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How Much Has the Cost of Living Changed Since the 1960s? A Little Trivia

written by: Olivia Emisar•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 8/25/2011

In one word: Drastically! As fun as it is to compare prices of common items and laugh at how little things cost back then, there are items that cost less in today's economy, work better and are more accessible to the general public than in decades past.

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    1960s Historical Events

    The 1960s were a tumultuous time of change in the United States. Young people led the revolt against unquestioned society structures and fought for civil rights.

    There were protests against wars, environmental pollution, violations of civil rights, integration, equality, education and animal rights. Strides were made in technological advances with a walk on the moon and the condemnation of apartheid by the United Nations.

    1961 saw the beginning of construction of the Berlin wall. American soldiers deployed to the quagmire we know as the Vietnam War and defection of our citizens to neighboring Canada began in earnest in the mid 60s.

    Diapers - The first disposable diaper was mass-produced by Pampers in 1961.

    Amusement Parks - Six Flags opened their first park in Texas and the general admission was $2.75 per person. The average cost today is $20.00 or more if we add the cost of parking at their various outlets.

    Movies - Going to the movies in the 1960s would set someone back $0.25. This may seem a bargain by today's standards but we need to realize that the minimum wage in 1960 was $1.25 and today it's $7.25.

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    Income and Expenses

    Annual Household Income - Under $6,000. In 2011, the average annual household income is above $50,000.

    Stamps - First class mail cost 5 cents.

    Public Phones - Have you ever heard the expression "drop a dime?" That's because that was the cost of a phone call.

    studebaker Cars - The average car cost less than $3,000, depending on the model and make. A Chevy Impala station wagon was priced under $3,000 and there was room for negotiation.

    Gasoline: For the price of 0.31 cents a gallon, a driver would have an attendant check the air in the tires, wash the windshield and pump the gas. Gas stations competed for customers by offering commemorative glasses, plates and other products with each fill up.

    Supermarkets: A carton of eggs was $0.57, a gallon of milk was priced at $0.49 and coupons reduced the price even further. Fresh fruits and vegetables remained steady depending on the season and availability from $0.10 to $0.50 a pound. For less than $0.90, a housewife could purchase six cans of Campbell's soup. For $0.79 a one-pound of bacon could be had, but for the same price, one could purchase 2-pounds of beef chuck roast.

    Fast Food - McDonald's burgers were $0.15 a piece and they had promotions in which costumers could get 10 burgers for $1.00.

    Housing - Home ownership required a down payment and having enough income on hand in which only one-fourth of income after taxes would go towards the mortgage or the buyer could not qualify for the typical 30-year mortgage. Without adjusting for inflation and comparing values versus actual income, the price of homes ranged in the 1960s from under $9,000 to $16,000 across the country.

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    Electronics

    Electronics were practically non-existent by today's standards but those that existed were out or reach to main stream Americans. For instance, the first microwave available to the masses was marketed by Amana and the cost of this basic 2-button microwave was in the $500 range. Most microwave ovens well into the late 60s were unaffordable conveniences that only a few thousand people owned.

    For those who lived through the 1960s as young adults, the biggest component of any bachelor pad included a stereo system with "high-fidelity" speakers. The prices were exorbitant for basic bookshelf speakers and reaching into the thousands of dollars for space-hugging floor to ceiling speakers.

    By comparison, electronics have become more powerful, miniaturized and mostly affordable. The quality of the products has increased as well and so has the storage capacity of computers and handheld devices.

    When it came to portable music, a small $200 dollar transistor radio was the most basic and "affordable" choice. The perks included portability, exclusively AM stations and one speaker for mono-sound. Recorded music consisted of vinyl record albums played in the standard, and expensive, two-speaker home stereo system.

    1960s television Television sets were heavy things that dominated the family's living room much as they did in the late 1950s. CRT television sets in color were available but expensive to own. Programming was not as varied as it is today and people spent more time socializing than watching TV.

    The average cost of a television set was less than $300 but this was a huge expense for people earning under $6,000 a year. Note: Television sets did not include a remote control and physically getting off the couch to change the channel, turn the set off or adjust the volume was necessary.

    Reception was spotty in some locations and weather factors would completely eliminate transmission. Manually adjusting the indoor antenna or climbing on the roof to restore picture to the set was very common.

    In the 1960s and early 1970s, computers were clunky things that took up a lot of space and could only be purchased by corporations. A home computer was unheard of and the same thing can be said for a simple toner printer or a fax machine.

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    Family Vacations and Travel

    Air travel saw new airlines dominate the sky and Pan American, the first commercial airline was going strong and challenged by other names that have long gone by way of the dodo bird. Trans World Airways (TWA) offered competition for service and new destinations and a round-trip ticket from the United States to Germany was $300. The service received by travelers was impeccable in those days and the high cost of tickets is the main reason for this long-forgotten event.

    By comparison, in 2011 we can find round-trip tickets from New York to London at the same price during promotions, off-season and by doing our due diligence online in a matter of minutes without the help of a travel agent.

    Adjusting for inflation and comparing the value of the dollar, a $300 ticket was the equivalent of $1,400 in today's dollars. Flying was not the norm and family vacations consisted of hitting the highway and staying with family in other states.

    While it is fun to compare prices with other eras, we need to realize that the prices for soda, chewing gum, housing and gas may have been considered expensive by most people and the convenience of electronics was unheard of, but someone dreamed it and made it an affordable reality for us to enjoy in 2011.

References

  • The People History: http://www.thepeoplehistory.com/1961.html
  • U.S. Census Bureau: http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/housing/census/historic/values.html
  • DePaul University: http://qrc.depaul.edu/djabon/cpi.htm
  • Images: Studebaker by the studabaker museum under CC 2.5 / 1960s Television Set by Traced by User CC-BY-SA-3.0