Most of us have read books set in years past or heard stories from relatives that begin, “Back in my day …” But how does life today really differ from the days of the past? We dug up data and crunched the numbers in order to analyze the costs of events and everyday expenses – including getting married, heading to college, shopping for groceries, and buying a house – across the generations.
Who splurged the most on weddings? Who spent more on college tuition? And how much has changed when it comes to buying groceries and buying homes? Read on to discover how finances for every generation measure up.
Note: We considered four generations – the Greatest Generation (born 1901–1945), Baby Boomers (born 1946–1964), Generation X (born 1965–1985), and Millennials (born 1978–1990). Generations’ birthdates often are loosely defined and even controversial, but we assigned each generation a precise birthdate window for research purposes.
Today’s couples are taking their vows later in life. The Greatest Generation – a term coined by journalist Tom Brokaw to describe the people who endured the Great Depression and fought in World War II – tied the knot at a median age of 23 (men) and 20 (women). Millennials, on the other hand, are waiting until a median age of 28 (men) and 26 (women).
One potential reason? Money is tight for Millennials – the first generation in recent years to be poorer than their parents. Many are saddled with student loans and other debt, which could prompt them to move marriage to the back burner. After all, even saying “I do” costs much more today than it did during the first half of the 20th century: Millennial couples fork out nearly 273% more money for a wedding than couples from the Greatest Generation did.
We looked at the cost of weddings (after adjusting currency for inflation) and the age of couples among the generations. Startlingly, the cost of a wedding for Baby Boomers was nearly triple that of a celebration for the Greatest Generation. However, each subsequent generation saw an increase of only a few thousand dollars.
Millennials spend more on weddings than any previous generation did. What does nearly $30,000 buy? The venue accounts for around half of the budget, followed by the engagement ring and wedding band (an average cost of nearly $10,000). As for the celebration itself, average catering cost per head averaged nearly $70 as of 2014.
Perhaps the price of a wedding is why Millennials prefer wedding gifts of cash as opposed to china and gravy boats. How can Millennials save on weddings? Some schedule ceremonies in the off-season, select non-traditional venues, and incorporate Pinterest-inspired DIY touches for everything from the cake to the decorations.
As for a couple’s age at the time of marriage, it steadily increased during each generation and peaked at Millennials (men age 28 and women age 26). Though they may be waiting longer to wed, the majority of millennials believe marriage is an important institution.
For many Americans of every generation, heading off to college is a rite of passage – and one that has grown more costly over time. During the 1920s to the 1940s, tuition and fees averaged $1,429 per year; by the time Millennials attended, costs leapt to more than $5,000 (adjusted for inflation).
College attendance has increased steadily over the years: Only around 46% of Baby Boomers went to college, but about 61% of adult Millennials have attended. Perhaps understandably, they also have amassed a great deal of student debt – in fact, among Millennials, paying off student debt is the No. 1 financial concern. Some grads have turned to crowdfunding to help pay off staggering student debt, and some companies are even beginning to add student loan repayment as a job benefit.
It’s not the stuff of legends – in the 1950s, visiting the grocery store with a pocketful of coins could yield the makings for a fairly decent dinner. When food prices are adjusted for inflation, though, the most striking takeaway is the high cost of grocery items in recent years. Simply between the time of Generation X (2000) and Millennials (2010), the price of round steak increased by more than 36%, the price of bread rose by almost 52%, and the cost of a dozen eggs skyrocketed by nearly 62%.
There is little doubt Americans are feeling the pinch at the supermarket. What’s causing these high prices? We can pin the blame on multiple factors, including drought (which affects crops), avian flu (which decreases egg production), and cattle shortage (which affects meat prices).
Millennials also eat at restaurants more than any other generation: Around 41% of Millennials say they eat out twice a week compared with 38% of Gen Xers and 37% of Baby Boomers. Though Millennials lack discretionary income, one theory is that they rely on restaurants as a spot to gather with friends, as many of them still live with parents or other family.
For better or for worse, life has certainly changed from the early 20th century to now. Costs of everything from houses to groceries have soared, and many people are making difficult decisions about their futures based on finances.
What does the future hold for our country? Millennials recently surpassed Baby Boomers as the largest generation. And while many may struggle, Millennials overall are optimistic about the future – and in a world that changes at a breakneck pace, a healthy dose of hope never hurts.
Four Generations of Congratulations, College Costs, and Food for Thought: All costs were converted to 2015 dollars for inflation.
For College Costs the data does not represent the average costs for the entire generation but rather provides a snapshot for viewers to understand what tuition and fees were, approximately, during a given year range.
For the Road to Homeownership, home prices are national averages and do not account for regional markets.
Food for Thought: Prices are annual national averages for the year stated on the graphic. The data provided is meant to provide the viewer with an idea of what food costs were for each generation but do not account for any local variation in price over the dates stated.