Every month, without fail, the newspapers echo the dirge of the government computers -- consumer prices are up, incomes are lagging, productivity is down, people are being squeezed silly.

It is bad news, mostly true and mostly depressing. It also is misleading.

But not to Joe Colletti, a retiree in California, or to Gloria bragg, a welare mother in Kentucky, because the reports square with what they know -- that more scraping, scrimping, making-do is certain. A lot of Collettis and Braggs are making do these days, and you have to label them losers.

For all the pain of that reality, it is only part of the story. There are lots of winners, like Chicago lawyer Stuart Nudelman, who may cry to the heavens about their pain but who are winners nonethelss. Nudlman and his wife pull down $70,000 a year and are building a little empire on inflated rental property and tax breaks.

Inflation pinches everyone, popular thinking goes, and it probably does, if not in the purse then certainly in the spriti. But then, how do you denfine "pinch?" At some pont in this story of inflation, rolling along this year at a rate nudging up to 14 percent, with no sure signs of abating, the pinch becomes relative: It is more than you like, but not as bad as it could be.

The United States, after all, has been in an inflationary cycle since the mid-1960s, and people have found ways to adjust. Oppressive as inflation might be, it is as if it is taken for granted, as a part of a system that creates a constantly changing cast of winners and losers.

Last month, Washington Post staff writers and special correspondents fanned out through 10 states and the District of Columbia to see how Americans are coping with inflation. They talked with heads of households, from rich to poor, North to South, large family and small.

Predictably, almost everyone polled complained about inflation. Most said it was their major concern and they wished Washington would do someting about it. But they calibrate their personal economies, calibrate their needs and find ways to calibrate the discomforts and dislocations.

But the shoals of generality become treacherous when one attempts to define the pain and the pinch. In the vast middle, past the extreme of a Joe Colletti or a Gloria Bragg, definitions turn cloudy.

How, for example, to account for a Charlie Scruggs? There are a lot of Charlie Scruggs around. He is a judge in Tampa, making $43,700 a year, and he claims that inflation has him on the edge of disaster. Never mind that he makes more than double the U.S. median income ($17,640 last year). He wants to live like a lawyer -- so much so, in fact, that he's quitting the bench and going back to private practice for the money.

And a Tony Perez? He doesn't even try to define pinch because it has little relevance in his life. He sells appliances in Tampa and is doing better than ever -- $30,000 income last year -- boosted nicely along by inflation. He hopes it continues. He's a winner.

But these, perhaps, are extremes on the border of the big picture. Between these edges of need and comfort is a panormama of individual budgets becoming tighter and leaner in small ways. There is complaining and a wringing of hands, but for sheer desperation one must look elsewhere, as the Post will do tomorrow.

Through today's profiles runs a thread that someting is amiss -- expectation outran reality, hunger outran prudence, the system let someone down. The good life symbolized by the two-car family and a steak-every-dinner taste seems somehow a little more elusive, perhaps for many a thing of the past.

But there's still in all of us a bit of Judge Scruggs, who was talking about how everyone, is going to have to tighten his belt before the excalator slows down. Feeling the pinch. Scruggs and his wife squabbled over family finances. They patched it up with a $700 scuba-diving trip to the Bahamas.

Sooner or later, the bill for that extragance -- or pieces of it, as elements in a confused, many-chambered economy -- will come spewing back out of the government computer an another of those monthly statistics. The Retiree NAME: Joe Colletti OCCUPATION: Retired draftsman, Southern California INCOME: $6,840 a year in Social Security Benefits PLEASURES: Italian food; fighting San Bernardino city hall on senior citizen issues COMPLAINTS: Food Prices out of sight; inexpensive housing for retirees lacking OUTLOOK: "When you put it all together, our future is zilch." SAN BERNARDINO, Calif.

"I'm an Italian," Joe Colletti, 68, said proudly, patting his paunch, "and I think with my stomach. Lately I'm not thinking too good."

