’80s Flashback: 10 Things Everyone Was Buying in the Reagan Era
The ‘80s are back in a big way. The president-elect is a man who rose to fame as a billionaire playboy during a time when the phrase “greed is good” was on everyone’s lips. Throwback TV shows like Stranger Things and The Americans let us relive the Reagan era in all its glory. The must-have Christmas gift of 2016 is a miniaturized version of the original Nintendo Entertainment System, first released in the U.S. in 1985. And a Dynasty reboot is in the works (of course).
Along with shoulder pads and big hair, some are predicting a return to the most ‘80s of trends: conspicuous consumption.
“In the next four years, it will be O.K. to be rich again,” Robin Leach, the former host of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, tells the New York Times. “The cars will get bigger, the houses will be more luxurious, and it will be O.K. to wear jewelry and gowns again.”
Though most of us don’t have to worry about whether it’s OK to wear an evening gown, you may be spending more in the next few years if the ’80s revival extends to the economy. Even people who weren’t getting rich on Wall Street during the 1980s still found ways to splurge. After an economic slump in the first years of the decade, consumer spending took off in the go-go ‘80s. As boomers hit their peak earning years, more women went to work, and new gadgets, like video game systems and CD players, hit store shelves.
People had more money, and they were buying things that promised to make their lives easier, notes a Bureau of Labor Statistics report from 1992 that looks back on consumer spending from 1980 to 1990. Today, many of these purchases seem laughably retro, but cordless phones, personal computers, VCRs, and microwaves were the Reagan era’s iPhones and 4K TVs. If you had money in the mid-1980s, chances are you were buying these 10 things.
It may be hard to imagine now when virtually everyone has a smartphone in their pocket, but until the early 1980s, most people didn’t own their own telephone. Instead, they leased it from their phone company. The 1982 breakup of AT&T changed all that, which meant that phone sales spiked in the ‘80s as people lined up to buy fancy new novelty and cordless phones.
The BLS didn’t even bother to track spending on telephones in the first two years of the decade, but by 1982, a growing number of people were buying phones of their own. Sales grew again in the late ‘80s as people bought new phones to replace the ones they’d bought a few years earlier or to get online.
2. Answering machines
These days, no one even bothers to check voicemail, but in the ‘80s, the answering machine promised to make everyone’s life easier. By 1984, people were buying more than 1 million answering machines every year, according to the Institute of Recording Technology, and they were willing to spend a lot not to miss a call. A value-priced “telephone answerer” advertised in Radioshack’s 1984 catalogue went for $119.95, or $277.94 in 2016 dollars.
Sony introduced VCRs for home use in the early 1970s, but they really took off in the following decade. In 1980, Americans were spending an average of $7 per year on VCRs, with just under 1% of households reporting such a purchase. (VCRs cost much more than $7 at the time, but spending was averaged across all U.S. households.) By 1985 people were spending $53 annually (about $119 adjusted for inflation) on video recording devices, and 11% of people said they’d bought such a device in the previous year.
4. Video rentals
An in-home video player wasn’t much fun if you didn’t have anything to watch on it. While many people used their VCRs to record their favorite shows and movies off of TV, video rental places sprang up so people could also watch the latest blockbusters in their living room. In 1983, less than 1% of Americans reported paying to rent movies, and average annual spending was just $1 per year. By the end of the decade, 20% of the people in the U.S. said they’d gone to the video store in the past year, spending $24 annually to rent hits like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Rain Man.
5. Video game systems
The BLS didn’t start tracking spending on video game systems until 1982, when Americans were spending an average of $21 per year on Ataris and similar devices, and roughly 6% of people reported buying either a game console or software. But spending on game systems fell off a cliff in the middle part of the decade, following the video game crash of 1983. The industry recovered a few years later, and by 1988, spending on games was close to the what it was in early part of the decade, thanks in big part to Nintendo.
Computers began to invade American homes in the 1980s. The BLS started tracking spending on PCs in 1982, and annual expenditures on computers increased steadily from 1986 onward. By 1990, families with grade school-aged kids were spending the most on PCs, shelling out an average of $83 on hardware and $17 on software every year. That sounds cheap, but the numbers are low simply because it was still relatively rare for people to own home computers. In 1984, about 8% of Americans owned a PC. That number grew to 15% by 1989, according to Census data.
7. Cable TV
There’s a reason people who grew up in the ‘80s are sometimes called the MTV Generation. Though cable TV has been around in some form or another since the 1940s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that it came into its own. Average spending on cable TV grew 95% from 1984 to 1990, and the number of homes subscribing to pay TV services grew 16% over the same time. By 1989, just over half of American households were cable subscribers, and they were paying an average of $154 every year for MTV, CNN, and HBO — up from an average annual spending of $29 in 1980.
8. Day care and babysitting
In 1980, 42% of women with kids under age six worked outside the home. By 1990, that number had increased to 58%. More working moms meant an explosion in the number of day care centers, which numbered 26,809 by 1987, up from 19,522 in 1982. For families with kids younger than six, average annual day spending grew from $185 in 1980 to $796 to 1990. Spending on babysitting also increased over the same period.
As the number of families with two working parents grew in the 1980s, so did the popularity of time-saving devices like the microwave. Average annual spending on microwaves peaked in the middle part of the decade, according to the BLS.
More microwaves also meant more demand for heat-and-serve foods. Average yearly spending on frozen food went from $23 in 1980 to $61 in 1990, a 165% increase.
10. Meals out
When people weren’t microwaving their dinner in the ‘80s, they were picking up takeout. The percent of Americans who spent money on restaurant meals in the previous year went from 74% in 1980 to 79% in 1990. Meanwhile, the number of dining establishments in the U.S. grew from 284,059 in 1982 to 332,611 in 1987.