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10 Things We Used to Pay a Lot Less for (and Still Could)
With few exceptions, goods and services cost more than they used to. But they don’t always have to.
One of the most stereotyped marks of aging is repeated complaints about things costing more than they once did. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to stop the march of time and it’s similarly difficult to halt inflation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it would take $7.28 to purchase what you could with a dollar in 1968. Meanwhile, it would require more than twice as much money — an extra $22.93 — to buy what you could purchase with just $20 in 1988.
However, even when prices rise over time, there are still ways to avoid the added premium placed on items by cultural trends or the tendency to buy out what we once prepared at home. Here are just 10 items that consumers are paying far more for now than they did a few years ago. If you’re willing to do away with those goods in their more opulent forms, that price can be a choice rather than an unavoidable burden.
The nearest $4 or $5 latte at Starbucks will illustrate just how costly a coffee away from home or the office has become. But even the $1.85 average price of a 12-ounce cup of their basic fresh-brewed coffee exceeds the inflation adjusted cost ($1.65) of the 25-cent coffee on offer at the Maryland Inn in 1970.
However, the 3-cent cost of a ca. 1970 cup of coffee brewed at home — based on the 27 cups that a 93-cent, one-pound container of ground coffee could brew — would add up to 20 cents today, adjusted for inflation. Even with a pound of coffee costing $4.27 on average in February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the modern cost of a cup of coffee brewed at home is 16 cents.
Not only can you save money by avoiding the coffeeshop and brewing at home, but you can spend less on coffee than your parents or grandparents did if you do.
In 2017, the average cost of a movie ticket was $8.97 — including the easily-avoidable $20 to $30 3D, IMAX and Dolby Cinema showings. Even going back to 1977, however, the $2.23 average cost of a movie ticket would be $9.49 today,
Movies have never been incredibly cheap, but you have a lot of cheaper options for enjoying them now than you did 40 years ago. We have mentioned both second-run theaters and online rentals as cheaper movie options, but staying home and streaming older movies through services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu (with monthly subscription prices similar to that of one movie in 1977) is yet another option. If you want to avoid the extra $40 to $60 a month (or more in rural areas) required for a high-speed internet connection, RedBox still rents DVD and Blu-ray versions of movies for $1.50 to $2, while most public libraries will let folks with library cards check them out for free.
Unless you live in an area where the water is tainted beyond drinkability, when you buy bottled water you are paying for a packaged version of something that is already a utility. The International Bottled Water Association puts the cost of a gallon of bottled water at $1.11. Purchasing bottled water in 16.9-ounce single servings drives the cost up to about $7.50 a gallon.
According to the American Water Works Association, the average price of tap water is roughly $0.004 per gallon. Considering the American public didn’t start drinking bottled water in singles servings until the late 1970s — 350 million gallons a year during that decade, compared to more than 10 billion now — we’ve only recently started fooling ourselves into paying for pallets of water bottles when we already pay for countless gallons of water to come into our homes each month.
As automotive site Kelley Blue Book points out, the average price of a mid-sized car in February was $25,857. While the average $3,450 cost of a car in 1970 makes that look awful, the $22,725 that car would cost when adjusted for inflation is a bit closer to the mark.
However, some recent work by automotive site Edmunds suggests that buying used, rather than buying new or leasing, is the most frugal approach. According to their findings, the average price of a new compact SUV (like a Toyota RAV4 or Chevrolet Equinox) is roughly $30,000. The average price of three- to four-year-old version of the same compact SUV is about $21,000. In some cases, you may get either the tail end of the original warranty coverage or an extended warranty, making a slightly used car far more cost-efficient.
An increase in beer choices hasn’t led to a decrease in prices. In 1978, according to the Brewers Association, the number of breweries in the U.S. dropped to a post-Prohibition low of 89 thanks to beer-industry consolidation and tight brewing laws. This year, the U.S. brewery count hit 6,000.
However, though a handful of craft brewers existed in 1978, the $2.82 paid for a six-pack in the U.S. in 1978 mostly bought you pale lager. Today, that $2.82 would be worth $11.23 after inflation.
We cruised Total Wine’s inventory in Vancouver, Wash., and found a four-pack of Founders Breakfast Stout and Modern Times City of the Sun IPA, and six packs of Dogfish Head India Brown Ale and Deschutes Sage Fight Imperial IPA, for less than that mark. Yet that price will now also buy you 12-packs of Bud Light, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Coors Light, and Miller High Life.
Beer can cost you $60 for rare releases, or as little as $5 a six-pack if you’re willing (or allowed by state law) to hit the blowout bin at your local liquor or grocery store. It can also cost $1 a bottle or less if you buy brands like Sierra Nevada, Rogue, or any of the big lager brewers by the case at a warehouse store like Costco or Sam’s Club (without factoring in the cost of membership). It’s just a matter of taste and motivation.
Grilled cheese was the comfort food U.S. parents made their children for decades, which is why it’s typically the first item that crops up when a city or town starts embracing food trucks or carts. A chain of grilled-cheese carts in Portland, Ore., sells its most basic grilled-cheese sandwich for $6.25. It’s Tillamook cheddar, Swiss, and mozzarella on French white bread.
