Welcome to Your '15 Finances - 1915, That Is

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By Geoff Williams

If every year it feels like everything costs a little more, it isn't your imagination. Inflation takes its toll over the years, and as 2014 passes into the annals of history, let's take a look back at how much we were spending a century ago.

Take-Home Pay in 2015 vs. 1915

Census Bureau data show that the median household income, measured from 2009 to 2013 (the most recent data available), is $53,046. Back in 1915, two years after income tax came on the scene, you were doing about average if you were making $687 a year, according to the Census. That is, if you were a man. If you were a woman, cut that number by about half.

Today, that $687 would be comparable to earning $16,063 a year, according to an inflation calculator on the Bureau of Labor Statistics' website. So Americans' buying power has improved considerably in the last century.

There was no minimum wage in 1915, except in a few states experimenting with it, and only for women and children. (The federal minimum wage wouldn't be enacted until 1938.) At a hearing in March 1915, Dorothy Miller told a state minimum wage committee in Albany, New York, that she made $6 a week, which came to $312 a year. Out of that $6, she paid her parents $2.50 a week for room and board. According to The New York Times, she told the committee: "After I paid my actual necessary expenses every week, I had 40 cents left for clothes and amusements. And I was the envy of all the girls I worked with."

Buying a House in 2015 vs. 1915.

Today, the median home value in the U.S. is $177,600, according to the Zillow (Z) Home Value Index. In 1915, purchasing a house would have typically set you back $3,200, according to Census records.

You were also taking more of a risk in buying a home then than you are today. There were few zoning laws in the country. You might buy a lovely house next to a beautiful meadow, and a year later find your home in the shadow of a lye factory spewing out billowing smoke. Not to mention the walls of your home probably contained lead paint, and your insulation was likely asbestos.

Buying a Car in 2015 vs. 1915

If you buy a car today, expect to pay $31,252 on average, according to August 2014 data from TrueCar.com, a car dealership.

In 1915, the journal Motor Age indicated that a typical car's sticker price was $2,005 ($46,879 today). Fortunately for our 1915 counterparts, cars were becoming less expensive. As Motor Age explained, mass production and ingenuity were helping drive down automobile prices: "Today the motor is immeasurably cleaner than it was 2 years ago; it has fewer parts; it is better designed; and it is cheaper to build."

Filling Up Your Car in 2015 vs. 1915

As of late December, the average price for a regular unleaded gallon of gas was $2.29, according to AAA. In 1915, you would have paid around 15 cents a gallon.

As is the case today, what you paid to fill up depended on your location. For instance, according to a 1917 report by the Federal Trade Commission, if you lived in Massachusetts, you were paying 15 cents a gallon in January 1915 but 23 cents a gallon by December 1915. In California, the rates remained steady, starting off the year at 12 cents a gallon and ending at 14 cents.

Eating in 2015 vs. 1915

According to Miller, the woman who was paid $6 a week, she bought her lunch for 15 cents while her struggling co-workers got by on 6 cents. Fifteen cents would buy $3.51 in food today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' inflation calculator. For $3.51, you might not get the healthiest food, but you could fill up on a meal at a fast-food restaurant. According to statistics from the Census Bureau, typical prices for 1915 food include:
  • Loaf of bread: 7 cents
  • Dozen eggs: 34 cents
  • Quart of milk: 9 cents
  • Pound of steak: 26 cents
Miscellaneous Merchandise, Then and Now

If you were buying movie tickets in 1915, they'd typically cost 10 to 15 cents if you were a kid. (But if you were seeing the new movie "Birth of a Nation," tickets were $2; it was a big-budget movie for its time.) Clothes really did a number on your budget back then, too. For instance, a Cincinnati Enquirer article from November 1915 said a moderately priced pair of men's shoes might cost $3 to $5 ($70-$116 in today's dollars). Moderately priced women's shoes ranged from $7 to $10 ($163-$233). Even if those prices don't sound so high to you, considering the layers people wore – vests, gloves, hats, overcoats, chemises, knickerbockers and petticoats – consumers were outlaying a lot of money on clothing.

A first-class stamp in 1915 was 2 cents, which would be 47 cents today. Considering that stamps are now 49 cents, not that much has changed, although between email and paying bills with cellphones, the average household isn't relying on stamps the way it once did.

Money advice from 1915

Much of the information imparted wasn't all that different from what you hear today. For instance, the Louisville Courier-Journal, a Kentucky newspaper, reported that in March 1915, Louise Johnson, who chaired the economics committee of the National Federation of Women's Club, said the average wealth per family in the U.S. was $1,500 a year, and that a smart monthly budget would include:
  • $25 for rent. Rent shouldn't be more than 20 percent of your income, Johnson said, and this category should include taxes and commuting costs. Most experts today probably wouldn't add transportation costs to your housing budget, but it wasn't bad advice.
  • $18.50 for operating expenses, which meant utility and heating costs and day-to-day expenses, like toiletries. Those expenses, incidentally, wouldn't have included homeowners insurance, which didn't debut until the 1950s.
  • $37.50 for food.
  • $18.75 for clothes.
  • $25 for the "higher life," which Johnson defined as art, music, recreation and health care. These things are essential to true happiness, Johnson said. Hard to argue with that.
Johnson's advice seems to have been tailored for the upper-middle-class family. That same year, the Cleveland Foundation, a community charity, calculated a family budget for a husband, wife and three kids, determining that they should be able get by on:
  • $28 for food.
  • $4 for utilities, including fuel, light and ice for the ice box (which people used before electric refrigerators).
  • $1 for insurance, presumably life insurance.
  • $1.50 for streetcars.
  • $9 for everyone's clothing needs.
  • $1 for general household expenses, which would be $23.38 today.
Alas, no money was put aside for the higher life. Then and now, every household must make difficult decisions about where their money goes. Some things never change.
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