This Is How Americans Spent Their Money in the 1950s

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Today’s post is an article that was shared by Tomasz Stasiuk, a Colorado lawyer, and comes from

Every once in a while, this blog gives a person a chance to take a step back and think about both personal priorities and philosophies and what is happening in the larger society and how those trends affect workers and their loved ones in the big picture. This blog post is one of those moments.

Were we, as persons, or we as a society better off “way back when”? As can be seen in the article below, I think it depends on whose “way back when” we’re focusing on.

There were definitely some positives from the article for many: buying power comes to mind. But it is possible that the negatives for others, such as society-sanctioned racial discrimination and limiting women to certain roles, outweigh the perceived positives. In fact, entire books, such as “The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap” are devoted to these issues.

I wish the article below explored worker safety in the decade of the 1950s, too, as I hope, being an idealist, that it has improved overall, both for society and individuals, since then. However, I was very glad to see salary information, as that definitely affects workers and their families or loved ones.

Though at first glance an “average yearly income” of “$3,210 in 1950” and $5,010 in 1959” seems small for a household, it was a different era regarding buying power.

I really do appreciate that prices from the 1950s are translated to today’s dollars, so you can see how both buying power was different and the evolution of consumer culture happened. This includes focusing on housing, autos, televisions, spare time, and discretionary spending.

The biggest takeaway I got from this article was both how much things have changed and also how they sometimes stay the same (and how for some, remembering the good is the only part of an experience they recall).

Society and individuals have a ways to go in eliminating discrimination, focusing on women workers, and improving worker safety. But it is fascinating that a consumer today would mostly understand “how Americans spent their money in the post-war 1950s.”

“That’s because the spending habits we consider normal were born in the post-war 1950s. Prior to that decade, few households could boast discretionary spending, and before television, there were not as many large-scale outlets that allowed advertisers to tempt consumers into unnecessary spending.

“We may no longer consider a 983 square foot house or a car with a rusted-through hole in the floor to be normal, but our expectations for spending discretionary income remain mostly the same.”

So is your household or family unit better off than you would have been “way back when”? And what will productivity, progress and success look like for a worker and family unit or loved ones in 50 years?

Only time will tell.

Americans tend to think of the 1950s as an idyllic time when the babies were booming, the jobs were plentiful, and the country was flourishing.

Our parents and grandparents had good reason to feel prosperous. The average yearly income rose from $3,210 in 1950 to $5,010 in 1959, and post-war Americans were enjoying access to products and services that were scarce during World War II. Finding good uses for disposable income in the 1950s began the American love affair with consumerism. That love affair that continues to this day — although our spending priorities may have changed somewhat over the years.

Here’s how Americans spent their money in the post-war 1950s, and how their spending habits compare to ours in the 2010s.

White Picket Fences

The American dream of owning a home has deep roots the 1950s. Not only were many of the 16 million returning WWII veterans looking to buy homes, but the GI Bill offered them liberal home loans, and the end of the war saw the beginning of the baby boom, all of which drove demand for affordable houses.

Large homebuilders met that demand. They began applying assembly-line methodology to home building — by using panelized construction and drywall rather than wet plaster — which allowed them to create “cookie cutter” tract housing, giving birth to the modern suburb. An amazing “three out of five families became homeowners, and suburban living became a national phenomenon.”

There was a dark side to this housing…

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