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How Have Prices Changed Over the Last 30 Years?

Wonder what has chewed up a lot of your personal income over the past 30 years? I’ve enjoyed working my way through several hundred pages of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) Detailed Report published each month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At just 117 pages, it’s a short read. A page-turner from beginning to end.

My favorite part is Table 25, which shows the historical price trends for a wide variety of products and services that Americans buy. Unfortunately, the table can be confusing to the average guy (me). I know you can’t believe that a government document can be hard to decode, but it’s true. You have to look at it for a little while to be sure you know what you’re really looking at.

For example, the chart tells you that the price changes are measured from 1982-84, unless otherwise noted. However, about half of the entries are “otherwise noted” and measure price changes from different time periods. Why this happens, I don’t know.

So, given that uncertainty, I wanted to see what kinds of goods and services I buy have gone up the most and the least since the early ’80s. That’s what Table 25 can do for you.

So what has gone up the most since the early ’80s? That would be tobacco and smoking products, which have gone up 798 percent.

Education is the runner-up, one of the fastest-growing categories of expenses over the past 30 years. No wonder students have incurred substantial debt during their years of scholarship.

  • College tuition and fees are up 651 percent.
  • Elementary and high school tuition and fees are up 612 percent.
  • Educational books and supplies are up 508 percent.
  • Housing at school, excluding board, is up 390 percent.

Health care has also been one of the biggest consumers of American income.

  • Hospital and related services are up 633 percent.
  • Outpatient hospital services are up 527 percent.
  • Prescription drugs are up 354 percent.
  • Medical care is up 335 percent.
  • Physicians’ services are up 260 percent.

Just living in a house or apartment has gotten more expensive as well.

  • Water and sewer maintenance is up 363 percent.
  • Garbage and trash collection is up 325 percent.
  • Cable and satellite TV and radio service are up 318 percent.
  • Fuel oil is up 277 percent.

If you like to travel, that has gone up too. But not nearly as much as education and health care.

  • Gasoline is up 217 percent.
  • Motor vehicle insurance is up 335 percent.
  • Airline fares are up 242 percent.
  • Hotel and motel rates are up 226 percent.

Clothes and furniture haven’t gone up much at all.

  • Bedroom furniture is up 34 percent.
  • Women’s shoes are up 29 percent.
  • Men’s apparel is up 27 percent.
  • Women’s apparel is up 20 percent.
  • Boy’s apparel is up 7 percent.
  • Girl’s apparel is unchanged.

So what has gone down a lot in price compared with the early ’80s? That could be categorized as toys and gadgets and electronics. How could that be? Because Americans no longer make any of these things. In the ’80s, we decided to outsource electronics to Japan. In the ’90s, we sent other manufacturing to Mexico. In the 21st century, we have outsourced almost everything to Chinese workers. Hence the prices fall.

  • Sports equipment is down 12 percent.
  • Clocks, lamps and decorator items are down 50 percent.
  • Toys are down 52 percent.
  • Audio equipment is down 61 percent.
  • Televisions are down 96 percent.

If you think these numbers are somewhat hard to believe, don’t worry. The way the government counts prices in the CPI, calculations have changed many times in the past 30 years. Most of these changes in calculation methods have resulted in a lower reported CPI.

Even so, the numbers still give you a general idea of what has consumed your income over the past 30 years and which items are more expensive in 2014 than they were in the early ’80s.

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