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Gas prices down, old habits return?

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Mike Tangen
Mike Tangen, of Bemidji, parked his SUV because of high gas prices last summer and bought two hybrid cars for his family. The Toyota Camry hybrid can get close to 50 miles per gallon.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Retired school teacher Mike Tangen doesn't fill up at this Bemidji gas station as much as he used to. 

When gas prices started to go up, Tangen took a bold step. He parked his gas-guzzling Chevy Tahoe SUV and bought not one, but two hybrid cars for he and his wife. This Toyota Camry hybrid can get close to 50 miles per gallon.

"I've gone from the $80 dollar Tahoe fill, to the $23 dollar Camry fill, so that makes me feel pretty good," Tangen said.

Others in Tangen's family took less dramatic steps when gas prices soared near four dollars a gallon this summer. 

They cut back on unnecessary trips and conserved whenever they could. Tangen says even as gas prices have come down, people are hanging on to those frugal habits.

"They're more conservative now, after they've gone through those times."

"There's a lot of carpooling going on. We just had two dozen people at our house for Thanksgiving and the cars were full when they rolled in from outside of Bemidji," he recalled. "They're pretty conscious about the price of fuel and saving money that way."

State data shows these new habits may be more than just anecdotal. In October, Minnesotans consumed seven percent fewer gallons of gas than the month before -- even though gas prices in October fell by 24 percent.

For traveling salesman Rod Wentzel of Bemidji, the lower prices are a welcome relief. 

Wentzel typically drives close to 35,000 miles a year for his job. The high summer prices prompted Wentzel to ease up on the gas pedal, avoid passing other cars and set his cruise control close to the speed limit.

Wentzel says even though gas is cheaper now, he's not letting go of his money-saving habits.

"I think it has [happened] with all the people I've talked to... They're more conservative now after they've gone through those times," Wentzel said. "It feels good not to pay those prices. A lot of people I know just are kind of saying, 'Well, yeah, but they could go back there again.'"

Rod Wentzel
Rod Wentzel of Bemidji, a traveling salesman, filled up his car in July 2008. That's when he began to change some habits since he typically drives close to 35,000 miles a year for his job. The high summer prices prompted Wentzel to ease up on the gas pedal, avoid passing other cars and set his cruise control close to the speed limit. These are things he continues to do now, even though prices have fallen. Wentzel says even though gas is cheaper now, he's not letting go of his money-saving habits.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Saving money at the pump isn't the only motivation for Minnesota drivers to cut back. 

Chris Pokladnik is an insurance claims representative from Fridley. He started riding a bike to work last April and plans to stick with it as long as the winter weather allows. 

Pokladnik says the health benefits are more important to him than saving money. While he cut his gas consumption in half, he also dropped 30 pounds. 

"I'd lost a nice little chunk of weight and was feeling good, and it's a nice way to wake up and decompress at the end of your workday," he said. "And so I really enjoyed that aspect of it."

Some drivers have loosened up a bit with their newfound habits. 

Bob Saumur is a traveling sales rep from Coon Rapids. When gas prices peaked over the summer, Saumur reduced his highway cruising speed by five miles an hour to save money. 

Now with lower prices, he'll sometimes drive a little faster, but only when it provides more time with clients.

For Saumur, easing up on the gas pedal is not just about saving money at the pump.

"I decided to slow down to save gas, yes, but I also have some concern about how much money we're sending off to other parts of the world where some folks don't seem to care very much for us," he explained.  "So... I'm still driving more slowly trying to get better mileage, so that I don't send any more money off shore than I have to."

Analysts say prices at the pump may be bottoming out. But demand for gasoline is expected to weaken even further into early next year, with job losses reducing the number of people who drive to work.