The woman looked at her husband during lunch and announced, "I spent all the money you gave me for food and still didn't buy half what we need." At lunch the day before, another housewife complained that the price of meat had more than doubled in the three months since the fighting here stopped.

The talk is the same in most Beirut households these days: the spiraling cost of food and other goods during Lebanon's postwar inflation, estimated at 70 per cent since November.

Some basic commodities have gone up as much as 120 per cent and transportation costs increased 100 per cent, independent economists here estimate.

"The only things that haven't gone up are whiskey and cigarettes, and that's just because they are still being brought into the country without paying customs duty. There is no government yet to collect them," said Deeb Itani, a strest-wise resident of Beirut.

Because of Lebanon's tradition of a free enterprise economy, the government has been reluctant to impose price ceilings. Premier Sal im Hoss, an economist, has refused to order increases in the minimum wage while warning that the inflation will get worse.

He said increasing the minimum wage -- which in turn boosts everyone's salary would only mean that prices would go up more since merchants here, like some in Washington when U.S. government employees get a pay raise, will increase their prices even more than the salary boosts.

The rampaging inflation here means that Lebanese are spending more money on just living and have less to invest in rebuilding their country.

One family, for example, decided they cannot afford to take a low-interest government loan to repair their war-damages.

"We can't afford to pay it back," said Mohammed Salim, "its not in our budget."

The high cost of building materials, most of which have to be imported, is also holding back Lebanese reconstruction efforts.

But the greatest effects of the inflation are felt in households. One food merchant, Patrick Ogden-Smith, estimated that food costs will continue to increase by 2 1/2 per cent a month for the rest of the year.

One woman complained that she spent $17 one morning buying food for a light luncheon for four people and adding a few staples to her larder.

As examples on how food prices have gone up since the fighting stopped, lamb now costs $2.75 a pound, compared to half that in the fall. It costs about $1 a pound in Damascus, Syria, about a 3-hour drive from here.

A carton of 30 eggs cost $3.70, double what it used to. Potatoes have also doubled in price, to 60 cents a pound.

The greatest personal hardships here, though, come from the huge worldwide increase in the price of coffee, which now costs about $5 a pound compared to $1 a year ago. Lebanon is a nation of coffee-drinkers. No business meeting can be held without innumerable cups of sweet, strong, black Turkish-style coffee being passed around, and the Lebanese insist they cannot cutlurally switch to tea as they are being urged to.

Prices are higher now in much of Beirut than they were during the fighting because the alliance of Moslem leftists and Palestinians who ran Western Beirut set up an informal system on price controls.

They closed a number of stores that were gouging customers and made sure that goods were allocated throughout the area.