6 Min Read | Updated: November 30, 2023

Originally Published: February 14, 2020

Inflation 101: Meaning and Causes

Inflation is a measure of rising prices for the things people usually buy. No matter how large your income or savings, a high inflation rate means your money buys less.

What is Inflation

This article contains general information and is not intended to provide information that is specific to American Express products and services. Similar products and services offered by different companies will have different features and you should always read about product details before acquiring any financial product.


There are many inflation rates, but the one usually talked about in U.S. news is the Consumer Price Index, which measures rising prices for the things most people buy.

High inflation tends to squeeze people’s finances, because income generally can’t keep up when prices rise fast.

But low or no inflation usually isn’t good either: it may indicate a stagnant economy.

Investments tied to the inflation rate can protect savers and investors from eroding their savings.

Economists tell us that inflation hurts savers and people with lower-than-average incomes, so it’s important to keep it under control.1,2 For many years now, national central banks around the world have attempted to keep inflation down.


But in 2022, the U.S. hit a four decade high inflation rate with consumer prices rising more than 9%.3 Below, I’ll explore more about what inflation means and how it affects people’s everyday lives.

What Is Inflation?

When people talk about inflation, we usually mean consumer price inflation. That inflation rate measures the rise in prices of the things you and I normally include in our shopping baskets. 


The standard measure of consumer price inflation is the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which is maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS conducts surveys to find out what people typically include in their weekly shopping, and uses that information to construct a “basket” of goods and services that represents what an average American buys. It then monitors the prices of everything in that basket.4,5


Of course, prices of different goods change at different rates. It’s entirely possible for the price of, say, gasoline to fall because the price of oil drops, while at the same time the price of bread rises because of a poor wheat crop.

How Does High Inflation Affect People?

When prices are rising fast it’s hard for wages to keep up. So, high inflation squeezes everyone’s finances, and even people with high incomes can feel the impact. 


Here’s an explanation of how this works that really happened to me. Back in the 1970s, when I was a teenager, my parents paid me an allowance. This was supposed to pay for candy, clothes, and socializing with my friends. To start with, it was generous. But by December 1974, inflation neared 10%—and my allowance stayed the same.6 So, as time went on, my finances were squeezed; I had to shop and socialize less. And my parents couldn’t raise my allowance because they were being similarly squeezed—my father’s salary wasn’t rising anywhere near that 10% inflation rate. 


Not everyone is affected by inflation. For example, retirees' Social Security income may rise in line with the CPI inflation rate.7 But for people whose income growth doesn’t keep up with the pace of inflation, high inflation means they can buy less and less. And for people saving for a rainy day or for retirement, inflation erodes the value of their savings.

What Might Rising Inflation Rates Mean for Interest Rates?

The Federal Reserve ended the high inflation of the 1970s by raising interest rates to unprecedented levels. In December 1980, the prime rate on which many consumer loans are based rose to 21%, the highest ever recorded.8 As inflation fell, the Fed gradually reduced interest rates. More recently to combat rising inflation rates, the Fed adjusted interest rates 11 times between March 2022 and July 2023.9


If inflation slips too low, the Fed cuts interest rates. This means money is less expensive to borrow, which encourages people to buy more stuff, and that typically causes prices to rise. If inflation starts rising too far, the Fed raises interest rates, making money more expensive to borrow, and forcing people to cut back spending. When people reduce their spending, businesses often cut prices to maintain sales. This brings inflation back down. 


Why doesn’t the Fed keep inflation at zero, or even allow prices to fall? Well, when the economy is growing, prices are more likely to rise than fall. If prices aren’t rising, that can mean that the economy is slowing down, stagnating, or even going into recession. So the Fed targets an inflation rate of 2% per year.10


Between the financial crisis of 2008 and early 2021, consumer price inflation has tended to be below or slightly above the Fed’s 2% target,11 so it has kept interest rates low. But when inflation started rising, the Fed began raising interest rates in March 2022.9 Some of the ways raising interest rates can squeeze your budget include:


  • More expensive new mortgages and loans
  • Higher interest payments on existing loans that have variable interest rates, such as adjustable-rate mortgages
  • Higher rents, since some landlords might pass on their higher interest costs to their tenants
  • And for some people it could mean job loss, since businesses that lose sales and face higher interest costs may have to lay off staff 

But when inflation falls back to target, the Fed can reduce interest rates, giving people more money to spend and enabling businesses to start hiring again.

How Can You Protect Against Inflation’s Budget Squeeze?

If you’re a saver or investor concerned about the possibility of rising inflation, there are options to help you avoid the erosion high inflation can cause. These include:


  • Inflation-indexed savings bonds: The U.S. Treasury offers certain savings bonds—Series I—that earn a variable interest rate tied to inflation. Series I bond interest rates have a fixed component that is the same for the life of the bond, plus a variable component that rises and falls depending on the inflation rate, and is updated twice a year.12
  • TIPS: Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) offer similar protection but with a different approach. Instead of the interest rate rising and falling with inflation, the principal—the amount you invested—adjusts up and down while the interest rate is set separately. Interest payments do rise and fall with inflation, though, because they’re calculated off the higher or lower principal. Investors are protected if deflation occurs because, in that case, at maturity you get your original principal back.13
  • High-yield savings accounts: Though technically not indexed to inflation, high-yield savings accounts generally offer variable rates that rise and fall in relation to the overall interest rate environment.

The Takeaway

Inflation is the rise in prices for the things most people usually buy. When inflation is high, people’s incomes may not keep pace with consumer price rises, and the value of their savings falls. So, high inflation generally squeezes people’s finances. When inflation is low, it’s easier for wages to keep up.

Frances Coppola

Frances Coppola spent 17 years in the financial services industry before becoming a noted writer and speaker on banking, finance and economics. Her work appears in the Financial Times, Forbes and a range of financial industry and other publications.


All Credit Intel content is written by freelance authors and commissioned and paid for by American Express. 

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