A Million Bucks Ain’t What It Used to Be

Sadly, times have changed; a million dollars isn’t what it was.
Photo credit: voxeros via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Once upon a time, one million dollars represented the hallmark of rarified wealth. But due to inflation, the value of a million dollars has been greatly diminished.  Today, one million dollars might provide a comfortable, middle class retirement, assuming it’s supplemented by Social Security and one does not retire in a high-cost region of the country. Indeed, a million-dollar fortune 100 years ago would amount to $21 million dollars today!

Facts about Inflation
  • Inflation is a reality that must be factored into your long-term financial planning
  • Excessive inflation can be devastating but moderate inflation is a sign of a healthy economy. And inflation is definitely better than its alternative: deflation. Why? Think Great Depression.
  • Over the past 60 years, inflation has averaged 3.80% annually. At that rate, prices double (and the value of a dollar is cut in half) every 19 years. (Here is a link to an Inflation Calculator. Also, recall the Rule of 72 for estimating when money doubles.)
  • The effects of inflation are quite uneven. For example: healthcare and college education have far outpaced the general rate of inflation. (see chart below)
  • On the other hand, prices for many items, particularly electronics, have sharply declined. In 1965, RCA announced the first color television set for under $400 ($399.95); that would be the equivalent of 3,100 dollars today. The IBM PC introduced in 1981 sold for $1565; this would be roughly $4400 now. Today a vastly more powerful desktop computer – or a flat screen high definition TV — can be had for under $500.

Here is a chart that tracks inflation on various goods over a twenty year period. The average or composite rate of inflation 1996-2016 is 55%
Take Aways and Recommendations
  • Be warned: just as investments can grow exponentially, thanks to the power of compounding, the impact of inflation also grows. Over time, the buying power of a dollar will erode. (For the power of compounding, refer back to Pennies a Day)
  • Inflation is a major threat to retirement – particularly for those depending upon fixed-dollar payouts such as pensions and annuities. One advantage of Social Security is that its payments are indexed for inflation. However Social Security income by itself is not sufficient for most folks in retirement.
  • Plan for inflation in retirement by keeping a portion of your retirement funds in investments that potentially outpace inflation, such as stocks.
  • The Frugal and Wise are not early adopters of new technologies. They are cheap adopters of technology. There is a huge premium to be paid for being the first with the latest gee-whiz gizmo. Wait a couple of years and watch prices plummet. (Being a cheap adoptor of technology will be the topic of a future FW&W posting.)
  • Don’t despair that a million bucks ain’t what it used to be. Or that you are nowhere near accumulating such a sum of money. No matter what your income or stage of life, beginning today, diligently save, invest and patiently watch your nest egg grow over time.
Photo credit: Howard County Library System via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

I hope provides some perspective on inflation.

Cheers, Paul

© 2017 Paul J Reimold

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