What 13 Things Cost in the 1980s vs. Today
You might get nostalgic about your food bill but not about the cost of a TV
by John Waggoner, AARP, January 24, 2020
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En español | In 1985 a cellphone was the size of a brick, an eagle could perch on a woman's shoulder pads, and Bruce Springsteen's tour took in enough money to repave Highway 9. And though you might get nostalgic for your grocery bill of 35 years ago, not everything was a bargain at the midpoint of the 1980s, especially when you factor in inflation. Curious to know what things cost in the year that Back to the Future was the top-grossing movie? Strap in to our time machine and take a trip back to the decade of greed and excess.
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Cabbage Patch Kids
Brawls over Cabbage Patch Kids broke out during Christmas in 1983, and the fervor was still alive in 1985. Parents shelled out $25 in “adoption fees” for the individualized dolls from Coleco — an amount equal to nearly $60 today. But inflation has been mild in the cabbage patch for the past 35 years: You can pick up a new one for just $40.
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At the start of 1985, you could send a letter across the country, courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service, for just 20 cents. (The price rose to 22 cents in February of that year.) A first-class stamp is 55 cents today — just a penny more than the price of one in 1985 after inflation.
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The average price of seeing a flick was $3.55 in 1985, not including popcorn and soda. Today? It's $9.16, well above the inflation-adjusted 1985 price of $8.65. On the other hand, you can now get reclining leather seats, beer and more or less edible pizza in the theater, too.
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A weekend just wasn't one in 1985 without a trip to the record store, where you could pick up an LP for an average of $5.97, or $14.54 in today's money. In retrospect, you got a bargain, because vinyl is back in vogue. A copy of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon will set you back $26.33 at Amazon.com.
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PHOTO BY: Mike Hogan / Stockimo / Alamy Stock Photo
Invented in 1979, the Walkman allowed people to listen to music of their choice while walking, running or ignoring other people on the subway. In 1985 a Walkman cost between $69 and $99, which translates to between $168 and $241 in today's dollars. While Sony doesn't make the old-style cassette versions anymore, you can buy a digital version for $220.
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Album sales were one of the main sources of income for performers in 1985, and concerts were relatively cheap — an average of $15.13, or $36.85 in today's cash. Today most bands get a pittance from streaming music and make their money on the road. The average concert ticket for a big-name act costs $91.86.
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This wildly popular import had a base price of $8,845 in 1985 — the equivalent of $21,544 in today's dollars. But inflation, at least for new cars, has sped ahead of the consumer price index, with a new Accord setting you back about $24,000 today.
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20-inch color TV
Along with shelling out about $500 for a 20-inch color TV in 1985, you risked a hernia, as well. And you were spending big bucks on a set back then — $1,195 (adjusted for inflation). Today you can get a lightweight 24-inch color TV for a much lighter price: $149.99.
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Gallon of gasoline
Inflation was cooling off in 1985, running at just 3.6 percent. A decade earlier, inflation burned at 9.1 percent, fueled in part by soaring oil prices. A gallon of gas cost $1.12 in 1985, or $2.73 in today's prices. The average cost of unleaded today is $2.52.
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Bananas cost 33 cents a pound in 1985, not bad for a meal in a peel. Today they're 57 cents a pound. Adjust the 1985 price for inflation and you'd get 80 cents, meaning that, for monkeys and humans, the price of some foods has run lower than the cost of living.
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If you wanted to reheat leftovers quickly in 1985, you could get an 0.8-cubic-foot microwave from Sears for about $240. You'd nuke your budget at the same time, though, as that's the equivalent of $585 today. Sears now offers a similar model for $70.
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Houses were never cheap, even in 1985, when the median new-home price (the midpoint of all prices) was $82,500. Still, in some of today's hottest real estate markets, such as San Francisco, $82,500 may not get you even a parking space. The inflation-adjusted equivalent of $82,500 is $201,951, a relative bargain, compared with today's median home price of $330,800.
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PHOTO BY: Roman Belogorodov / Alamy Stock Photo
The powerhouse of the home-computing world in 1985, an IBM PC XT would have set you back $4,395, assuming you got two disk drives and a monster 10-megabyte hard drive. In current dollars that's $10,705. Today, however, you can get a very nice ThinkPad T480 from Lenovo — which took over IBM's PC business in 2005 — for about $700. It includes a 512-gigabyte hard drive, a wireless internet connection and a 14-inch screen. And you can carry it around with you.