They’re an average family, trying to cope with the rising cost of living. This is how they got by 17 years ago, and how they manage now. They’re spending more — but they’re living better. They’re what our whole economy is all about
A FEW MONTHS AGO Muriel Bieber, wife
of a steelworker at Stelco’s Frost plant in Hamilton, Ontario, spent $239 on an automatic clothes dryer for her basement. She was finding it troublesome to take the clothes to the laundromat for drying after she had washed them in her own wringer machine.
Seventeen years ago, Mrs. Bieber could not have dreamed of the possibility of such an indulgence. But today there is no doubt that the Biebers, like almost everyone else, are living better.
In 1949, Maclean’s did a cost-of-living story on this family. At the time Oscar Bieber, a 39-year-old wire-tying-machine operator at the Frost plant, his wife and their eight-year-old son Gerald were living in a $20-a-month, five-room flat in Hamilton’s factory district on a take-home pay of $47.50 weekly, $20 of which went for food. When Maclean’s reporter Sidney Margolius asked if he had $500 in savings, Oscar Bieber replied that if he had that much, he'd feel like a millionaire.
In 1952, Margolius went back to see how
the Biebers were faring in what was then considered to be inflation, loosed by the Korean war. He found that they had moved to a $35a-month bungalow, Oscar Bieber was now netting $58.51 a week, and they had recently purchased new living-room furniture and a new bike for their son. But Muriel Bieber was managing with only an icebox and doing part-time housework five days a week to pay for her own clothes and whatever extras the family required. And although she was spending the same amount for food as she had in 1949, there was less on the table.
Margolius reported that they seemed resigned to the higher prices, despite the rather depressing nature of their living circumstances. He noted: “They have a stove in the dining room. It doesn't quite heat all five rooms thoroughly on really cold days ...” This time, Bieber snorted. “If I had $500, I wouldn’t call the king my uncle.”
This fall. Maclean’s took a long-range view of the big cost-of-living jump to find out what it had meant to such families as the Biebers
— had they managed to keep up with it, or were they just scraping by? Perhaps the most revealing comment is Oscar Bieber's 1966 reply to the $500 question. When asked about his present savings, he was able to answer calmly, “Do you mean in actual cash or in equity?”
The Biebers have a lot of “equity” and, finally $500 in actual cash savings, although they were planning to spend most of that on a two-week vacation tour through Ontario and the United States. In 1952, they spent $68 for a week at a summer cottage, but for this trip Oscar Bieber expected to put out almost that much ($45-$50) for each day’s expenses. “Muriel hates cottages,” he says. “She likes to spend a night in a motel, with no cooking and no housekeeping problems.”
The 1966 vacation, more than anything else, sums up the whole inflationary process. The Biebers need more money because goods and services and holidays arc getting more expensive — and because, like most of us, the
Biebers are no longer
continued on page 51
continued from pape 16
“We’re not on a spending spree — we just have more money”
content with the standard of living or the standard of leisure they put up with 14 years ago.
But Bieher is a steelworker — and the steel industry is one of the main inflationary indices. If steel goes up. so do a lot of other things. What was one of the factors influencing Stelco's last price rise in the spring of 1965. and its attempt to raise prices again this past summer? Stelco officials are “not prepared to comment,” nor are they prepared to single out any one cause as major, but everyone knows at least part of the answer: labor costs.
Labor costs have gone up — and Oscar Bieber was one of the four negotiators, for the Frost plant employees who went to Toronto in August to work out the latest wage increases. He admits that inflation is due in part to the rise in wages, but feels that it is “certainly not the big share. I’m sure the salaries of bank employees haven't risen anything like the interest rates." he says.
Oscar Bieber’s own interest rates and taxes have gone up phenomenally. For his present bungalow, bought in 1958 for $12.000, the 1959 taxes were $294.66. This year they are $417.54. His mortgage payments, originally $92 a month on a 25-year-plan, are currently $97. But then his home, situated on Hamilton mountain above the smoke and smog of an industrial city, is now worth $18,000.
No skimping now
The Biebers are conditioned to the inflationary spiral. After all, they have come a long way from their $35a-month bungalow. Their $18,000 “equity" has five rooms, a basement that runs the entire length of the house (they are planning to partition it for a recreation room); a large backyard; hydrangeas, maple trees, cast-iron flamingos, lawn furniture and a barbecue.
Muriel Bieber cannot remember how she stood it when they lived in the factory district. The only explanation she can find for her past tolerance is, “We didn’t know any different."
What she means is that, like most Canadians, she is no longer able to accept skimping, and she has no intention of cutting down on her indulgence in all shapes and varieties of timesavers and luxury items, items that didn’t exist 17 years ago, but that she now finds she can't do without.
Since 1949 the Biebers have been through two cars, two television sets, two stoves, another new living-room set, and are thinking of buying a new $300 refrigerator “w-ith a freezer down one side.” because the old one is too small for their needs. “We could probably pay outright for the new' refrigerator,” says Muriel Bieber, “but we’re going to buy it on credit. I like to leave some money in the bank — maybe next week I'll want something else.”
