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.

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16 Responses to Were Things Really as Cheap in the Old Days?

  1. FI Pilgrim says:

    That’s cool, I would have guessed that everything rose in price around the same rate. Makes you wonder just how accurate anyone can be with retirement planning, huh? It’s great to plan, but you better be flexible!
    FI Pilgrim recently posted..October In Review – Income/Expense and Net WorthMy Profile

    • Robert Bell says:

      If anything these figures show how hard it is budget for the future. Imagine a poor beer drinker from 1980 who based his pension plan around being able to drink his favourite tipple when retired.

  2. moneystepper says:

    Interesting stuff. Prices generally increase with inflation, but this doesn’t mean that they increase in each product type the same. Electricals have come down massively when compared to inflation, for example, as the colour TV shows.
    moneystepper recently posted..2014 goals – New Year’s resolutions come earlyMy Profile

  3. Really interesting! Oh how I used to love Woollies (Woolworths). To me another item that’s increased quite a bit in price is meat and poultry. I always cringe at these prices! Where I live, if we wanted to buy an alcoholic drink at a pub, we’re looking at £3.50 to £4.50 for a pint and the same for wine. :(
    Hayley @ A Disease Called Debt recently posted..Friday’s Fab Links #15My Profile

  4. I’m going to say cost of living was lower, which in turn means things cost less. There is always going to be inflation.

  5. Relatively speaking, things were certainly cheaper in the old days…I can’t imagine the number of things I would have bought for say a pound in those days, not so much this days. When you adjust for inflation, you start realizing maybe they weren’t that cheap after all, people back then must have thought the things quite pricey compared to an even earlier time.
    Simon @ Modest Money recently posted..Scotiabank Gold American Express Credit Card ReviewMy Profile

  6. It’s interesting to see how the prices of things have changed over the years. I can’t help but wonder if we’d see the same for items in the US, or if we’d see different items that have increased disproportionately over time?
    Brock @cleverdude recently posted..How I Got A Brand New Xbox For $100My Profile

  7. SavvyJames says:

    As a child of the 80’s, a nice trip down memory lane; however, I have to admit that I must not have paid a lot of attention to living costs back then. When I think about the prices of items in the 80’s compared to the prices of items today, nothing jumps out as being significantly more or less expensive.
    SavvyJames recently posted..2014 Pension Contribution LimitsMy Profile

  8. Abigail says:

    I keep seeing/hearing about studies that find that the cost of living has been rising disproportionate to the average salary. So I think there’s some nostalgia but also some real issues, over in the States anyway.

    I’m still annoyed when I find candy bars being 89 cents or so, instead of 50 cents when I was a kid in the ’80s, or 60 cents when I was a teen. Then again, I’m actively training for curmudgeonhood so…

    • Robert Bell says:

      I get angry at rising prices sometimes but it seems that sometimes there is a good reason for it and sometimes my memory is playing tricks on me

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