Gasoline Prices - Inflation Adjusted

Inflation adjusted Gasoline Prices

In 1969 gasoline was $0.35 a gallon but seven years later it had risen to $0.60 per gallon. And by 1980-81 everyone was suffering from sticker shock as gas prices rose above $1.00 for the first time. So in only 12 years, gasoline had risen a full dollar from $0.35 to  $1.35.  That is an increase of 286% in 12 years! Compare that to the price increase from 1998 where the average price was $1.02 and by July 2008 it had increased to $4.02 and you have a 294% increase in 10 years so it was even greater than the 1981 spike.

Price increases are obvious over short periods of time but because the overall purchasing power of the dollar has fallen, in order to compare the cost of gasoline over longer periods of time it is necessary to adjust the price for inflation.

Inflation Adjusted Gas Price

In 1981 that $1.35 would be the equivalent of $3.47 in inflation adjusted terms for June 2013 dollars.

When we look at gas prices from our own personal perspective we only see a small window of 4 or 5 years at most. Rarely do we even consider a 10 year timeframe. Therefore, we might assume that gas prices "always go up." But if we look at the big picture in inflation adjusted terms we will will get quite a different picture, as we can see from the chart above. Yes, the black "nominal price" is always rising but in inflation adjusted terms gas is no more expensive than it was in 1918 but it is considerably higher than it was in 1998 when it reached an all-time low in inflation adjusted terms.

Except for a few short term spikes, gas in inflation adjusted terms, was actually trending downward from 1918 through 1972. Which is to say that the cost of living based on other things increased in price more than gasoline over that period. But then over the next decade it regained almost all it had lost over the previous 50 years.  Then from 1980 - 2000 gasoline fell to new lows on an inflation adjusted basis. But since then gasoline has caught back up with other prices and is now back where it was in 1918.

Amazingly the average inflation adjusted gasoline prices for the following peak years were amazingly similar. 1918 was $3.87, 1938 was $3.31, 2008 was $3.49, the average for 2011 was $3.48 and for 2012 was $3.56. All of the peaks are very close when adjusted for inflation. So looking at just those years we might get the idea that the average price of gasoline in inflation adjusted terms was about $3.50 a gallon but that is not correct.

The Average Inflation Adjusted Price of Gas

The average price of a gallon of gas from 1918 to the present is $2.60 in June 2013 inflation adjusted dollars. So it is safe to say that anytime during that period that the price of gas was above $2.60 in inflation adjusted terms it was expensive and whenever it was below that price it was cheap.  So obviously when it reached $4.00 a gallon in July 2008 it was expensive. And with the average for 2013 at $3.51 we are once again expensive.

If we look at the average annual Inflation adjusted gasoline prices for each of the following years  (ending in "8") we see several of the "8" years are above average and several are below the average.

Inflation Adjusted Gasoline Prices

Year Price
1918  $3.87
1928  $2.87
1938  $3.31
1948  $2.52 
1958 $2.42
1968 $2.28
1978 $2.33
1988 $1.89
1998 $1.46
2008 $3.49
2013 $3.51

So if the long term average price is $2.60 then at $1.89 in 1988 gas was very cheap and in 1978 it was only slightly below average but in 1981 (at an inflation adjusted $3.47) but in 2008 it was extremely expensive on a historical basis. 

People are Intuitive

In 1998, overall price inflation made it look like gasoline prices were rising, so most people didn't realize that gas was actually cheap on a historical basis. But they knew it intuitively since a smaller portion of their budget was going toward gasoline. In fact, gas had gotten really cheap by historical standards allowing people to buy gas guzzlers like SUV's and Hummers.  But that reversed in 2008 as prices rose above the long term average.  Fortunately, prices fell in 2009 - 2010 but in 2011-2013 gas was once again expensive.

Annual Averages

Remember that these are average annual prices and individual months had much higher averages and on a weekly or daily basis prices could (and did) spike much higher (and lower).

For Example: According to the US Energy Information Administration the average price of a gallon of gasoline in the month of May 2011 cost $3.91 ... although many places like California people would have been glad to find gasoline for $3.91 a gallon. So in addition to averaging over time it is also averaging over the whole country.

