Communication Breakdown: The High Cost of Technology

Imagine just for a minute what it would have been like if you were born at the turn of the 20th century and were told about all of the new and exciting ways you would be entertained and communicate during the next hundred years. It would have blown your mind and you probably would have thought it was science fiction. After all, the early 1900’s were barely the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and horses were more common than cars on the streets in those days. The telephone was still in its infancy and motion pictures were pretty much an experiment in a lab someplace here in NJ. The truth is that only a very few of the most inventive minds could have ever imagined what was to come over the next hundred years. But what about the price tag that comes with all of this progress? Are you happy with the tech impact in your life, your time, and your budget?

The past 100 years has seen amazing progress in the areas of entertainment and communication, but what about the cost of technology? Is it worth it?

The Communication Breakdown and the Impact on Your Budget

(With apologies to Led Zeppelin) Budgeting for things that entertain and communicate used to be pretty reasonable but not so much today. If you aren’t prepared for the costs of all of this technology that we now take for granted, be prepared to be shocked. It simply costs a small fortune to be living in an age of electronics unlike anything life has ever seen before because we are “plugged in” 24/7.

When did our wants become our needs?

We still have the same basic needs that the human race has been pursuing ever since the first caveman crawled out of his cave and stood upright. They are the three basic needs: food, clothing and shelter. That isn’t likely to change unless you believe in what you see in a Star Trek episode that talks about beings existing in another dimension where they have no bodies. You may be able to ditch some clothes in that case. Other than that, we will always need those basics.

That brings us to the wants we have and the seemingly endless pursuit for everything bigger, better, faster, and new ways that save us time and hopefully money. We are available 24 hours a day to pursue the pleasures of life. For most of us, long gone are the times when everyone was so tired from physically laboring in the hot sun that at the end of the day all anyone wanted to do was lie down in a safe, dry place and sleep. You can call that progress and most people do. Technology is seen as the king of us all. For me though, I really pine for days when the world was a lot smaller and slower.

What we have that our parents and grandparents couldn’t imagine

My parents were born in the 1920’s, when cars and telephones were just beginning to become a basic part of people’s lives. Frankly, you had to be fairly wealthy to have those “luxuries” but as the years passed, that changed and those things and others became pretty common among the “middle class”.

By the time I was born in 1949, cars were everywhere and things like traveling on an airplane, owning a TV set, going to a movie theater every week or so and having a phone right in your home (even if it was a shared “party line”) was prevalent. In fact, the growth of those things was so rapid, that by the time I was 20 we even had a color TV and some newer kinds of entertainment. These included stereo records, portable record players, and a camera from Polaroid that could take and develop pictures in less than 60 seconds right in your hand. It was only the beginning. Just look at the things we have now that didn’t exist or are almost unrecognizable today when compared to what was around just 50 years ago.

Telephones become smartphones

It’s not your mother’s telephone anymore and that’s for sure. Phones are no longer hanging on the kitchen wall or just sitting on the nightstand in the bedroom these days. They are wireless and cordless and located in every room. They are also in your pocket thanks to wi-fi availability. And, oh yeah, they’re not just telephones but they are also “smart” and can write and receive emails, texts, talk and actually see people live, access the internet (which since the ‘90’s has become mainstream in use) and the functions go on and on. Everyone has a smartphone and everyone has them right in their hands all day long it seems. How do they brush their teeth I wonder?

Despite its usefulness, the costs of having a phone have become pretty steep because of all of those bells and whistles. Gone are those days when Ma Bell would send you a bill that even with long distance charges probably ran you only about $20 a month and that included your phone which just about everyone rented for ever and ever. That was a pretty sweet set up for the phone company.

Today, even a cheap phone and a cheap calling plan is double that and if you have a family plan with kids on it, you are probably paying hundreds a month for this “need” so good luck with that!

Calls themselves may have come down in price, but a single smart phone can run you many hundreds of dollars. There is even one made by a company called Falcon that has an 18K diamond embedded in it and has a $95,500,000 price tag. Yes, really!

Movies, so many choices

Long ago there was the nickelodeon. For 5 cents you could be entertained before the invention of motion pictures. The motion picture business became an industry and people flocked to theaters and plunked down their money to see their favorite stars and stories. Even when I was a kid in the 1950’s, you could see a movie (a double feature too) for just 25 cents on a Saturday afternoon and of course by that time they were mostly in full color with big sound and even in 3D (if you had those special glasses which were free at the show)!

Today, a movie can cost hundreds of millions to make and that means one big thing. You will pay for it when you see it. If you go to a theater, expect the average full price tickets for a first-run film to be about $9 a pop. And a family of 4 going to a movie will spend about $36. That’s more than 36 times more than that old time Saturday afternoon matinee cost. Throw in the popcorn and soda and well, I don’t even want to go there!

