Shutting Ourselves Out by Moving the Goalposts –Why Being Middle Class Was Easier Fifty Years Ago

“Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like.”  –Will Rogers

Folks will tell you it’s getting harder to make ends meet. It now takes two incomes to live the middle-class lifestyle while fifty years ago the middle-class life could be had on a single income. I remember my family life of 1963, (yep, I’m that old) which I imagine was fairly typically middle-class. Steel yourself for a “back-in-my-day” adventure. Let’s see where you might save money living as we did then.

Houses were about half the size they are now, with bedrooms barely big enough to swing a cat. Not that we swung cats. They didn’t used to build McMansions with great rooms, media rooms, or kitchens big enough for ballroom dancing. Your mortgage is going to be much lower with half the house to pay off.

With a smaller house you’d lower your heating bill. Your summer cooling bill would be next to nothing because air conditioning was something of a minor luxury. Window fans and sweating were our cooling methods. Along the same lines your clothes drying bill would also be close to zero as there’d be no dryer. Clothes were line dried, outdoors in warm weather, indoors in cold.


You’d have a single TV set (b&w, no remote) on which you’d watch broadcast programs. No monthly cable or sat­ellite bill. No VCR or DVD player and no video games either. Sports were played outdoors, not on the couch.

You wouldn’t spend a penny on a personal com­puter, software, and high-speed internet access. None of it existed. Your phone would be a no-frills land line hung on a wall. Somehow we managed without cell phones. There’d be a single hi-fi unit. Your only port­able music would be a tran­sistor AM radio. Or you could hum.

Folks weren’t credit card happy in 1963. The age of ubi­quitous plastic money was just getting started. People paid cash. So no credit card interest payments.

A single family car was pretty usual. Not a pickup truck pretending to be a station wagon, an actual station wagon. Auto loan and insurance payments for only one car meant less money out the door for that.


You didn’t spend money on a microwave and food pro­cessor, they didn’t exist. Though maybe you had a toaster oven and a Veg-o-matic. You’d have basic appliances, not stainless steel fridges with ice makers nor a professional grade cooktop range. Dishwashers were manually operated, consisting of a drying rack, a sink of soapy water, a sponge and steel wool.

Wardrobes would be about half the size. Dress clothes for the kids would often be hand-me-downs. Do people now-a-days even know what those are? You certainly wouldn’t spend the price of a new television for a pair of “gym shoes.” You’d’ve chosen between white canvas sneakers or black canvas sneakers.

Lawn service, riding mower, snow blower, leaf blower? Nope, you’d do the work yourself with a push mower, snow shovel, and rake. Or the kids would as part of their chores. Snowmobile, jet-ski, ATV? Nope, nope, nope. Family cruise vacation? Nope, camping trip.


If you’re willing to forgo every medical treatment devel­oped since 1963, your health care costs would certainly be much less than today.

Get the picture? These days we just can’t seem to live without a whole bunch of stuff we used to live with­out. Maybe your income doesn’t seem to go as far as it used to because it has farther to go. The goalposts have been moved in the last fifty years. Both literally and figuratively. In 1963 NFL goalposts were on the goal line and not at the back of the endzone.

According to MIT, “An average worker needs to work a mere eleven hours per week to produce as much as one working forty hours per week in 1950.” Middle-class folks in the 50s weren’t exactly living in shacks and eating gruel. We could easily be saving half our income every year. Where does the money go? I think we’ve answered that above.

Today one income probably could easily support a middle-class lifestyle. Of 1963. That’s progress for you. Though I seem to recall progress promised to give us more leisure time, not less. But that was then. Instead we bought lots more stuff. And got storage units to warehouse it all.