How regional Australians are struggling with everyday price hikes and the increased cost of living

Mount Isa retiree Graham Brennan has learned to stretch his budget to the limit.

The 88-year-old can cook two meals for five days or skip food altogether just to make ends meet.

“[Supermarket items] Bit by bit going up, an extra 50 cents for something or 20 cents for something,” he said.

Without Meals on Wheels it is “difficult to exist”.

Mr Brennan is among millions of Australians struggling and hoping the federal budget on Tuesday will give them a lifeline to deal with skyrocketing fuel, food, rent and other everyday expenses.

Until then, at least, they’re doing what they can to pinch their pennies.

Out of Mr. Brennan’s pension of $700 per fortnight, he pays bills and $250 for food, gas and other expenses (Meals on Wheels is $12 a week) and leaves $250 for emergencies his account, although he admits that this is not always possible.

Mr. Brennan lives in government housing and forgoes treats like going out to eat or seeing a movie, but worries he’ll soon have to save even more.

“I speak from the bottom of my heart when I say that there are difficult times ahead for different people,” he said.

crunching the numbers

According to the Queensland Council of Social Services, 1.2 million Queenslanders depend on income support [QCOSS]and charities like the Smith family and the St. Vincent De Paul Society are struggling under the weight of demand.

Pressures on the cost of living, as Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has said, are conversations that are “currently happening around kitchen tables.”

The single mother of two Minji Lim from Rockhampton has been struggling to find a new rental home for herself and the children (including six-month-old Halland, pictured).(ABC Capricornia: Katrina Beavan)

The focus is on 31-year-old single mother-of-two Minji Lim, who runs two grocery stores from a commercial kitchen in Rockhampton.

A surge in grocery business has pushed up their overhead costs.

“For almond flour, which is the main ingredient in macarons, I used to pay $120 a box, but now it’s almost $200,” Ms. Lim said.

Her weekly food budget for stores used to creep in at just under $2,000.

Now it’s up to $3,200, and Ms. Lim is weighing whether or when to pass those costs on.

On the home front, weekly grocery shopping for her and her five-year-old daughter and six-month-old son has nearly doubled to $180 even after those little treats were cut out.

“So I try not to buy groceries other than what I really, really need,” she said.

A woman in a white chef's uniform in a commercial kitchen squirting icing on a cake
Minji Lim in Rockhampton has felt the rise in food prices at her two small businesses, with their grocery overheads increasing from $2000 a week to $3000 or more.(ABC Capricornia: Katrina Beavan)

Ms Lim has also revamped her business deliveries to reduce diesel spending, which has risen by $30 a week.

Last year’s QCOSS Cost of Living report showed that families spent about 5 percent of their weekly income on fueling their cars.

Managing Director Aimee McVeigh said this is already outdated as the number jumped to 10 percent.

In addition, there is a tense rental market that puts pressure on Ms. Lim and she is in the middle of a housing shortage.

Her landlord sells her house and every time she applies for a rent she is competing with 20 other people.

Compared to their current rent, prices are about $150 more per week for something comparable.

“It was really hard because as a single mom [you] can be a bit fragile compared to other applicants,” she said.

Ms McVeigh said low vacancies increased rental costs.

“[And] that hits low-income people the hardest,” she said.

Downsize mortgage holders

Homeowners are also taking big steps to lessen their financial burden.

Sunshine Coast couple Karis Ramsay and James Porter have downsized from a four-bedroom house to a two-bedroom apartment to lower their cost of living.

A woman with long blond hair and a man with brown hair tied back sit at a table behind a laptop
Husband and wife team Karis Ramsay and James Porter have downsized from a four-bedroom house on the Sunshine Coast to a two-bedroom apartment to ease the pressure amid rate hikes and other bills. (ABC Sunshine Coast: Amy Sheehan)

Ms. Ramsay teaches international charity and nutrition at several universities, while Mr. Porter runs a paddleboard business.

Her mortgage is now about $200 less a week.

“In the end, we definitely chose to put it, rather than holding a whole lot of debt, when interest rates were also likely to go up and the cost of maintaining the home would go up,” Mr Porter said.

The budget-conscious couple shop around for the best deals, like going to the butcher for discounted pet food, and they’re trying to cut down on driving.

“It probably cost me $95 to fill up, and now it’s $145,” Mr. Porter said.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve had to forgo it so far, but we’ve definitely made a more conservative effort with what we’re doing,” Ms Ramsay said.

“[Specialising] in nutrition… I never thought I’d be someone who buys frozen vegetables… so I’d say our spending on groceries has probably gone down, but the quality may have gone down.”

Help forecast the budget

Mr Frydenberg has announced aid will be made available in this week’s budget, including “cost-of-living initiatives that go beyond what we have already announced”.

The federal government has already indicated a one-off payment for low to medium earners, but it is unclear whether this is intended to replace the income tax deduction that was extended last year.

A blonde woman with glasses in a floral dress looking at the camera
QCOSS chief executive Aimee McVeigh says the organization would like to see significant pay increases for those who depend on government income support over the long term. (ABC News: Alice Pavlovic)

QCOSS wants to see more than one-off payments in the budget.

“While we would support any measure that puts money in the pockets of people on low incomes, we need sustainable and long-term change,” said Ms McVeigh.

“We have to permanently raise the level of social assistance above the poverty line, and we also have to deal with the housing crisis.”

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