Key West, Florida, is a vacationer’s dream. But thanks to historic inflation that’s making life on the island difficult to afford, the seaside retreat has become one resident’s nightmare.
Lynne Allen* and her husband Jeff* used to live comfortably in Key West. Lynne worked as a paralegal, while Jeff was a charter fisherman. But in the early 2000s, disease struck Jeff, which left Lynne and their son, Sam*, pooling together resources to keep their family afloat. Now with inflation crippling families across the country, leaving many struggling to afford basic needs, Lynne is “scared to death” for her family’s financial future.
Lynne was three years away from her own retirement when Jeff’s disease, linked to rheumatoid arthritis, began progressing. His rare condition, which attacks his spinal vertebrae and joints, eventually forced Lynne into early retirement. After arriving home from her paralegal job one day to find her husband collapsed at the bottom of the stairs, Lynne was forced to learn how to provide at-home care, with the help of local nurses. But as the nationwide cost of living rose by 9% from 2021 to 2022 and now by 6.4% in the last year, Lynne could no longer afford to stay home—her husband’s disability check and her early retirement income weren’t cutting it.
“My youngest son was enjoying a single life as a young male, and he moved back in because he knew I couldn’t be home anymore,” she said. Sam now contributes to the family’s income and shares responsibilities as Jeff’s caretaker so Lynne can work at her friend’s restaurant as a part-time clerk and hostess.
Even with her son contributing extra income to the family, Lynne said they are still struggling to pay the exact same bills that she paid back in 2020 with half the amount of income. Their finances have gotten so tight, Lynne said she hasn’t bought eggs in months due to their inflated cost.
“Every once in a while, a regular customer comes into the restaurant, and one of them will drop a $20 bill into my tip jar. I just almost feel like bursting into tears and hugging them because, ‘Oh, wow, that means we get chicken tonight,’” she said. “We worked our whole life. We owned a charter boat. We owned a home, and we lost it all. We were still happy. We were still making it, and then [the government] just turned around and made everything harder.”
Taking care of Jeff is increasingly difficult because “good days” for his pain and swelling are now rare, said Lynne. She and Sam assist him in getting in and out of the bath, navigating stairs, starting lines of fluids, and being on-call to avoid any ambulance fees if he must be rushed to the emergency room. Additionally, some of Jeff’s medications aren’t covered by Medicare and require an expensive copay. As a result, Lynne said that every month, she has to decide what to cut back on as if it’s a “balancing act,” where it’s a choice between more vegetables or more grains, and picking inexpensive meat or none at all.
Groceries aren’t the only aspect of living that Lynne has struggled with as a result of inflation. After she started working at the restaurant, Lynne said her feet began to break down. She grew bone spurs on her toes from being on her feet for upwards of 12 hours a day. Around the time she made an appointment to see the podiatrist in January, she also discovered an abscess on her tooth and her car broke down.
“I had to forego going to get my feet fixed, and instead, I have to wear sandals to work so that nothing rubs on my toe, which is not very safe,” Lynne said, explaining that she’s now reaching the end of her savings. “I had to go and work out a payment plan with my dentist but I still haven’t gotten to go to the podiatrist because I’m still trying to build back up the money I need to keep the house afloat.”
Lynne originally intended to work part-time, but oftentimes, she finds herself working 50-hour work weeks. Reflecting on her work-life balance, Lynne said she feels like she’s going to have a nervous breakdown.
“I go nowhere. I do nothing. I go to work. I come home. I go to bed early because I have to be up at four in the morning to get to the restaurant on time for opening,” she said. “When I work night shifts, I have to do all the breakdown of the restaurant at the end of the night with the two waiters.”
Despite these struggles, Lynne said she tries not to share her fears with her family because she’s the glue that keeps them together. Lynne tends to her small garden as a stress reliever to “soothe her soul” if she has a spare 15 minutes. Aside from that, Lynne said that support from her community has helped. In talking to them, she’s felt encouraged and learned she’s not alone.
“It’s really hard because I’m a really happy, gregarious person who likes people. I feel like happiness is a choice. Even in the darkest of times, you choose to be happy or not, and I choose to be happy, but it’s hard when you’re scared all the time,” she said.
Key West’s cost of living is 51.2% higher than the rest of the country. Compared to the national average, it’s 13.2% more expensive for residents to afford health care, 5% more expensive to buy groceries, and 10.7% more expensive to pay for transportation.
“It’s just heartbreaking to see everything we’ve ever worked for just flushed right down the toilet,” said Lynne. “I don’t know how long we can keep doing this. We’re exhausted and filled with despair. All we can do is pray and hope food and bills will continue to stay at a price we can barely afford, instead of a price we can’t afford at all. What do we do when meat, rice and vegetables, electricity and water become luxury items for families like mine?”
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity.