Surprisingly, some things are bargains today — but not many
Remember 1972? Richard Nixon was president, the Oakland Athletics were on the way to winning the first of three consecutive World Series and All in the Family was the number 1 television show.
Still, what you might remember most from 50 years ago is inflation, although the consumer price index, the government’s main measure of inflation, rose just 3.27 percent in 1972, the lowest annual rate of the decade. But the 1973–74 oil embargo would send inflation soaring 11 percent by 1974 and another round of inflation pushed prices up 13.5 percent in 1980. Inflation has averaged 4 percent the past 50 years, meaning that, on average, things that cost a dollar 50 years ago would cost $7.03 today.
Not everything was cheaper in 1972. On January 4, 1972, Hewlett-Packard introduced the first handheld scientific calculator, which cost $395 — about $2,775 in today’s dollars. You could buy a pretty maxed-out laptop for that these days. Cell phones? Fugeddaboutit. You had to rent your landline from AT&T, and long-distance calls cost extra.
But most things were cheaper in 1972, even adjusted for inflation. Here’s a look at what a basket of goods would have cost you back when astronauts were still walking on the moon. (The last moon walk was part of the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972.)
A gallon of regular gasoline would have cost 36 cents in 1972, the equivalent of $2.53 a gallon today. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) put an embargo on foreign oil imports between 1973 and 1974, which tripled the price of gasoline, to $1.19, by 1980.
If you were shopping in the Chicago area in July 1972, you probably would have been pleased with prices overall — and with the price of seasonal produce in particular. A 5-pound cantaloupe cost the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $3.86. But even then, a rib-eye steak would have taken a bite out of your budget: At $2.49 a pound, it would have cost the equivalent of $17.50 a pound today.
These prices are from Chicago-area newspapers on July 5, 1972. When items were advertised on sale, we used the higher, everyday price.
- Rib-eye steak: $2.49 a pound (in today’s dollars, $17.50)
- Vanilla ice cream: $1.29 a gallon ($9.06)
- Milk: 89 cents a gallon ($6.25)
- Bacon: 79 cents a pound ($5.55)
- Coffee: 66 cents a pound ($4.57)
- Chuck roast: 65 cents a pound ($4.50)
- Cantaloupes: 11 cents a pound ($0.71)
- Sweet corn: 5 cents an ear ($0.35)
If you’ve painted a room lately, you probably reacted to paint prices with a low whistle and a chorus of sad trombones emanating from your wallet. You can typically pay $20 to $45 a gallon for Sherwin-Williams white interior paint. In 1972, you would have paid $3, or the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $21.08. Bear in mind, however, that those gallons of 1972 paint may have come with a hidden cost: Lead wasn’t federally banned in paint until 1978.
Tools were reasonably priced, though. A hammer cost $3.99 at Sears, and a 7-inch circular saw cost just $19.88.
A sweet ride cost far less in 1972 than now. If you had $2,510 — $17,636 in today’s dollars — you could have driven out of the dealership with a brand-new Ford Mustang. These days a new pony will set you back anywhere from $28,865 to $57,665, according to Edmunds, the car pricing experts. Prices have soared this year in part because of supply chain disruptions: The cost of a new car has jumped 13.7 percent in the 12 months ended May 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and used car prices have soared 16.1 percent.
You can’t buy a Ford Pinto anymore. Ford’s shot at a low-priced consumer car sold for $1,860, or about $13,000 in today’s dollars. The Pinto ceased production in 1978 after a series of fuel system fires attracted negative publicity.
Incidentally, car batteries cost $15.88 in 1972, or about $112 adjusted for inflation — enough for you to make sure that dome light was off when you parked.
A portable four-cycle dishwasher cost $189.95 in 1972, or about $1,335 in today’s dollars. In part because of supply chain issues, dishwashers today can cost far more than they did in 1972, adjusted for inflation. To be fair, today’s high-end dishwashers offer many different wash cycles and use far less energy and water.
Sears shoppers in 1972 could pay $220 for a clothes washer and $90 for an electric dryer, for a total of $310 — $2,178 in today’s dollars. Both are cheaper today: Sears lists top-loading washers for $550 to $1,100, and electric dryers for $530 to $1,000.
Looking for a blender? A 16-speed electric blender would have set you back $23.99 at Sears in 1972, or nearly $170 in 2022 dollars. You can get a very nice blender for less than $50 today.