“We haven't really gone on a spending spree," comments Oscar Bieber. “We just have more money to spend.”
Some of the money comes from his pay. which has doubled over the past 17 years, but which still seems low in
terms of today's living costs. For a 40-hour w'eek. he now brings home $95 after deductions, and counts on overtime w'ork for many extras. Although the overtime is seasonal, he can sometimes put in as much as 60 hours in one month. “I hate it." says Muriel, despite the fact that the additional money recently allowed her to have a
living-room chair recovered. “He's away all the time."
The major reason for the Biebers’ new feeling of security is Mrs. Bieher's inclusion, in 1963, in Stelco's medical coverage. In 1952 both Muriel and son Gerald were partially covered by a fraternal organization’s sickness-andaccident plan for $2.50 a month, and
Oscar was covered for 26 weeks of illness through the company. But now, for $3.43 every tw'o weeks, both Oscar and Muriel have complete medical coverage for doctors, hospitals, ambulances and nursing care, and on every dollar they pay out for drugs over $25 per year, they are reimbursed 80 cents.
Through deductions from his paycheque. Bieber now also has a $5.000 life-insurance policy and the security of $335 a month for life when he retires.
continued on pape 52
THE BIEBERS continued
“We buy as much but save $3 or $4”
“I was always worried about saving up in case we were sick,” says Muriel Bieber. “Now I feel I can go out and spend that money on anything 1 want.”
Some of the extras also come from Gerald’s contributions to the household. He left school in 1958 and has been paying between $15 and $20 for his room and board since that time, except during a two-year stint in the army, from 1960 to 1962. He is now 26, living at home and working as a mailman. And he pays $80 toward the monthly expenses.
Mrs. Bieber looks upon this as a bonus, although it seems reasonable that his food and use of facilities would amount to that much. But his mother doesn’t sec it that way. “I always fed him,” she says. “So now 1 still feed him — and have all that money to play around with.”
More money comes from Muriel Bieber, who still works to buy her own clothes — and almost anything else she feels she must have. In 1952 she was spending $220 a year on clothes for herself. Since last fall she has spent at least $400 on dresses, shoes and accessories, has had a fur coat remodeled ($45) and bought her husband a power mower ($48) for his birthday. “I was tired of pushing that old one around,” she says.
“Eaton’s loves me”
Although she claims she works two full days and one half-day per week (averaging about $13 for the week), her husband says she doesn't really put in that much time. “She works from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” he says, “and then she goes downtown and spends all the money and gets home at five. That’s how she makes up her full day.”
“Eaton’s loves me,” says Muriel Bieber. “I always have something to pay for. A few years ago I couldn’t do it. Now I take $10 or $20 and go to Buffalo for the day if I feel like it. If I really want something, I just go out and work an extra day.”
The Biebers seem most concerned about the rising cost of food. Perhaps because it is not something that can be considered a luxury, nor does it have a resale value as “equity,” food is what makes many of us angry about inflation.
There is a supermarket on their corner, but each Friday the Biebers drive five miles to a discount store to buy groceries. Oscar Bieber is the budget expert of the family, and can quote the difference in prices on almost all items. “A few months ago we found out that discount stores have the same brand of goods as the regular stores,” he says. "We buy as much as we did before, but every payday we save three or four dollars.”
Surprisingly, the Biebers do not spend very much more on food now for three adults than they did in 1949 or 1952 for two adults and one child — although Gerald comes home for lunch and Oscar takes his with him to work. Muriel’s estimated food bill for one payday week (every two weeks) is $28.60. and she then does a supplementary $20 shopping the following Friday. On her $28.60 bill she in-
eludes $8.44 worth of meat — hot dogs, spareribs, chicken, bacon, minced round steak, cooked meats.
The Biebers’ 1952 meat diet was almost exactly the same, except that Muriel now buys TV dinners more often than she does steak. She finds the main difference is that she is able to stock up by buying many food items while they are on sale. “When it was payday then, you knew it,” she says. “You were waiting for it. Now I can go out and buy what I want any day and I have more in my cupboard than I ever had.”
Other than the occasional card party with friends, the Biebers’ social life centres around the church, the union and the NDP, and these activities take up about three nights a week for each of them. Oscar, who recently had to retire as an elder of his church and as vice-president of his union local because of a heart ailment, comments, “The meetings are a night out — recreation in themselves.”
“That’s about it,” says Mrs. Bieber. “That is why we can afford to spend that much for our holidays. It doesn’t cost us a lot for drinking parties and we only go to a movie about once in 12 years. We don’t really do much more, or buy much more than we did in 1952, but we don’t have the worry about saving money we had then. That’s the big difference.”
However, Oscar Bieber did save some money this year by painting the house himself during his two-week spring vacation — and he laughs at the idea of having a professional do the job. “I wouldn’t think of hiring a painter,” he says. “Do you realize they now charge $40 to paint one room?” ★
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.