Alfred Jones used to steer his sporty Mazda MX-6 onto the Beltway and drive the entire loop for the thrill of it. He knew the trip was senseless, but he could afford the gas.
Things have changed. Jones lost his job, and rising gas prices have forced him to give up driving his car entirely.
Higher pump prices have drained his savings and left him unable to renew his vehicle registration. Jones, 48, of Upper Marlboro spends much of his time at his mother's house, where he lives, frequently checking online job listings.
"You have to make choices now between food or gas," Jones said. "It hurts. It's killing me."
For many Americans with comfortable incomes, soaring gas prices are an annoyance that has not fundamentally reshaped their lifestyles. But for many lower-income people -- often those who work in service jobs or are looking for work -- each new bump up in price means altering daily routines, spending less on clothes and food, and keeping the kids at home instead of driving them to the pool or friends' houses.
In the Washington area, those hit hardest often live in the suburbs and have little choice but to drive to work. Some said they never expected a spike in gas prices when they decided to live in places where driving to and from work is the only practical transportation option.
Social service providers around the region said they are hearing complaints from low-income clients about gas prices. In some cases, they are giving clients money to offset the higher costs.
Nancy G. Taxson, who runs a program that provides housing to about 70 formerly homeless families in Northern Virginia, said clients started complaining two weeks ago. Many of them drive to work, job training or day-care programs.
"Every time the gas goes up, this is a real problem for them," said Taxson, executive director of Homestretch Inc. "They say, 'We have absolutely no money. We have to get to work this week.' So we give them $10 and tell them to try to make that last."
A gallon of regular gas in the Washington area was about $2.67 yesterday, according to a daily survey commissioned by the AAA auto club. Prices were nearly 42 percent higher than a year ago. While the cost of a gallon remains below the 1981 inflation-adjusted peak average of about $3.11 a gallon, the recent spike is hard to ignore.
In the Washington area, people drive an average of 280 miles in a week. For a car that gets 20 miles to the gallon, a week of driving would cost about $37.39 today compared with $26.36 a year ago. That would work out to an extra expense of more than $44 a month.
Stom Saleh of Falls Church, a former stay-at-home mother, is taking classes to land an office job and has to drive to Tysons Corner for the sessions. Soon she will be assigned to an internship, and she worries that the drive to work may end up costing more than she can afford.
"My heart beats so fast when I see the gallon going up," said Saleh, 44.
Her husband, Yassin, works as a parking lot attendant in the District and also drives to work, draining even more of the family's cash. That means that trips to Pizza Hut have been canceled and that there is no money for new PlayStation games and other nonessential items.
"I can't spend money," Saleh said. "I can't buy a lot of things for my kids. I have to save for my gas money."
High gas prices have forced Trica Young-Williams, 26, of Silver Spring to cut back on summer outings with her 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter.
Young-Williams, a contract health aide in schools, decided not to take her kids to a summer camp in Olney, as she had planned, because of the cost of driving there. Instead, they stay closer to home, going to the library and park.
"I'm so appalled by the prices," Young-Williams said. "We've definitely had to be a little more creative about the things we've done -- like finding outside concerts that are free."
She said finances are especially tight because she does not work during the summer and the family relies on the income of her husband, Grant, a maintenance worker.
So Young-Williams said she is choosing her driving routes more carefully and staying in on the warmest days to avoid running the gas-guzzling air conditioning in her Dodge Caravan.
In the past, she said, she would often drive to Shoppers Food Warehouse for her groceries because it is slightly cheaper than the closer Safeway. But now, she said, she is going to the Safeway because the added driving costs too much.
Tiffany Porter, 24, did not know how much she would add to her monthly gas bills when she moved from Beltsville to Herndon in April. She has two children -- ages 6 and 3 -- and wanted them to grow up in a place with less crime.
She still drives to Beltsville for her job as a mortgage specialist, and after work she studies accounting at a nearby campus of Prince George's Community College.
So the commute in her Ford Taurus -- which she said gets about 18 miles to the gallon -- involves dropping her children at day care and heading to work and then school before returning home.
At first, the commute seemed affordable. But as gas prices have risen, Porter's finances are being squeezed. She cannot put aside any savings and has to pay basic bills in installments.
"It's basically just survival at this point, trying to just afford it," Porter said. "It hurts because I can't afford it."
Porter tried taking public transportation, but it proved unfeasible. She had to leave the house at 5 a.m., taking Metro and bus connections, to get to her job by 8 a.m. After a week and a half, she was exhausted and sick.
Jones, the unemployed man living with his mother, said he has remained home for two weeks at a time, unable to find the money to pay for gas. He last worked full time as a production analyst for a remittance processing company in Greenbelt until 2003. Since then he had a temporary job driving VIPs during the presidential inauguration. It paid $900.
When his car registration expired, he did not have enough money left to cover it, so he has parked his Mazda for now.
When he does leave the house to run errands for his mother and he sees other people driving, he realizes what he is missing.
"I'm supposed to be out there moving and grooving too," he said.