Five Expenses We Didn’t Have to Deal With in the ’80s

Remember the ’80s? The stonewashed jeans? Hypercolor t-shirts? The bad hair and cheesy tunes? Punky Brewster, Alf, and Garbage Pail Kids?

If you were a child of the ’80s, you probably wore bright neon colors and tight-rolled your jeans. You watched VHS tapes and recorded songs off the radio with cassette tapes. Your first real introduction to technology was probably Oregon Trail or Nintendo. Heck, some of us wore jelly shoes and worshiped Pee Wee Herman.

And that’s just if you were a kid.

If you were an adult in the ’80s, you probably endured your share of M.C. Hammer and big bangs, too. On the plus side, however, it’s possible you had a lot fewer bills to worry about.

Think about it: Modern technology was in the works in the ’80s, but most gadgets hadn’t become mainstream. Early car phones were the size of a small briefcase, and 1980s-era computers were clunky, slow, and largely colorless. Heck, just Pac-Man was a technological feat!

We could argue all day about whether life was better or worse before the internet, cell phones, and other modern marvels transformed our lives. But there’s no denying the number of new monthly bills people have today. Here are five expenses almost nobody had to factor into their budget just a generation ago.

#1: Cell Phone

While cell phones were technically invented in the 1970s, they didn’t become available to the masses until the ’90s. And those early cell phones were awkward and hardly usable.

Many of us can recall our first cell phones and their crazy usage plans. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, it was commonplace to pay 10 cents or more per text message, and cell phone usage was billed by the minute — but hopefully your plan offered free calls on nights and weekends.

Nowadays, with our smartphones sucking up expensive wireless data, an average cell phone bill can easily top $100 a month or more, especially for family plans. And it’s totally normal for a new smartphone to cost $600 or more, which many people simply tack on to their monthly bill over the course of two years.

The ability to stream YouTube videos on the bus is pretty amazing when you think about it, but it certainly wasn’t something people paid for in the ’80s, when most families had just a land-based home phone bill to worry about.

#2: Internet Service

The internet didn’t become available to consumers until the ’90s (which is perhaps one reason those of us who grew up in the ’80s spent so much of our childhoods playing outside).

Some of the first internet service providers are history now — remember Prodigy? Netscape? The pages loaded so slowly, the internet was hardly worth using back then. And obviously, there was no such thing as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube, either.

The internet has changed our world in too many ways to count, but it’s also added a new burden to the 21st-century budget. The average internet bill has been climbing steadily, reaching $47.30 a month at last count, according to a 2015 analysis by Quartz.

This monthly expense is one that appeared out of thin air once the internet took hold, but it affects nearly everyone and shows no sign of disappearing.

#3: Cable TV (or Netflix & Hulu)

While cable television reached major markets in the 1970s, many households didn’t even bother with cable TV until the mid- to late-’80s or ’90s. Instead, people relied on old-school antennas that helped them access local broadcast stations and news networks.

In 1980, there were only 16 million cable TV subscribers in America, and they paid about $7.50 a month ($22 in today’s dollars) for the service — typically a very basic package with 20 some-odd channels, including pioneers like ESPN, CNN, and MTV. By 2016, there were between 99 million and 116 million cable subscribers, who were paying an average bill of $104 a month.

These days, it’s a lot cheaper (and increasingly common) to skip cable and opt for cheaper streaming services instead. Enter Netflix and Hulu, to name a couple of them. Both services offer streaming television videos for around $10 a month. While that’s cheap compared to the average cable bill, these services were unheard of just a few decades ago, when most Americans simply watched their TV shows for free.

#4: Paid Radio Subscriptions

If you grew up in the ’80s, you know that radio was huge! Without the internet to keep you occupied, you could find your favorite tunes on the radio — and maybe even indulge in some light copyright infringement by recording them live (praying that the DJ wouldn’t talk over the whole intro). Of course, the radio was free as long as you didn’t mind enduring countless commercials that cut into your listening pleasure.

Satellite radio services such as Sirius XM Radio didn’t launch until after the year 2000, though they did change radio for the long haul. With these new services, you could pay for radio service to score premium content and niche channels without all the commercials and interruptions.

If you had told a mom in the ’80s she’d be paying for radio one day, she may not have believed you. But today, you can pay around $15 a month for a satellite radio subscription, and more than 30 million people do just that. Another 50 million pay $5 to $15 a month for a Spotify streaming radio subscription.

#5: Gym Memberships and Streaming Fitness Subscriptions

While fitness clubs with monthly memberships have been around for decades, they really caught fire during the vainglorious ’80s and have continued to grow ever since. Remember the old Gold Gyms that featured mostly free weights, beefy men in tight shorts, and aerobics classes taught by legwarmer-clad, onesie-wearing ladies?

Those gyms of the old days have been reimagined to fulfill 21st-century needs – with on-site coffee shops, daycare, and fancy exercise equipment no one could dream of using in the 1980s. They’ve also become a much bigger part of our lives and a bigger drain on our wallets. There were just 3,000 fitness clubs in the United States in 1978, according to a 2008 study by Bentley University’s Marc Stern; by 2015, there were more than 36,000, taking in more than $25 billion in total revenues.

The ’80s also saw the stratospheric rise of fitness videos like “Jane Fonda’s Workout,” first released in 1982. And obviously, VHS-era exercise programs have now gone online. Due to their busy lifestyles or the ease of technology, many exercise enthusiasts choose to bring the workout home through online subscription services these days.

Daily Burn and Beach Body are two companies that make exercising at home easy with any computer, smartphone, or tablet. Both offer a free 30-day trial, then cost less than $15 a month to maintain.

Since the average gym membership rang in at $58 in 2016, these services are actually an upgrade from an earlier time when your choices were the gym or bust.

Were the ’80s Cheaper?

The ’80s were notoriously crazy, with embarrassing hair, awkward fashions, and dance music that still perplexes us to this day. But, were the ’80s cheaper? It really depends.

There may be more ways to spend money than ever before, but technology has also made our lives cheaper and more convenient, too. And while some core expenses, such as healthcare, housing, and education, have skyrocketed since the 1980s, others, such as cars, TVs, and food, have actually gotten cheaper when adjusted for inflation.

Either way, it’s fun to remember a time when boy bands reigned and even hair had wings.

Holly Johnson is an award-winning personal finance writer and the author of Zero Down Your Debt. Johnson shares her obsession with frugality, budgeting, and travel at

How do you think your bills are different in 2017? What bills would you add to this list?

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Holly Johnson

Contributing Writer

Holly Johnson is a frugality expert and award-winning writer who is obsessed with personal finance and getting the most out of life. A lifelong resident of Indiana, she enjoys gardening, reading, and traveling the world with her husband and two children. In addition to The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for well-known publications such as U.S. News & World Report Travel, PolicyGenius, Travel Pulse, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns Club Thrifty.