There are many other ways to watch a movie now whether it be streaming it on your computer via the internet or watching on a DVD (you need a player of course, ka-ching!) or on your TV as a pay per view on demand. You can even actually purchase and own a movie on your TV digitally to watch over and over again. But that’s not all.

Televisions, cable, satellite, and streaming

The first wave of TV’s was around in the late 1940’s. The days of radio as the center of family entertainment were on their way out. That small 14-inch black and white TV that was on the air just a few hours a day (and of course totally free, no monthly fees) became the biggest thing ever and still is the backbone of what most of us do for entertainment.

When I was about 6 years old, my family got our first TV. I remember watching “Superman”, “The Lone Ranger”, and shows like “Ramar of the Jungle”. Our little 14-inch TV cost about $100 and all we needed was a rabbit ear antenna and we were all set.

We had just one TV but forward to today and everyone has multiple TV’s in the home and also view it via their smartphone and computer, and even in their cars.

A huge change is that we have cable and satellite services that now make up a big monthly bill and that goes up every year. Do I really need 400 stations and 6 movie channels? My first cable bill back in the 1970’s was about $10 a month. Today I spend over $130 and I still have just one TV. Even if you cut the cord, you’re still likely to be paying for streaming services to get your favorite content.

TV’s themselves are vastly different today too. They are all color of course but also they are much bigger (as big as 90-inch screens!) and they are clearer (thanks to the change to HD broadcasting). All have features like remote control and stereo sound.  TV’S are flat screens and can be hung on a wall or displayed on custom designed furniture just for them. There are an awful lot of man caves that feature those big screens.

Radios to streaming music

For me, having LP’s and 45’s were like oxygen when I was a teenager and I spent a good amount of money on them back in the 1960’s. A record album was $2.99 and you could get 3 of the top singles at 3/$1.00. It seemed expensive then I guess. Today there are CD’s and digital downloads that can run you $10-15 each. And you will need some sort of way to play them too. The cheap record players of the past are now high tech systems that cost a bunch and in every home there is at least a CD player of some sort if not a huge audio system.

I used to have a tiny transistor radio when I was a kid with an awful earphone device to listen with so that I didn’t disturb anyone. Later as years flew by, I had the 8-track, cassettes, and those portable boom boxes and the old Walkman radio/players. You probably did too. Boy have things changed!

Now if you want your music, you buy it online or subscribe to a service and have music at your fingertips. It’s another way that tech has crept into your monthly budget. If you own a car you probably have Sirius XM radio for another monthly bill. I’m probably forgetting about even more tech that we must buy or subscribe to if we’re going to be right in the middle of the action. You’ll have to forgive me if I did, I’m old, LOL.

What about the other must haves that didn’t exist back in the day?

You can probably make a list of these yourself, things like a desktop computer that right off the bat is an investment that will cost you on average of over $600. You can spend thousands if you really want the very best.

The amazing thing is that no matter what you buy, there will be an improved, more superior model available before you can say “you’ve got mail”. Of course a desktop isn’t quite enough for most, so add on a laptop and/or a tablet and maybe seek credit counseling if you do.

And of course, tying it all together these days, is the internet. There’s a cost for even basic internet access at home, not to mention service to your phone or other devices.

The bottom line is that almost none of this was a part of past generation’s expenses. Entertainment and communications devices not only are a modern miracle but a big expense and a big profit maker for big business. Something that probably wasn’t a thing that grandma and grandpa ever had a thought about.

Are you all in, or are you just dipping your toe into the gadgets that seems to be a requirement for most people? Do you ever think about what you are spending on tech and how much could you save if you tried to on the cost of these things that we call progress?


  1. Emily @ JohnJaneDoe

    I saw a post a while back of things modern kids never hear…rotary dial clicks, channel change clicks, dial up modems…It’s very different. And I remember when everyone literally watched the same shows because there were only 4 channels, and you had to be home on certain nights at certain times to watch the good stuff. But I don’t really remember those things being a problem, either. (ok, connecting to the internet with dial up modems was a pain.)

    And remember not making long distance calls because they were too pricey, or at least waiting for nights and weekends? More stuff kids won’t know.

    On the other hand, My first desktop cost something like $2000. In part, it’s been replaced by a computer, a tablet, and a smart phone that together cost half that amount. It’s the recurring charges that are vastly more for me, not the hardware.

    1. Emily, you certainly have refreshed my memory on some of those interesting comments. I remember calling my parents person-to-person collect from college and asking for myself just so they would know that I was doing ok, and they didn’t have to take the call because of the expense. Talk about a communication breakdown…wow!

