Lamenting Another Time (aka “Things were better back then.”)

The other evening, my wife and I went for a bike ride around the small lake that is near our house. I love these bike rides, not only for the exercise and the ability to be out and active on a beautiful evening, but also because it gives us a chance to talk. The talks don’t have to be deep discussions about world peace, fixing the gutters or buying a car; they can be about anything.

On this particular ride, I was bemoaning the fact that things have gotten so expensive but it didn’t seem to me that incomes had really risen to compensate for this increased cost of living. I cited the examples of my having grown up in Orange County, CA in the late 60’s and 70’s. Until the mid-70’s my mother was a stay-at-home mom and we lived entirely on my fathers income. Now my father is an engineer by education and at the time was a Sales and Marketing Director for a manufacturing company, so we were by no means “poor,” but my parents did own a large home and were raising a family of nine children, so you couldn’t really say we were “flush with cash” either.

By comparison, I used our current quality of life, noting that despite the fact that both my wife and I work and make a good combined income our house still cost more, was considerably smaller than the house I grew up in, and despite raising only three children, we always seem tight for money for “perks” or “extras.” In my own mind I tried to allot for certain increases in the cost of living, inflation, new technology, and that fact that I AM NOT an engineer, but I still had a hard time believing that costs today were anywhere near comparable to in the past. It left me in one of those “Things were better back then” kind of moods. We’ve all had them. So for today’s blog, I decided to do a little informal research and see what I found out.

1950s-kitchenNow I want to make some clear and early statements about my research. I am choosing, for the most part, to compare 1950 to today, or as close to today as I could get. Sometimes I found one statistic on one website and the comparable on another. If I happened to find one site that compared both, that was the number I used so the data was somewhat consistent from whomever the original researcher was. I was looking for just some general numbers to show trends, nothing more. I am sure we could get very detailed and specific in the numbers, but that was not my intent. I just “wanted an idea” of whether things were as disproportionate as I felt.

Here are the areas that I included: average median household income, average cost of a home, average cost of an automobile, certain staple food average costs, average cost of a movie ticket, and the average cost of a four-year college education.

Household Income

To have a baseline with which to begin, I had to look at income. In 1950, the average median U.S. household income was $3,300 per year. To date in 2014, the average median U.S. household income was $53,891. That represents an overall increase in the average median household income that is 16.8 times higher than it was 64 years prior. In fact, household income has actually dropped in the past 5 years. It has gained some ground back, but has not reached $55,589 where it peaked in 2009. For the purpose of my “study” I used the average median household income. This number represents the point at which an equal number of the population is both above and below the line.

Cost of a Home

Home ownership is still the hallmark of the “American Dream,” and is also still the single largest purchase and source of debt for Americans. In 1950, the average U.S. home price was $8,450. So in 1950, a new home cost the consumer 2.6 times their annual income. In 2013, the average U.S. home price was $289,500 or 5.4 times greater than the average American income. That is a fairly large increase when you think about the actual dollar amount that this represents.

Cost of a New Car

Certainly car costs have increased, and with more and more American’s living in suburbs or rural settings but working in larger urban areas, cars are most assuredly a necessity for most of us. The average price of a new car on 1950 was $1,510. So the cost of new car in 1950 was 45% (or just under half) of the wage earners annual income. In 2013, the average car cost $31,352. This represents 58% of the average annual income (or just over half).

Cost of Gasoline

So, we have the new car, but we can’t go anywhere if we don’t keep gas in it! Now given the rate at which gas prices have risen in the past several years, you may think, like I did, that this would be the area that saw the largest increase since 1950. Statistically, no! Note that I said statistically. It is the second largest increase, but compared to what represents the largest increase (which I will get to shortly), gasoline is far and away the largest increase, by no other fact than we need to purchase gasoline on a regular basis.

Cost of gasoline in 1950: 18 cents per gallon. Cost of gasoline in 2014: $3.80 per gallon. Gasoline is 21.1 times most expensive than in 1950. So let’s extrapolate this by filling our gas tank: 15 gallons of gas in 1950 would have cost you $2.70. That same 15 gallons in 2014, $57. Add to that the fact that we have become a much more mobile and transportation-dependent society and gasoline actually represents a major cost increase.

Cost of Food

Well, folks, we have to eat. I am sure if I took apart the grocery store item by item, I could find things that have increased in price astronomically and things that really have hardly moved at all, but for this chart I chose four basic household staples to compare. Milk, bread, eggs, and hamburger. Items that can probably still be found in the vast majority of American kitchens.

Here is how they compare, 1950 versus 2014.




Increase in Price

Milk .82/gallon 3.69/gallon 4.5 times more
Bread .12/loaf 1.98/loaf 16.5 times more
Eggs .79/dozen 1.88/dozen 2.4 times more
Hamburger 0.30/lb 4.68/lb 15.6 times more

I did not research the increase in the costs of dining out, or the difference between dining patterns in 1950 vs. today.

Cost of a Movie Ticket

So the cost of a movie ticket weighed in as the single largest increase in price between 1950 and today. It was an increase of 22.2 times across those 64 years. Now I do think the cost of a movie has become ridiculous, and I think the costs of concessions are even worse, but my wife and I are not huge moviegoers, so I am simply not as affected by this increase as others might be. Nonetheless, in 1950 that ticket you bought so you could make out in the back row was 37 cents. Today, that same ticket will cost our teens $8.20. Hopefully they’re paying more attention to the movie!

The Cost of a Four Year College Education

For many of us, this one hits too close to home. With one daughter in college and another set to go next year, I definitely feel the pain of the costs of college. College costs have truly increased radically. When I visit my daughter at college and see the quality of education, the quality of facilities, and all the extra things that she gets that I did not, I can justify some of the increased expense, but by no means all, not even near all. The salaries that are paid to sports coaches alone astound me. The expenses associated with some of the new arena’s and sporting offices that are built on campuses are staggering. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE college football, basketball and hockey. I think athletics have a very important place in our colleges, but we seem to have forgotten sometimes that college is about EDUCATION before athletics. Coaches making more than Deans? I think that is distorted.

For college costs I was only able to find data as far back as 1966, and the latest data found was 2007, but I think it provides enough to figure out where these costs are going. Also, the data is provided in a different form than dollars and cents, but still paints the picture. In 1966, a four-year college education cost just under 20% of the average American income. By the late 80’s, it had reached about 70% of annual income. In 2007, a college education clocked in at just under 160% of an average American income. To put that into a more real sense of numbers. I went to a state university. My daughter also goes to a state university. We both were/are in-state students paying the lowest tuition rate. My cost for tuition-only in the mid- to late-80’s was approximately $7,080 for a four-year degree. My daughter’s tuition-only? It will exceed $40,000 by the time she graduates, and she is planning on going on to Graduate school. She pays more per year than I paid for my entire education. Add in room and board and those numbers double. Many kids are walking out with student loan debt that is greater than a mortgage.


So what did I learn from my little, very-less-than-scientific research project?

Am I right to think “things were better back then?” Yes and no. While I do believe that our dollars probably don’t go as far as they once did, the numbers did not stagger me the way I thought they would. Also, technology has improved a lot of things. While gas has gotten expensive, our cars are more fuel-efficient and new forms of powering those cars (hybrids, electric, hydrogen) are advancing. Healthcare has gotten better. It, too, has become much more expensive, but many more of us also have insurance to offset those costs. I do hope for the future of our children, that we find better ways of controlling the costs of education while not compromising quality. That one area more than any probably concerns me the most.

Thank you to my beautiful wife for having a great conversation with me that led to this post. Thank you for taking the time to read it. I wish everyone well in their endeavors.


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