NEW YORK Florida dental products salesman Jean Laborde doesn't take as many fishing trips as he used to. Student Kaitlin Kelly has started carpooling to work and school in New Jersey with friends.
Across the nation, people already struggling with rising food prices, weak wage growth and falling home values are finding ways to manage the soaring cost of gasoline. They're combining errands, sharing rides, eliminating pleasure trips and using public transit more.
With these changes, U.S. consumers caused a remarkable 1 percent drop in gas consumption during the last eight-week period, compared with a year ago. Gas use should be rising 1.5 percent annually just to keep up with the population. The last time a drop that large was recorded was in early 1997.
As gas prices rose to $2 a gallon and $3 a gallon, Americans were expected to trade in their sport utility vehicles or drive less, but the strong economy kept pumps busy. When gas prices hit a record $3.23 a gallon last May, Americans shrugged it off as another temporary spike, but that was before the economy spiraled downward.
Things are different now that the economy has soured. Sharply higher prices for food and other basic goods and weak home prices that limit the ability to cash out equity for spending money are wearing consumers down.
"In the past, their budgets weren't being attacked from all sides," said Joel Naroff, an economist and president of Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pa. "People are adjusting not only to the rising price of gasoline but now the soaring price of food."
With pump prices averaging $3.28 a gallon and expected to peak between $3.50 and $4 this spring, the question becomes: When will drivers begin using significantly less gas? And once we get there, will prices fall?
Experts point to California for one answer. Last November, demand plummeted by 3.7 percent as gas prices soared past $3.40 a gallon 30 cents over the national average.
That drop is extraordinary, considering gas consumption normally grows about 1.5 percent year-over-year just to keep up with the population, said Tom Kloza, publisher and chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service in Wall, N.J.
Part of the downturn came from low-income consumers staying home or taking public transport, but the sharp downturn in the state's economy played a part, said Chris Thornberg, a former UCLA economist who now runs his own forecasting firm, Beacon Economics, in Los Angeles.
The housing crisis has hit the nation's most populous state particularly hard, and employment has suffered. In November, the ranks of California's unemployed jumped 22 percent from the previous year, pushing the unemployment rate up 0.9 percentage point to 5.6 percent.
The country as a whole, meanwhile, drove slightly more in November than it had a year earlier gas prices this past November averaged only $3.07 a gallon.
That indicates some consumers begin changing driving habits between that price and $3.40 a gallon.
The tipping point in this weak economy appears to be "somewhere north of $3.25 a gallon," Kloza said.
The level at which gas prices force households to cut back is subjective and comes sooner to lower-income families. But there's evidence we're already at a point where average consumers are cutting nonessentials or "trading down" to cheaper brands.
"It's affecting consumer confidence, because it's becoming more and more difficult to sustain the standard of living," Naroff said.
"I do less recreational activities," said restaurant worker Alex Magby of Morrisville, Pa., as he was gassing up near Trenton, N.J. "I don't go out with my friends as much anymore...I just stay at home when I get home."
Laborde of Tampa, Fla., used to drive 30 miles from his home in north Tampa to fish once a week. But a recent trip just to south Tampa was the first time he'd been fishing in three weeks, Laborde said. "I've cut down my leisure driving," he explained.
In the panoply of economic problems facing most Americans, gas is actually one of the easiest expenses to cut, Naroff said.
"There's an awful lot of trips that people find they don't need to take," Naroff said.
Web designer Norman Apalis of Pleasanton, Calif., says high gas prices are forcing him to think about vacationing closer to home and eliminating his kids' swim lessons.
While many Americans have no choice but to drive to work because of a lack of public transport options, some find they can moderate their gas expenses by sharing rides.
"I'm carpooling a lot more with my friends," said Kelly, a student in Hamilton Township, N.J., a suburb of Trenton.
Peter Zampella, a math teacher at Snyder High School in Jersey City, N.J., commutes 40 miles from his home in Middletown, N.J., every day with 13 other teachers in a van pool. Despite having to chip in $86 a month for the van and another $60 apiece to cover gas and tolls, Zampella figures each member of the van pool saves more than $1,000 a year in gas.
"As gas prices go up, it's going to be even more beneficial," Zampella said.
Sales of gas-guzzling SUVs are plunging as consumers shift to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. There's also growing evidence that more people are turning to public transport to avoid buying gas. The American Public Transportation Association says Americans took 10.3 billion trips on public buses and trains last year, the highest level in 50 years and a 2.1 percent increase from 2006.
So far, there's little evidence that falling consumption is weighing on gas prices, which have jumped to several new national records in recent days, despite the downturn in demand. Prices in California didn't nosedive after November: They kept rising and now average $3.631 a gallon, highest in the nation.
Eventually, economists believe, this downturn in gasoline consumption will bring prices down. But in the short run, demand takes a back seat to a rally in the oil market fueled by the weak dollar. Oil futures have surged to new records in recent weeks as investors pile in.
The falling dollar essentially puts oil on sale to foreign investors, and many investors also see commodities such as oil as safe havens for their money at a time when the slowing economy is depressing stocks.
"We're seeing right now a supply-demand environment where supply and demand dynamics are for naught," said Troy Green, a spokesman for AAA.
That will change eventually, analysts say.
"At some point, those factors have to give way to fundamentals," Naroff said. "This is not a stable environment. ... Something has to give."