For most of his life Colletti lived "real comfortable" with his wife Ida and four children in the heavily Italian Bushwick section of Brooklyn, N.Y. They and the children -- now grown and with families of their own -- lived in a brick garden apartment down the street from a string of Italian markets, surrounded by family and neighbors.

Today, six years after Joe Colletti left his job drawing blueprints for a New York construction firm and moved to this Sun Belt city 70 miles east of Los Angeles, he and his wife are finding life increasingly harsh, lonely and limited. "We've always been used to eating and living well," Colletti said in his cramped two-bedroom apartment. "You're not ready all of a sudden to eat in a poverty scene. You get sick of living on a bowl of beans at night. It takes some getting used to."

Worst of all, Ida and Joe Colletti feel they have little reason to hope conditions will do anything but deteriorate. When they first retired, the Collettis were confident they could make it comfortably on Social Security, Joe's life insurance, savings and investments. But in six years inflation has eaten away everything but their $570 check from Social Security.

"We live totally month to month now. We look forward to that blue check at the end of the month, you know what I mean? It's that close." Colletti said.

Gone forever is the old pace and style. Meat, once a part of their daily fare, appears on their plates about once a week. Shrimp, frequently on the family menu in Brooklyn, now costs $11 a pound and is out of the question. Even lowly ocean fish like cod or sole is usually above $3 a pound and swimming steadily out of their financial reach, although Joe needs it for his low-fat diet.

Inflation is also pushing the Collettis from their residence. When they first moved to the sun in San Bernardino, they had hopes of buying a small house. Now the price of the house they had in mind has increased fivefold. The struggle today is to hold onto their apartment in an aging stucco complex along the freeway.

In 1974 the Collettis paid $189 a month for their place. Rent has been boosted almost every year. This July when they received a 9.9 percent boost in their Social Security, the landlord raised the rent 13 percent to $247 a month, or nearly half their total income.

"When you put it all together," Colletti said, pointing thumbs down, "our future is zilch. Where can I move? Down in the ocean?"

With some bitterness, 65-year-old Ida Colletti recalled all the brave plans the couple had for their retirement -- the trips back to New York, the once-in-a-lifetime trek to Italy. "Now," she said, "we can't even afford to go to Los Angeles to see a play."

"I put my money away in Social Security. I felt after some 30, 40 years of productivity, I'd make it. I had some stocks, securities. You'd think this day would never come," Colletti said. "Who worries about 65, I guess, when you're 40? That's the biggest mistake people make."

The Collettis' most pressing fear centers around transportation -- their 1971 Toyota has more than 90,000 miles. Soon, Joe Colletti said, the car will break down and he will not have the money to fix it. Carless in San Bernardino, the Collettis would be stuck.

On the battered Toyota is a bumber sticker, another reminder of another disappointment. In fading green and white, it calls for election of Jimmy Carter as president. "The only reason he keeps that thing on it anymore," Ida Colletti said, "is he can't get the damned thing off."

"I'm a lifelong Democrat but I am really disappointed with the president," Joe Colletti said. "He's not handled the inflation and I have no confidence in him. He doesn't answer the problems that are killing us. He doesn't even alleviate the pain." - - Joel Kotkin The D.J. NAME: Kevin McLaughlin OCCUPATION: Disc-jockey, Boise, Idaho INCOME: $10,000 a year, plus whatever he can make moonlighting PLEASURES: Few, since his divorce cut him off from the advantages of a double-income household COMPLAINT: His female listeners think he pulls down a fast-lane in-come, and expect a good time on dates OUTLOOK: Grim . BOISE

"WOLD," Harry Chapin's 1972 hit single about a financially strapped down-and-out disc jockey, rings true for Kevin McLaughlin, a deejay and sports director for Boise's KFXD, Idaho's top-rated radio station.

"Now I've worked my way down home again, here, to Boise, Idaho, that's how the business goes. Making extra money doing high school sock hops, I'm the big-time guest emcee. You should hear me talking to the little schoolchildren and what they say to me."