      The recurring charges that we all are dealing with have become just a fact of life. There’s ways to minimize them, but few of us want to go without completely. It’s hard to give up those habits now.

  2. I’m definitely more behind the technology curve. We have three to five year old computers. My 2 year old smart phone was an upgrade from a flip (cheaper service for the smart then the flip ironically). It’s an interesting dichotomy. New technology is more expensive then ever. But.. two year to five year old technology tends to be dirt cheap as people replace every two years. I tend to buy in that behind the curve timeframe.

    1. Good for you, FTF. You haven’t fallen into the trap of having the newest, biggest, and best, and that’s a good thing. So many other people unfortunately are jumping at the chance to upgrade and have something brand new, and it’s really expensive to do that. I’m with you on the way you operate. Thanks for your comments.

  3. A great overview Gary. I’ve been working in technology for 25 years, so I’m always been up on the latest gadgets. Being a teenager in the 80s helped with the age of video games too. It’s certainly a balancing act, as technology continues to quickly evolve. I try to spend money on technology needs, and not just on the latest and greatest because as soon as you do the next version is released. You can fall into the trap of constant upgrade cycle which can be bad for your wallet.

    1. Having your experience, Brian, makes you a pretty smart consumer of electronics. Thanks for reminding me about the video games. Although I didn’t grow up with them, my kids certainly did and I remember spending lots of money to have the newest releases. Today, you either get hammered with the video console and game costs, or the monthly charges for online games. Thanks for weighing in.

  4. I don’t even have a computer at home anymore or use a laptop or tablet, I just use my newer iPhone which has a good size screen to do everything from texting, using messenger to communicate with my kids, do my online banking, read blogs etc. I use a computer at work so I don’t think I really need one at home. That would change after retirement perhaps I’d get a tablet? For now this works for me. Plus my cell phone battery really lasts a long time.

    1. Sounds like you’ve made some smart decisions and are keeping good control of those “must-have” conveniences. It’s certainly great having access to things like online banking and for communicating with your children, and I wouldn’t want to give that up either. It’s just a matter of knowing what makes sense for your life and your budget. Thanks for reading, Holly.

  5. Technology is going so fast we can’t and don’t want to catch up. Sometimes I feel good about that and sometimes I get weird looks. This morning the cashier told me at Meijer’s to download a coupon from my phone and I told her I don’t have that type of phone. She looked at me like, really? Really. Sometimes we also leave the phone we do have at home when we go for a relaxing ride. It drives them all crazy but what our parents for?

  6. Mel

    I agree with Emily about the recurring fees really being the worst part. If you really want something and budget for a one time fee, that’s not a huge deal, but the astronomical plans to then make the hardware work are terrible!

  7. The weekend long distance calls are part of my memories too.

    I don’t have a smart phone–I sit at a desk all day with a computer and phone in front of me. I just haven’t had a compelling need to upgrade from my “blackberry” model which is, I think, 5 years old now. When it breaks, I’ll probably go smart phone but I’m not feeling a lack. We don’t have cable, but we do have Netflix. I still have a land line, it bundles with my internet and we are old enought that that is the number people know. If money got tight, we’d dump the land line before the cells, which are prepaid and run u s a couple of hunderd a year each.

  8. Melissa

    I actually just had this conversation with my Mom a few weeks ago! One thing we both agreed on, that’s better now than it was when my Mom was young in the 60s, is TV. In the past (and even in the 90s, when I was growing up!) you only had a few channels and a few shows that you had to catch pretty much at one time, otherwise you’d miss it.

    In the 90s, you could pay $75 and up for cable TV, but you could also record your favorite shows and hope no one in your family wrote over your show. It was expensive and not ideal, but we thought it was better than having to be right on time for your favorite show. That said, it was expensive and we didn’t have any “extras”, like HBO or any of those movie channels.

    Now? My husband and I pay $45 and we have everything – all the cable shows, HBO, movie channels, anything. We can binge watch shows whenever we feel like it and never ever miss a show. My parents have the same set up (Sling TV) and they’re enamored.

    It’s now cheaper and more convenient. While my husband and I sometimes consider not paying $45, my parents definitely are happy with this set up and find it cheaper and better than when they were kids 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your information, Melissa. You’re 100% right about the choices we have today on TV and the fact that you don’t have to watch shows in real time and can schedule it whenever you like. I’m definitely going to have to check out Sling. The only problem I would have is that I so enjoy the MLB channel and I don’t think that’s available through that service. However, I could try to sign up for it separately to be seen on all my devices, including the TV. I’ll let you know if I see that it works for me. Thanks.

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