A few years ago, Raymond Libby felt sorry for the people living in a nearby housing project who seemed to be struggling just to get by.

But today, as he points to a rusting automobile in his driveway and repairs needed around his house, he only shrugs his shoulders and sighs.

"What I'd really like to do," he says halfheartedly, "is to buy a moped, and then take the money I save in gas and do some of the things that need to be done around here."

But for Libby, his wife Germiane and their three children, buying anything these days is no simple matter. Spending money will take careful planning -- planning that will include deciding whether to stop using electricity for non-essentials and whether to cut more of the weekly food budget.

"I never dreamed I'd be sitting here talking about cutting out electricity and using kerosene lights for my home," he says, raising his voice above the crying of his nine-month son, who squirms in his lap. 'But I know how it all works now -- it creeps up on you and hits you. And it hits you where it hurts."

"It" is inflation. And in Maine, where a laborer's wages are often low and winter living expenses are almost always high, inflation is much more than just an abstract term. "It's something you can actually feel every day," says Libby. "And believe me, it isn't a good feeling."

Libby, 39, owns a modest ranch-style near the center of this small textile mill city, about 20 miles south of Portland. An ex-hockey player, he works in the stitching room of a local shoe factory, earning $4.42 an hour and working no more than 40 hours a week.

Although Germaine Libby at one time worked in the same shoe factory, she now stays home because of a physical disability. And with one pay check coming in each week, Libby says, "we're always borrowing from next week to get by this week." The Libbys have used their son's $35 a week paper route to help with the family budget.

"I even receive monthly (Aid for Families with Dependent Children) benefits," says Germaine Libby, "and it still comes down to the penny -- if we're lucky."

The Libbys spend between $75 and $85 a week on groceries, $100 a month for oil and nearly $50 a month for electricity. They received $200 this winter in emergency fuel assistance from the state.

For Maine, the past winter has been mild. Temperatures seldom dropped below zero, and except for one major snowstorm, snowfall has been light. But with heating oil costing nearly $1 a gallon and a cord of wood between $60 and $80, Libby observes, "there's no cheap way out of it."

Libby may be right. Other families earning twice as much are beginning to feel more than a pinching sensation from the economy.

"I don't ever remember economic times this rough for us," says Paul Legere, a foreman in a textile mill in Sanford, a mill town about 50 miles south of Portland.

Legere, 43, owns a ranch home in a quiet residential section of town, has an above-ground swimming pool in his back yard and owns a recreational camper.

"But," he laments, rolling his eyes in the direction of the driveway, "I don't think I'll be using that camper much this year -- I may even have to sell it."

"With four kids and $100-a-week grocery bill," says his wife Rita, who is a teacher in Sanford, "the $26,000 we earn a year doesn't go very far."

The Legeres have not had to consider any drastic cutback in their home budget to save money. "But all of our kids work," she says, "and believe me, we have to borrow from time to time."

Because the winter has been mild, "we've managed to keep our fuel bills down to a little over $100 a month," explains Rita Legere. "We've kept our thermostats down so that we have to wear sweaters, and we've tried to conserve wherever we can."

Legere even installed a home-made solar panel on the front of his home to save oil this winter. "It works fine," he observes, but adds quickly, "when the sun shines."

Legere, who has lived in the area most of his life, says he's "frustrated" at not being able to get ahead.

"We're making ends meet," he says, "but we can't save and we can't seem to find that little extra at the end of the week that we think we deserve.

"You work hard for 20 years, and you hope to be doing better all the time, but these days, who can get ahead? Most people are going backwards."