Were Things Really as Cheap in the Old Days?
It is easy to sit back and complain about how prices are rising all the time, isn’t it? If I try to picture my local corner shop in, say, 1980 I can imagine a cut price wonderland filled with penny sweets, 2p iced gems (I think that was their name), toy paper aeroplanes that cost a few pence and bottles of fizzy drinks which cost 10p.
The thing is, if you go anywhere in the world you will hear the same complaints. It seems that we all think that everything cost a lot less in the past than it does now. Will we be sitting around in 10 or 20 years time complaining that life was cheap in 2013?
Since I can’t trust my increasingly erratic memory anymore I decided to hop online and check out some figures from the past.
The Woolworths Price Comparison
The Woolworths site has a nice little price comparison quiz which shows prices in 1982, 1988, 1998 and 2008. It is pretty interesting, although since they wanted you to buy things they clearly chose products which have stayed at similar prices since the olden days. Still, it is a surprise to see that, for example a pack of 4 60w light bulbs went 99p, £1.49, £1.69 and 80p over that period. Another item on their list is a 14 inch colour TV. This went £170, £150, £100 and £80. No wonder Woolworths went bust.
The Fuel Prices
Ah, but those things we just looked at were weird, freakish items which could decrease in price due to improved technology, cheaper parts etc. Aren’t they? To find out how much other stuff has risen I decided to take a deep breath and dive right in to look at UK fuel prices. Now, these prices are a bit special because of the increasing amount of tax which the government (boo hiss!) has levied on it over the years. Thankfully, our old friends at the AA have a nice chart which shows the price of fuel and the tax element all the way back to 1896. Since you asked, back then it cost 9.00 for a gallon of whatever the 4 star equivalent was back in the 19th century. In more recent times, a gallon of 4 star in 1980 set you back 128.50 with a 45.20% tax element . A decade later this had risen to 213.50 with almost 60 % of tax. The AA list ends in 2004 with 391.38 and 69.66% of tax. All in all, a steady and fairly gruesome rise over the years.
Food and Drink
According to an article from the Telegraph I found out that – and I have no reason to doubt it – the average wage in the UK in 1980 was £6,000. A pint of milk cost 17p, a pint of beer was 35p and a humble loaf of bread cost 33p.I don’t live in the UK anymore so I did a quick check and it seems that a pint of milk now costs about 50p online at Tesco, which seems pretty reasonable compared to 1980 prices. The cheapest loaf of bread on the same site was about 50p, which is a small rise of 17p in over 3 decades. Finally, the price of a pint of beer varies widely across the UK but the days of a 35p pint are long gone. These days you are looking at paying £3 or more, it seems, which is a massive increase.
Some things have increased a lot less than you might have thought ( bread, milk etc) while the likes of beer and petrol have become a lot more expensive since 1980. Perhaps we each have different types of selective memory and some of us remember the prices of things which have risen most and others remember the items which haven’t increased much.