Ah, for those affordable Fifties!
by Rick Ackerman
posted originally August 11, 2010
STIRRED INTO THIS WEEK’S LIVELY DISCUSSION OF INFLATION/DEFLATION was the notion that although Americans seem to live better now than they did fifty or sixty years ago, our parents and grandparents would be appalled to see how deeply in hock we’ve gone to enjoy the supposed good life. And if the standard of living has risen so impressively, why is it that the single-income, middle-class household of the Fifties could afford things that are barely within the reach of households that today are supported by two incomes?
Sure, your neighbor has a composite-frame trail bike that he bought for $4000, another a $30,000 movie room, and your good buddy and his wife went scuba diving in Tahiti last Christmas. But did they have to take out a home equity loan to put their kids through college? And will the kids be able to pay back their fair share out of the meager income they have begun to earn with their $150,000 degrees in business administration, journalism, advertising and English literature?
Some readers may recall the scene in the movie Back to the Future where a motorist pulled into a gas station and a swarm of attendants gave his car the kind of once-over that all filling stations routinely provided in the 1950s, checking the oil and fluid levels, and even putting air in his tires. Setting aside the fact that this mini-inspection, if so princely an amenity were even offered, would probably add 25 cents to the price of each and every gallon of gas sold today, consider that the lowly gas-station attendants were likely in better financial shape than most middle-class couples are today.
With his small monthly mortgage payments and easily manageable grocery and medical bills, the filling-station employee probably had enough left over each month (after taxes!) to accumulate a nice retirement nest egg, put his 2.2 kids through college — and remain debt-free even though his wife did not enter the work force (as a part-timer) until the kids had finished college.
Happy Hour at I-Hop
Ah, for the good old days! In sharp contrast, many of today’s Baby Boomers have postponed their retirements indefinitely, since they’d now need at least $3 million in the bank to live comfortably on the interest that sum would return parked in Treasurys, corporate bonds or dividend-yielding stocks. And by “live comfortably,” we don’t mean cruises in the Greek Isles, winters in St. Bart’s, and golf weekends in Vegas or Maui.
More like, a condo in Atlantic City and happy-hour dinners at I-Hop, since today’s “safe” investments are returning no more than 2%-3%. And would that we all had enough left over to help the kids with their down payment on a $250,000 starter home! For millions who are about to retire, it’s challenging enough trying to figure out how to downsize our own homes — and lives.