and build an emergency fund or strengthen the one you already have. If saving seems impossible, try doing this simple task. When you go out to eat, drink water. If there are five of you in the family, and everyone only has a soft drink, chances are you have spent well over $10 on drinks. How many times each week do you eat out? Drink your colas at home where $10 allows you to drink the entire week. Pocket the savings in your account.

• Finally, begin to live in a thrifty manner. As inflation causes prices to rise, spending less just makes lots of ... ummm … “cents.” Be more strategic about how you use your credit cards. Pay attention to the costs involved in your conveniences. Take advantage of rewards programs. Make one trip out instead of three.

From the Catbird Seat, you cannot prevent inflation — at least right now we cannot. But we all can improve on the ways that we manage our response to the economic times, and how we let inflation affect us. Inflation will operate “by the numbers” — maybe it is time we learn how to win the hand.

Tom May is a freelance writer and educator, and a columnist for the News and Tribune. Reach him at

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