The sales tax rate increases today in Charleston County by a penny for every dollar spent, putting more strain on recession-weary consumers who have been watching the price of basic necessities rise and rise again.

County residents voted in November to tax themselves -- and the county's many tourists -- a bit more in order to fund school construction projects, but the increase kicks in at an unfortunate time.

Gasoline prices are up nearly 10 percent from just a month ago; the federal inflation measure that tracks food prices posted its largest increase in two years in January; and in most areas, water and electricity rates have been marching up, as well.

Add it all up, and you've got a situation where people with limited incomes have to devote more to food and fuel, leaving less for savings or the kind of spending that would help get the economy moving again.

Gas prices, in particular, can have tremendous ripple effects, and political instability in the Middle East has pushed those prices up.

When gas prices stayed above $3 a gallon for most of 2008 and spiked above $4 that summer, the impact went far beyond the typical motorist. Airlines added fuel surcharges, shipping costs rose, local governments saw the cost of running police cars and garbage trucks soar and some cut services.

For the average driver who travels 12,000 miles a year, the immediate impact of higher gas prices depends on a vehicle's mileage. At 35 miles per gallon, a 25-cent increase in gas prices costs $86 a year. At 15 miles per gallon, the cost rises to $200.

That's a lesson about to be relearned by U.S. residents who created huge demand for high-mileage and hybrid cars in 2008 when gas prices bounced around $4 a gallon during the summer, and then made Ford's F-series pickup truck the nation's best-selling vehicle in 2009 when gas prices plunged to around $2 a gallon the next spring.

Ieashia Gethers of West Ashley already feels the effect.

She drives a 2001 Ford Expedition and recently paid $60 at the pump, about $25 short of filling up the 26-gallon tank at the average price for regular gas at $3.25 a gallon Monday. That's a rise of 23 cents per gallon in one week and nearly 30 cents more than a month ago in the Charleston area.

"What bothers me the most is the price of gas," Gethers said while shopping for groceries Monday at Food Lion in Charleston. "It's too high."

The higher sales tax to pay for schools is not a concern for her.

"The extra penny doesn't bother me that much because it pays for something good," Gethers said.

Paul Grant of North Charleston had similar thoughts.

"If it was just a penny, that's not that much," he said. "But the rise in gasoline prices is unbelievable."

Of course, it's not really just a penny, but a 1 percent sales tax aimed at raising more than half a billion dollars for school construction over six years.

For the typical family -- 3 people with a taxable income between $40,000 and $50,000 -- every 1 percent in sales tax amounts to about $115 over the course of a year, based on IRS estimates.

Randall Dukes of West Ashley doesn't mind the extra sales tax so much, but he definitely noticed the recent spike in the price at the pump and has started to see the increase trickle down to food, as well.

"When gas goes up, everything else goes up, but people will still keep driving," Dukes said while shopping at Bi-Lo on James Island. "As long as everything is happening in the Middle East, gas is going to remain high."

Stay-at-home mom Ashley Gochnauer of James Island already notices the increased prices in dairy products and tries to shop for sales on other items.

While shopping with her children for groceries on James Island, Gochnauer said she's cut back on fresh produce and says if gas prices keep rising, the family might have to rethink jumping in the car so often.

"It might get to the point where you start examining where you travel and start cutting back," Gochnauer said.

Katie Howard of Mount Pleasant believes the solution to high gas prices is for everyone to boycott Exxon and Mobil gas stations.

"It's supply and demand," she said. "If everybody stops buying gas there, they will lower the prices and everybody else will follow suit."

Stephen D. Slifer, a retired U.S. chief economist at former Wall Street investment bank Lehman Brothers who now lives in Charleston, said the recent jump in oil prices, which in turn can drive up food costs, is based in large part on a worse-case geopolitical scenario that is unlikely to play out. Markets, he said, are reacting to the heightened sense of nervousness about the spreading unrest in the Middle East.

Closer to home, he noted: "What happens to oil prices does not affect us all equally."

"If you take someone at the lower end of the income scale and they have to make a choice about filling up the car to get to work or paying for rent, the mortgage, food, medical supplies -- those are tough choices," said Slifer, who writes about the economy at "So it does matter."

But the broader economic recovery that's under way in the United States should be able to handle the recent run ups at the pump and supermarket checkout lines.

"The economy look pretty good," Slifer said. "These oil prices and food prices might slow us down a little, but I don't think they're going to derail us."

John P. McDermott contributed to this report.