To supplement his $850 monthly salary, McLaughlin, a 26-year-old bachelor, moonlights at school dances and competes with deejays from the area's 24 other radio stations for "remotes," usually $50 gigs for live, on-the-scene coverage at shopping center store openings, anniversary sales and the like. He keeps his eye open for part-time jobs outside of radio. Last month he made $130 washing dishes at Boise State University.)

"The giggly girls you get calls from," McLaughlin laments from his cockpit of dials, sound meters and turntables, "they goo-goo at you and you goo-goo back. Then when they ask you how much you make and you say not very much, they just don't believe you."

College-educated product of a middle-class family in Colorado, McLaughlin has never known poverty. But he does know what it's like to be up to his neck in bills, to wear layers of sweaters at home in the winter to cut heating costs, to decline luncheon invitations for fear of being stuck with the tab, and to stretch his grocery budget with Hamburger Helper.

McLaughlin's biggest financial headache -- $4,000 in household and credit card debts accumulated during two years of an unsuccessful marriage -- has been partially relieved. Rather than settle his bills piecemeal at 28 percent interest, McLaughlin took up his father's offer to pay the creditors outright, in return for agreeing to pay his father back in installments of $160 a month at 8 percent interest.

This fall, to help cut living expenses, McLaughlin gave up his $225 a month apartment in the city and rented a tiny farmhouse in the country that costs him $100 less.

Life wasn't always so bare-boned. Before his divorce a year and a half ago, McLaughlin and his wife, an audiologist, had a combined income of $1,240 a month. They lived comfortably in a pleasant two-bedroom rental house in town and dined at least once a week at a good restaurant. If they couldnT meet the monthly bills, it was charge now, pay later.

The financial bubble burst after the divorce. The free-wheeling bachelor whom many young listeners imagined saw inflation and high interest rates eating up what used to be his spending money. Today he rarely has more than $5 in his wallet. As for his life savings -- $71 at Idaho First National "that's embarrassing," he says.

"Three years ago I was making, after taxes and claiming two exemptions, $620 a month. Now I'm taking home after taxes $634 -- only $14 more."

Song: Prestige Productions. Copywright 1979, This Side Up Music, Writers: Chance Jones and Sid Linard, Artist: Roger Hallmark . - - John Accola The Judge NAME: Charles H. Scruggs, III OCCUPATION: Judge, Tampa, Florida INCOME: $43,700 a year PLEASURES: Scuba diving, other "good life" pursuits and emblems COMPLAINT: "The American Dream doesn't work for public servants." OUTLOOK: Better -- after leaving the bench for private law practice. TAMPA

Judge Charles H. Scruggs III, who wants the good life but drives a 1969 Volkswagen, can't live on his $48,700-a-year salary, so he's turning in his robe and leaving the bench to make some real money.

Scruggs, a judge for 12 years who recently told Gov. Bob Graham that he'll open a private law practice in January because he can't raise his two children on a state judge's pay, said, "I guess to somebody's who's grossing $20,000 this looks bad.

"If you have the education and the ability, you want the finer things in life. You want to reach your potential personally, not just professionally."

For, Scruggs, 42, the finer things would include investments, new cars, a weekend home on the Gulf of Mexico and frequent scuba-diving in the Caribbean -- like the trip he and wife Pamela took to Freeport the last weekend in October.

"We had an argument about the money before we went," Scruggs said, "It's something we probably shouldn't have done."

The trip cost $700. It left the Scruggses with just a few hundred dollars in a savings account which, last year, had more than $5,000 in it.

The Scruggs family, which includes 11-year-old Christopher and 8-year-old Courtney, spent more last year than the judge was paid in salary.

They've got nothing to show for it, other than a resodded yard, a sprinkler system, a termite treatment and a new paint job for their mortgaged suburban house, which has an estimated market value of $120,000.

The Scruggs family gets by on his take-home pay, about $2,100 a month.

The use credit -- Master Charge, two department store cards and a gasoline card -- but they make payments on time to keep interest expenses low. Except for the mortgage and current monthly bills, they aren't in debt.

They save money, but just barely. Scruggs has $100 a month put directly into a payroll savings plan, but he has access to the money and takes it out as fast as the state deposits it.

