Looking at the Good Old Days

Ever think of  those “good old” days when everything was cheaper and, of course, simpler? Well, were they or weren’t they? For a recent birthday someone gave me one of those cards that tells what was going on the year of my birth (1934) complete with cost of living figures. I compared those prices with prices now relative to income and came up with some surprising results. For instance, some things weren’t all that cheap and others were compared to the prices today.

Start with income. In 1934, the average annual income was $1,601. Today it is $44,321. That’s 27.6 times the 1934 figure. However, a new house (not everyone buys or wants a new house) costs $311,400 which is 52 times the 1934 price. A new car today at $31,252 is 51 times the 1934 price of $625, but you get a lot more (air conditioning, heater, radios, turn signals and a dozen other things).

However, the average rent at $1,073 is 53 times the $20 a month figure in old times and going to Harvard at $41,616 is 101 times the 1934 rate of $410. Not sure whether you get 101 times the benefit. On the other hand, a movie ticket at $7.96 a pop today is just 31 times the 25 cent fee paid back then. Probably a bargain based on what you get now. Gasoline? It was 10 cents. Today it is $3.66. That’s 36 times the earlier price, but it’s probably a better fuel. But what appears to be a bargain is the 49 cent stamp. That’s only 16 times the 3 cents in the old days.

Remember, the base is the income comparison relative to the income and prices then and now. There are some bargains now, mostly in the food category. A gallon of milk cost 45 cents in 1934. It’s $3.73 now which is only 8.2 times the old rate. Coffee is only 14.7 times as much and bacon 18 times and eggs 10 times. Freshly baked bread, formerly 8 cents a loaf, is now $1.41 which is 17 times what it was.

Relatively higher in cost is hamburger at 32 times what it was. There’s no real lesson or object here except to point out that the abundance and relatively inexpensive food we eat today explains why so many of us are overweight. There’s a problem with that, however. We add to our costs by eating out or taking in prepared food. Back then people actually prepared and cooked all their food at home. Grocery stores didn’t have pre-prepared food. Things were done from scratch.

Lifestyles changed in other ways, too. We’re automated from cleaning clothes to communications. That means labor saving devices cost money to purchase and maintain. Less time in labor means more time in recreation. That generally translates to cost. The theory was that with more available free time we would rest. It hasn’t worked out that way. The more time we have to ourselves the more time we fill it with activities, often stressful activities.

All in all, it looks like income hasn’t kept up with inflation although 1934 was the depths of The Depression. Our modern life is not only more complicated, but we expect more from it materially. Also, not everyone is average and for the below average there are safety nets and subsidies. Besides that we (individually and the government) carry more debt which means more income, but that also has a cost. Push up one side and the other goes up too.

As I said, there are no real conclusions except to point out that the “good ole” days weren’t so different than now.


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