The cost of living, then and now

Published 6:59 pm Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Watching gasoline fall below $2 for the second time this year has been a pleasant experience for Hampton Roads motorists. It put me to thinking about whether or not costs generally have gone up or down during the past half-century.

To compare costs today and, let’s say, 1960, a good place to start is food, since that’s about as basic as life gets. And to make a meaningful comparison, it’s helpful to calculate the cost back then and now, and then to compare the cost back then with what it would be today accounting only for inflation.

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Turns out, even with food, the picture is quite mixed.

An 18-ounce box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes (what’s more typical than that?) cost 27 cents in 1960 and something over $4 today. Had corn flakes increased only at the inflation rate, though, the box would today be only $2.13. So, even after inflation, the cost of that particular cereal has about doubled.

The same with a can of Campbell’s Soup: A can that sold for 10 cents in 1960 today brings something north of $1. The inflated-only cost would be 79 cents.

But — and these are big buts — the cost of a dozen eggs in 1960 was 53 cents and today they cost around $2.50. The inflated cost, however, would be $4.18! It has either become more efficient to get eggs from chickens or the chicken farmers are coming up short.

The same with milk: A gallon of milk back in 1960 cost 95 cents and can be bought today for about $3.75. The inflated cost is $7.49, so again, the price has gone up only half as much as the inflation rate.

Like Cokes or Pepsis? A six-pack of Pepsi cost 59 cents in 1960 and runs $2 to $3 now. The inflated cost, however, would be $4.65, so manufacturers are clearly trying to keep sugar affordable.

And if you’re a beer drinker, there’s good news for you as well. A six pack of beer cost about 99 cents in 1960 and roughly $6 today. The inflated cost would be $7.81.

But look at bread. It’s gone the other way. In 1960, a loaf of white bread cost 20 cents and today about $2.25 (though the range can be great). The inflated cost of bread should be only about $1.58, so it’s no bargain today.

Back to gasoline, though. A gallon of gasoline cost 21 cents in 1960 and this week was down to about $1.87 locally. The inflated price would have it at $1.66, so at the moment, it just about tracks inflation, though it’s been well beyond the inflation rate for most of the past decade.

And then, there’s the real big purchase — a house. In 1960, the average house in the United States sold for $12,700. Had housing costs followed inflation, today’s average house would cost $100,143. But today’s average home cost, nationwide, is a stunning $285,000.

Of course, if income keeps up with rising costs, the rising costs are not so big a deal. Unfortunately, income has not kept up. In fact, income is where the rubber meets the road. In 1960, the nationwide average individual income was $5,315. In 2015, the nationwide average is $26,695. Had the nation’s average personal income just managed to keep pace with inflation, however, it would today be $41,819.

And our lowest paid are even lower today. In 1960, the national minimum wage was $1.25. Today, its $7.25, but had it followed inflation, it would be $9.86.

Depressed yet? Well, cheer up because here’s another piece of good news. A television in 1960 cost about $260, and today, you can still buy a nice one for $200 to $500. The theoretic inflation cost of a television, however, is $2,050. Thus, while it’s tougher today to buy bread, you can always watch inane shows on a cheap television built by workers in a far away land.