Scruggs' VW -- the family's other car is a 1974 Datsun -- needed a major overhaul last summer, $500 to fix a car not worth much more.

The judge said he's willing, and thinks the country should be willing, to make whatever sacrifices are necessary "to get thing back on a solid footing."

How about scuba-diving trips?

"You're right," he said. "I'm giving lip-service to sacrifice and within the past week I didn't practice it."

Scruggs looks forward to making money, good money, as a practicing lawyer but he doesn't plan to save much.

"I really believe whatever a person earns, you live on the margin," he said. "Regardless of what I make, I'll be living right on the edge again. I don't envision socking it away."

"I'm disenchanted with the American dream, the hard work, the work ethic. I've done my job. I've moved cases. I've ruled. But I haven't accomplished that much materially." - - William Handy THE SALESMAN NAME: Tony Perez OCCUPATION: Appliance salesman, Tampa, Florida . INCOME: $30,000 in 1978, his best year ever PLEASURES Church work, volunteer canvassing for politicians he likes, lazing around his lakefront property in Alabama COMPLAINT: None OUTLOOK: Unallayed happiness . TAMPA

Inflation doesn't bother Tony Perez, an appliance salesman who says most people cause their own econonmic problems. "I'm a pretty lucky man," said Perez. "Everything I've got is paid for and I don't have any vices.

"People live too fast and spend too much," he said. "They live for tomorrow."

Perez, 54 and gray-haired, wears thick-lensed glasses and tailored three-piece suits on the job at Sears, where he began selling refrigerators, stoves and washing machines 25 years ago. He's been the top salesman in his store 19 of those years.

He works on a salary, $306 a week and a commission, 6 percent of his sales. Last year, his best, he earned $30,000.

Perez and his wife, LaRue, built a $15,000 house in a solid neighborhood in the early 1950s. They paid it off in 1964. Three years ago, before Tampa real estate took off, they turned down a $60,000 offer.

He owns a 47-acre country place on a lake in Alabama. He has $35,000 in high-interest savings certificates which is selling now at about $18 a share.He buys U.S. savings bonds at work regularly.

He paid cash for two 1978 cars, a Mercury Zephyr and a Ford van.

He puts his only daughter through Florida State University Nursing School and is helping Nancy and her husband buy a 16-acre tract near Gainesville.

When Perez talked about his economic life, he repeatedly used the word "lucky" and sometimes knocked three times on a wooden table top.

"We've always lived on a budget, paid the bills and put the rest in the bank," he said, "We think twice before we buy something. Other people don't. They jump."

When Perez buys, he usually pays cash.

"I have a Master Charge in my pocket I've never used," he said.

"I've noticed more people are paying cash now, too," the salesman said. "They are not using credit like they used to. They don't want to pay that 18 percent interest."

Perez doesn't think much of the way most consumers consume.

"We had a couple in here making $80,000, wanted a loan for a washer. Sears turned them down. I asked 'how come?' And the credit manager tells me they send $100,000 a year.

"The younger generation especially doesn't know how to handle money," Perez said. "They expect to live like they did with their parents. They're spoiled. We got younger salesman in here making good money and they're complaining they can't live on it."

Perez doesn't have that problem. He said he's made no concession to inflation and, if anything, inflaltion helps him:

"Every time something goes up in price, it's like getting a raise. I get a bigger commission on everything I sell." - - William Handy THE RANCHER NAME: Errold Hitchens OCCUPATION: Rancher-farmer, outside of Denver INCOME: A hard-won $13,274 last year, with his wife's help PLEASURES: He and wife used to dine out once in a while. "We never do it anymore", he says COMPLAINT: Federal farm policies "geared to cheap food" have undermined the family farm OUTLOOK: Dim for him, bright for his son, provided he stays out of farming. DENVER

Errold Hitchens loves the farmland his family has lived on since 1884, but the 48-year-old Coloradan doesn't want his son to farm.

"I tell him to prepare for some different kind of life, because it's not here," Hitchens said.(So far, Dean Hitchens, 21, has obliged his father by studying for a chemistry degree at Colorado State University.)