Average Cost of Gas in U.S. by Month

January 2011 $3.06
February 2011 $3.17
March 2011 $3.51
April 2011 $3.75
May 2011 $3.85
June 2011 $3.63
July 2011 $3.61
August 2011 $3.61
September 2011 $3.57
October 2011 $3.40
November 2011 $3.33
December 2011 $3.22
January 2012 $3.33
February 2012 $3.52
March 2012 $3.77
April 2012  $3.84 
May 2012  $3.64
June 20112  $3.47
July 2012  $3.38
August 2012  $3.67
September 2012  $3.80
October 2012  $3.65
November 2012  $3.38
December 2012  $3.26
January 2013  $3.26
February 2013   $3.60
March 2013  $3.65 
April 2013 $3.50
May 2013 $3.56

Average Retail Price of a Gallon of Regular Gasoline in the Entire USA

These Gas Price Charts are not Inflation adjusted but are compiled by GasBuddy.com from thousands of local prices submitted daily by individuals from around the country.

Gasoline Money Saving Tip:

One way to save money on Gasoline is to use a cash back credit card with an extra bonus for gasoline purchases. Some cards can save you 5%.  A 5% cash back can reduce $3.91 to $3.71. Saving 20¢ a gallon may not sound like much but if your tank holds 15 gallons that is $3.00 per tank. If you fill up twice a week that is over $300 a year ($3.00 x 2 x 52).

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We have compiled a list of cards that give Rewards on Gasoline purchases. See which Gasoline reward card is best for you here.

Inflation Indexed Bonds (i-Bonds) are supposed to protect you from inflation while providing a reasonable return. How well have they done?

 

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Comments:

I just got the following comment from Doug S.

I saw the chart on how gas prices haven't really risen when considered with inflation.  I am 61 years old, and when I was working in the mid- to late-60s as a high school student, I made $1.60 an hour as minimum wage.  Gas was only .25-.35 per gallon (with 'gas wars', much of the time cheaper) so with one hour of work I could purchase 5-6 gallons of gas.  Now, with a minimum wage of  $7.50 or so, you can only purchase a bit more than 2 gallons of gas, depending on the day of the week.  Minimum wage has gone up, what, 4.6-5 times or so, but gas prices have gone up 10 times or more.  Where am I missing the point???

Based on what I have read, a loaf of bread might have gone up 5-6 times.  I do know that you can use figures to make any point you want, but I am not convinced that gas is matching inflation and is 'less or about the same' inflated price as it was 40 or 50 years ago.  This is garbage.  Doug S.

My response:

Doug,

I don't recall saying that gas is currently cheap or that it is less or about the same as 50 years ago. Although it is about the same as 1918.

If you look at the chart you will see that gas prices in inflation adjusted terms were at one of their lowest points in the 1960's declining from $2.50 in 2013 dollars in 1960 down to $2.00 in 1970 during the gas price wars that you mentioned. So compared to that specific time-frame, yes prices have increased. However, in 2000, when the inflation adjusted price was only $1.50  you could just as well have said that prices have declined since 1960.

What I said was, most people use a fairly short term perspective of only the most recent few years and so things look especially bad right now because prices have risen drastically since 2000. But if you compare prices to 1918, 1981 or 2008 we are currently near those peak levels. I also said that the average price from 1918 through 2013 was $2.56 (in 2013 dollars) and so anytime gas prices were above that level it is expensive (now) and anytime it was below that level gas was cheap in historical terms (i.e. 1960 -1970 and 1986-2002).

As far as your argument regarding minimum wage, although interesting in a practical sense, it is based on a faulty premise. That is that the minimum wage is somehow related to real prices. The minimum wage is an arbitrary construct of the government based on political posturing. Congress can set it at anything it wants to and only changes it sporadically, so at any given time it could be too high or too low compared to inflation. If tomorrow the government mandated that the minimum wage was $20 would that mean that gasoline is now cheap in historical terms?  What if the economy is doing well and even McDonalds has to pay more than minimum wage in order to attract workers? How does that affect your argument regarding the price of  gas? No, in historical terms gasoline is still expensive whenever it is above $2.56 a gallon in 2013 adjusted dollars and cheap when it is below.

If you wish to compare prices to purchasing power, a better measure would be average income or median household income because they are based on actual market based prices rather than on an artificial government construct.  ~Tim McMahon, editor

See Also:

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