No, it's not just you -- things really do seem more expensive these days.
One of the primary reasons for this is likely the absence of real wage growth over the past 50 years: Nominal wage growth rose by 727% between 1964 and 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. But nominal wage growth doesn't factor in inflation, which is the rising cost we pay for the goods and services we buy. Including inflation, real wage growth over the past 50 years is a disappointing 7.8%!
There are a lot of factors to blame for the absence of real wage growth in the U.S. You could point to employers, which are paying more than ever for workers' healthcare and retirement benefits, leaving less tangible income for wages. You could wag your finger at the federal government for not raising the federal minimum wage since 2009. You could blame outsourcing and the use of cheap foreign labor for weak skilled-job demand in the United States. Or you could blame workers for not understanding how to negotiate for a raise. Whatever the reason, wage growth in the U.S. is weak.
Unfortunately, other expenses haven't had the brakes applied as wages have. In fact, the following three costs are all handily outpacing wage growth in the U.S., and that's a potentially big problem.
If there's a poster child for out-of-control costs, it's college education. Over the long-term, college tuitions have been rising about 6% above faster than the annual rate of inflation each year. Based on data from the College Board, tuition and fees for a single year at a private, nonprofit, four-year university in the 2015 school year ran $31,231. In 1971-1972, the cost was just $1,832 (equivalent to $10,800 in 2015 dollars). At public schools, tuition and fees in 2015 totaled $9,139, compared to about $500 back in 1971-1972 (about $2,900 in 2015 dollars).
Why are college costs rising without restraint? Part of it can be blamed on the need for a college degree to advance up the socioeconomic ladder. Pew Research showed last year (based on 2012 dollars) that among millennials, an individual with a four-year (or higher) degree earns a median of $17,500 more each year than an individual with only a high school diploma. If colleges know that a degree is a prerequisite to success, then they have little reason to keep prices down.
Other factors include the need to pay for a growing staff and the desire to expand and update infrastructure within colleges. All of these factors have combined to make it tougher and tougher to afford a college education.
Medical costs as a whole have soared since 1960, even with medical-cost inflation lower in recent years than it has been at any point over the past five decades (likely as a result of downward pressure put on the sector during the Great Recession).
According to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, healthcare costs in 1960 totaled just $27 billion for the nation. By 2010, this had risen to nearly $2.6 trillion and was projected to rise even further to $4.49 trillion by 2020.
As with college tuition costs, there are several culprits here. Prescription drug inflation is certainly a big factor: Prescription drug prices are expected rise by 13.6% in 2015 based on estimates from actuarial and consulting firm Milliman. Between the renewed focus on expensive rare-disease drugs and the development of game-changing therapies, such as Sovaldi and Harvoni for hepatitis C, drug price inflation shows no sign of slowing.
Making matter worse, there are few checks and balances in place to prevent drug developers from continuing to raise prices. If insurers and pharmacy-benefit managers exclude a particular drug from their approved formulary lists, they could wind up losing customers who want access to that drug.
Lastly, healthcare is an extremely capital-intensive sector. Taking into account past, present, and future research, companies often price drugs, diagnostics, devices, and even medical services aggressively to recoup their expenses.
If healthcare inflation isn't curbed, it could become difficult for the middle class to afford medical care in the coming decades.
I should preface this by noting that home prices between 1890 and 1997 have generally risen in line with inflation. And since wage growth is only marginally outpacing the inflation rate per Pew Research statistics, it's probably safe to assume that all three data points advanced in a pretty similar fashion for decades. However, in recent years housing price growth has left wage growth in the dust, even with the housing bubble correction factored in.
Based on the inflation-adjusted Case-Shiller Home Price Index from January 2015, home prices were tracking about 70% higher than the rate of inflation since 1890. Since 1997, the rise in home prices has been plain as day (about a 50% outperformance over inflation), and it has made owning a home tougher for consumers. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that we've witnessed such a rapid rise in rental prices as more consumers forgo owning a home due to its high cost.
No simple solution
If we've learned anything over the past couple of decades, it's that there's no simple solution to the rapid increase in the costs of a college education, medical care, and housing. Instead, your best bet is to be as proactive as possible when it comes to generating (and hanging on to) real wealth.
The three keys that could allow you to afford the aforementioned rising costs are budgeting, a long-term mindset, and the use of tax-advantaged retirement plans.
A monthly budget should be a part of every American household, but in many instances it isn't. A 2013 Gallup poll showed that around two-thirds of all respondents didn't keep budgets, making it veritably impossible for them to understand their cash flows and maximize their ability to save. Formulating and sticking to a budget (if you don't have one already) will enable you to save much more, and it could even help to remove some financial stress from your life.
Secondly, keeping a long-term mindset is important. The earlier you can start saving for retirement and investing for your future, the more compound growth can work in your favor. According to Bankrate's return on investment calculator, saving and investing $100 per month with an 8% annual return would net you almost $757,000 over the course of 50 years. If you invested $100 a month from age 20 through age 80 and achieved those same returns, then you'd end up with more than $1.5 million!
Lastly, positioning yourself to keep as much money as possible is important when it comes to affording rising healthcare and housing costs. Retirement tools such as a Roth IRA allow you to invest for the long-term without having to pay a single cent in taxes on your investable gains so long as you don't make any unqualified withdrawals. Best of all, higher-education expenses, uncovered medical bills and medical insurance, and primary-residence purchases all qualify for penalty exemptions (the penalty is usually 10%) if you withdraw from your Roth IRA before the age of 59-1/2.
Real wage growth may be unsatisfying, but the tools are there for you to make the best of the cards you're dealt.