Inflation and government programs that he believes are "geared to cheap food" have pounded Errold Hitchens and his 1,900-acre spread in Milner, northwest of Denver. In 1977, after six straight years in the red, he got out of the livestock business and sold his 150 head of cattle. Since then he has raised only wheat, oats and barley, but even in grains he's taken a loss. Income from the 1,600 acres of pasture he leases to ranchers for cattle-grazing helps out to the tune of about $6,600 per year.

He has had to moonlight as a janitor at the Steamboat Springs ski resort near Milner where his wife, Gerry, 46, has sold lift tickets for two seasons to help them stay up. Their combined income last year was $13,274, after losing $3100 on farming and recouping from the ski resort jobs and pasture leasing.

The Hitchens, like family farmers across the United States, acknowledge the inevitability of losing out to huge corporate farms, but they are struggling for dignity while the fight lasts.

Hitchens vows never to mortgage his land ("I'll go out and work in the coal mines if I have to," he said) but he realizes a decent living can't be made off it anymore.

In 1977, Gerry Hitchens said, they make enough money to pay income taxes, and neither husband nor wife has any money in savings.

Not for three years have they "packed up the car and taken a vacation like the tourists," Hitchens said. "We used to eat out once in a while. We never do anymore; there isn't the money," he said. His wife has put off capping some teeth for four years even though their dentist has told her she will lose them if something isn't done soon.

Through it all, the family remains oddly optimistic that things can get back on track.

A high school graduate who reads his daily newspaper and farming magazines thoroughly; Hitchens isn't prepared to blame anyone or anything for inflation, and takes pains to be thankful for his land and his family while playing down his financial plight. But he knows the small farm is a dying institution, and he mourns its passing.

Backruptcies in this farming community are far from uncommon, Hitchens said, adding ruefully: "It shouldn't be that way." - - Joseph Seldner THE WELFARE MOTHER NAME: Gloria Bragg OCCUPATION: Welfare mother, odd-jobber INCOME: About $6670 a year in welfare payments, food stamps, and earnings from part-time work PLEASURES: Few COMPLAINT: "I try to feed the (four) kids pretty good, but things is just high now." OUTLOOK: "It's going to get worse . . . it'll never be like it was in the fifties." LOUISVILLE

"Honey, I worry all the time about money," said the unmarried mother of four.

Gloria Bragg lives with her children in a small, roach-infested frame house in an all-black section of West Louisville. She pays $75 a month rent, and spends an average of $100 a month to heat the drafty, dog-eared house. The family tends to congregate in a small central room warmed by a gas heater.

Her children, who range in age from nine to 17, are enrolled in public schools. Gloria Bragg, who quit high school in her sophomore year, vowed that all her children will earn their diplomas.

The 35-year-old woman receives a monthly check for $215 from the federal-state Aid to Families With Dependent Children office, and gets $166 worth of food stamps each month. She supplements her public assistance income by working 11 hours a week for a janitorial service, at $2.90 an hour, and by occasional work in a neighborhood tavern for $10 a night.

She says, "I work every chance I get. I've got to." Her oldest son, James, works as a dishwasher in a restaurant two or three days a week, earning about $50.

In addition to rent and heating expenses, Gloria Bragg has a $21 monthly telephone bill, $16 monthly insurance premium, and a water bill of between $20 and $40 every two months. She also has weekly payments of $6 to a furniture store, and now owes $83 on a bicycle she bought recently for her youngest son.

Her consumer strategy is simple: "I buy the cheapest I can find -- chickens, shoulder bones, chitterlings, greens, the regular stuff, ends and odds. . . I try to feed the kids pretty good, but it's getting harder. Stuff is just high now -- bread costing 85 cents a loaf!"

But there's never enough money and, while her budget seems tighter than ever these days, she's used to coming up short.

"Honey, I got my check yesterday and I'm broke today," she says. "When I'm out of money, I just try to borrow from my friends. I've got two or three real good girl friends, and we help each other out. . .