Meanwhile, over at the local Safeway, a whole loaf of Franz brioche bread ($5.59), 11 slices of Tillamook Swiss ($4.49), 11 slices of Tillamook cheddar ($4.49), and 10 slices of Lucerne mozzarella ($3.29 — they didn’t have Tillamook in stock) comes out to $17.76. Even if we spring for a pound of Tillamook butter ($4.49), that $22.25 divided by 10 sandwiches is just $2.25 a sandwich.
And that’s springing for the pricey ingredients. Settling for a loaf of store-brand white bread ($1.50), 16 Lucerne processed cheese slices ($3.29), and some Land O’Lakes half sticks of butter ($3.29), would cost you just $1.01 per sandwich if you made just eight sandwiches… and it would still leave you plenty of bread and butter for morning toast. Speaking of which…
One of the more unfortunate byproducts of Silicon Valley’s recent success is avocado toast and folks from Oakland writing long treatises about why it costs $10. We get it: Restaurants have to pay for labor, rent, utilities, and other business expenses in some of the costliest cities in the country. But this, by no means, requires consumers to like it or even go along with it.
When we go back to Safeway and consider the costs, a medium Haas avocado goes for $1.89. If you want a crusty, multi-grain bread to go with it, Dave’s Killer Bread sells for $6.29 a loaf (less at a warehouse store like Costco, where two loaves go for $9.49). At 17 slices of bread per bag, Dave’s Killer Bread is 37 cents per slice at the Safeway price and 28 cents per slice at the Costco price. At most, that’s $2.26 for ungarnished avocado toast.
When avocados get somewhat cheaper during the season, that cost will only fall.
Macaroni and Cheese
Yet another comfort food that restaurants now sell for far more than it is worth. We aren’t talking about boxes of macaroni and cheese mixes with powdered cheese packets, though those certainly have their merits, but the home-baked varieties. For example, my wife and I grew to love a macaroni-and-cheese from a restaurant in Brookline, Mass. It was made with Gruyere cheese, cavatappi pasta, truffle oil, and a Ritz cracker crust. It was also $12 a serving.
Seeking her own, similar take on that dish, my wife asked the waitstaff for the basic ingredients and went about securing them. We’ll admit to you right now that the core ingredient, truffle oil, is not cheap ($20.19 at Safeway for just 3.4 ounces, or $12.19 for 250 ml at Costco). Nor is Gruyere cheese, at $8.99 per half-pound. However, Google Express will send us cavatappi at $2.50 for a 16-ounce box while a roughly 14-ounce box of Ritz crackers cost $2.99 at Safeway.
Though it turned out we still needed cheddar cheese ($3 for 8 ounces), milk ($2.19 per half gallon), half-and-half ($1 per pint), chives (grown in our backyard), and some flour and paprika from the kitchen, we still ended up making out on the deal. The cost of the entire recipe, which serves up to 10, but I’d put it closer to 8, was roughly $4 per serving on the low end and $5 on the high end.
Cafe Baked Goods
Starbucks offers several items in its bakery case as upsells to hungry customers (apple fritters, banana bread, pound cake, scones) but none are more dangerous than the $1.95 chocolate chip cookie. It stares up at you and says “C’mon, I’m only two bucks.” Starbucks didn’t invent this game, but it’s certainly mastered it.
How bad is $1.95 really? Well, if you were the laziest baker alive and went into Safeway and bought a pound of either Pillsbury or Nestle Toll House cookie dough — enough to make 16 cookies — you’d only spend $2.99 to $3.99 (the generic Signature Kitchens brand goes for $3.09). At that price, you’re looking at 19 to 25 cents per cookie.
Also, just never buy Rice Krispies treats out in the wild. A taproom and restaurant in Portland, Ore., sells them for $3, which seems reasonable about two beers in, but is less logical when a 12-ounce box or Rice Krispies ($2.50), a 10-ounce bag of mini marshmallows ($1), and four sticks of Land O’Lakes butter ($3.29) come out to $6.79 at Safeway. Considering that one batch makes about 24 two-inch squares, or roughly six to eight of the large squares sold by the taproom, you’re paying a substantial markup on a simple cereal treat.
You can wrap these treats in plastic wrap just as easily as Starbucks or the place around the corner. If you need a portable snack to go with coffee or beer, make your own.
Pity the Apple iPhone user. If they lose a power cable and want a new one from the company itself, it’s $19 at a minimum to replace it. However, it’s far less to replace it at Overstock.com ($7.99) or Monoprice ($5.99). Meanwhile, if you have a Google Android phone, the replacement price can be as little as $5 at Best Buy or Amazon.
Speaking of things that cost more than they used to, if the thought of paying more than $40 a month just for the right to hold an Apple iPhone X or Samsung Galaxy makes you cringe a bit, you can always go back to basics. Verizon, while not the cheapest option for either mobile phones or plans, still offers the basic Kyocera Cadence LTE — a flip phone with talk, text, and a small camera — for $120 or $5 a month. While basic smartphones like the ASUS ZenFone V and LG Stylo 2 V cost roughly the same, the Kyocera won’t soak up data and won’t come anywhere near the $500 to $1,000 price of the most updated smartphones.