When you drive 51 miles on a dollar

  • Posted: Monday, January 7, 2013 7:50 a.m.

While clinging by my fingernails to the edge of the “fiscal cliff”, my mind went back to some thoughts I had on the current cost of living some half a decade ago.

I decided to revisit the subject for two reasons: These old eyes have become encrusted with cataracts, and I’m having the last one removed on the day I would normally write this column. And I’ve had a relapse of the bronchitis that has been plaguing so many of us, so my mental processes have slowed.

Hence, I decided, borrow a topic from 2007, revising and updating it to 2013. It dealt with the cost of driving.

My current four-cylinder Toyota Camry delivers around 30 mpg on the interstate and about 22 mpg around town. My 1954 Ford V-8 would churn out ‘bout 17 mpg on a long trip.

If I make a round trip from my home to Myrtle Beach, I’ll cover around 500 miles, which means the Camry will consume around 16 gallons of 87 octane petrol. At $3 a gallon, the current average rate in South Carolina, that comes to $48 for the trip, a little more than 10 miles per dollar.

Had I made that trip back in the late 50s, the Ford V-8 would have consumed about 29 gallons. The cost would have been $9.40 at 32 cents a gallon, yielding me around 53 miles per dollar.

That $9.40 would have amounted to about 13 percent of my gross weekly pay. The $48 I would spend going to and from Myrtle Beach today comes to quite a bit less than 13 percent of my current income. So why does it hurt so much each time I pour $48 worth of regular unleaded into my tank? Why do I chafe at averaging 10 miles per dollar in my lively Camry instead of 53 miles per dollar in my sluggish Ford?

It’s because we who grew up in an era of thirty-cent-a-gallon gasoline, 15-cent-a-loaf bread and $10-a-month power bills still dwell subconsciously in that world. We are outraged over one-dollar Baby Ruths that aren’t even as large as the 10-cent versions we used to buy. And we regard it as downright immoral to pay $1.29 for a 20-ounce bottle of water and 50 cents to pump air into our tires. We grew up thinking air and water were free. Subconsciously, we feel cheated when our $1,000 won’t buy now what it would buy back then. We don’t do the mental math that tells us the $1,000 a week is the equivalent of $100 back then, and $3-a-gallon gasoline now is equivalent to 30-cent-a-gallon gasoline back then.

Of course, there are many differences between the 50s and the present that cloud that picture.

The $100 a week you might have earned in 1955 didn’t have to cover all the things that must be covered by today’s $1,000 a week. It didn’t have to pay for cable television, which gives you a gazillion channels. Back then you got only three, and they were free.

You didn’t have to pay for high-speed internet. The volume and speed of communication were far below today’s levels, but you never had them, so you didn’t miss them. A four-cent stamp would take your message from Aiken to Charleston in two or three days, and you didn’t have to deal with tech support people in India who spoke a brand of English incomprehensible to the Carolina ear. Your $100 a week didn’t have to pay the cost of a land line and a cell phone, much less a smartphone. If you wanted to talk to somebody while you were on the road, Ma Bell was waiting with a pay phone that would take your dime and connect you with the world.

It didn’t have to pay for liability insurance on your automobile. Most of us just took our chances. When hospital beds were $10 a night and most doctor bills didn’t exceed $5 or $10, we didn’t sweat health insurance so much. We could stretch that $100 a week to afford a reasonable amount of sickness. The high-priced testing equipment now necessary to keep death at bay had not yet arrived. So if we got really sick, we just died.

For the most part, we get our money’s worth for the extra dollars we spend today. When my power bill was $10 a month, I didn’t have air conditioning. When the telephone bill was $10 a month, I didn’t have call-waiting, voice mail or unlimited long distance. Long distance was something you used only in emergencies, such as informing your Aunt Lucy in Saluda Mama was bad-off sick.

When I was first married in 1957, I was being paid every two weeks, and each time pay day arrived, my wife and I would high-tail it to Kroger. We usually spent $18 or so and used that ‘54 Ford to haul it home. No wonder I’m shocked to see the check-out person ring up more than $18 when I go into Bi-Lo and walk out with a couple of plastic bags of essentials that would fit into a breadbox. But I eat steak more often now than I did back then, too.

Maybe the answer is to re-set the dollar so that its value is back where it was in 1955. That would mean adjusting our incomes proportionately. We wouldn’t make very much, but look at the purchasing power – 87-octane unleaded for 31.9 cents a gallon!

But nah. In a year or two, the price would go up to 41.9 cents a gallon and we’d be on our way again.

Buy yourself an economy sedan. Ten miles to the dollar ain’t half bad when you’re living on a 2013 income.

Gene Owens is a retired newspaper editor and columnist who graduated from Graniteville High School and now lives in Anderson.

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