"And it's going to get worse, you can see that now. It'll sure never be like it was in the fifties . . . Things are just higher than they were.And there's lots of thing that I'd like to do that I just can't afford. I went out and looked at mattresses for twin beds the other day. They wanted almost $200. I said I'd look for a Goodwill place. I'd like to fix up the house, but I just have to take my time and do it little by little.

"It's just hard because there ain't nobody but me. But we make it the best way we can. The kids don't hassle me for nothing. They all understand the condition we're in. If they want something, I'll get it if I can. Or if I can't, I'll explain it to them, and they understand."

The Braggs depend on municipal buses for transportation and spend little on entertainment.

"The kids mostly just do what he's doing now," Gloria Bragg says, gesturing toward James, who is lounging on a bed watching a game show on television.

She says she doesn't plan very far ahead.

"When something comes due, I just don't pay something else," she says. "That's about all the further I can look." - - John Filiatreau THE LAWYERS Name: Stuart Nudelman and Judy Fishman, husband and wife Occupations: Lawyers in Chicago Income: Combined, $70,000 a year Pleasures: Buying up real estate, renovating same Complaint: Flow of income to their tax/inflation shelter properties leaves them cash-poor Outlook: Oddly pessimistic CHICAGO

They live in a sprawling, Victorian condominium and own four small apartment buildings sheltering a combined $70,000 annual income.

But attorneys Stuart Nudelman, 33, and Judy Fishman, 26, whose economic circumstances make them solid winners in the inflation battle by any estimate, say theirs is not the American dream.

"Yeah, we make that king of money, but I'm driving a 5-year-old car, we haven't done any decorating in the house and we have no cash," Nudelman complained recently.

"We are in a high tax bracket," his wife of three years added. "We have to protect the income we are making. For me to buy things now, consumer goods, is just ridiculous, I have to worry about the future."

Nudelman and Fishman concede that they are better off than most. And they admit they may worry too much. "We both have Depression mentalities," Nudelman said. "You know, that you've got to have something to fall back on."

And though they say their net worth on paper has at least tripled in the last year, they are full of anguish about inflation, that crippler of middle-class dreams.

"We would have a lot of trouble coming up with cash money if we needed it," said Ndelman, a supervisor of public defenders in Cook Criminal Court. "Who would buy one of the buildings we bought just for the investment? Nobody can get a mortgage."

"It's absurd to make that much money and have no cash," said Fishman, a commercial litigation attorney for a Loop law firm. "I work 70 hours a week, so it bothers me to see there's nothing left when the paycheck comes."

When they got married in 1976, Fishman remembers, "we lived like squirrels for six months" to come up with a down payment on their $82,000 condominium.

"Every penny was in the house. We bought no clothes. We bought nothing. In fact we were somewhat fearful because every penny we had was tied up in the house."

But now their rambling apartment, two blocks from Lake Michigan, is worth twice what they paid for it, and their monthly $504.42 mortgage payment, $85.50 assesment and $136 tax bill doesn't seem as burdensome.

Since neither confesses a strong acquisitive streak, Nudelman and Fishman have gone on "frantic savings binges" from time to time to buy up residential buildings in neighborhoods that seen on the verge of economic revival.

Though they owe about $135,000 in various mortgates, they say property ownership is the best -- perhaps only -- protection they have in times of economic uncertainty.

"It isn't that I like spending my Saturday morning fixing toilets and collecting rents from tenants," Nudelmal said. "But how else can we protect what we make?"

There is the possibility of a family in the future, Fishman said. "And kids are incredibly expensive. We'd need a house and a full-time maid, because I want to keep working, and those things cost money.

"What am I going to have in 10 years if I spend the money on junk now?"

"Secretaries in my office wear fur coats. They put down a little cash and promise to pay over 20 years, but they can't afford it. I can't afford a $5,000 coat. But they buy anyway. People don't care if the interest rates are 12, 20 or 40 percent, as long as they can have it now."

Besides strict credit control, Fishman and Nudelman say they would like to see a restructuring of the tax system, a tough tax on "windfall" oil prices, reductions in defense spending, but no cuts in social programs. - - Michael Zielenziger