What Is the Value of a Dollar Today?

Why the Dollar Is Worth So Much Less Than It Used to Be

A dollar doesn't buy as much as it used to.
A dollar doesn't buy as much as it used to. Photo: Jeff Greenough/Getty Images

The value of the dollar today is much less than it was in the past. When the dollar loses value, that's called inflation. That's because prices inflate and each dollar can buy less.

The dollar's value has increased 25 percent since 2014. However, this hasn't offset its long-term decline. For more, see Why Is the Dollar So Strong Right Now?

Who Keeps Track of the Dollar's Value?

The value of the dollar today is determined by the goods and services it purchases.

As the dollar's value falls, the cost of living increases. The Consumer Price Index measures the cost of living. It compares the prices of a basket of goods and services for each month.

Exchange rates tell you how much the dollar's value is today in overseas markets. One easy way to find out the dollar's value against most of the world's currencies is to use the dollar index.

How Much Value Has the Dollar Lost?

The dollar has lost a lot of value in the last 100 years. In 1915, a person with only $4.26 could buy the same amount of food, clothing and other necessities as $100 would buy today.  By 1920, he'd need double that amount or $8.44. That's because hyperinflation after World War I cut the dollar's value in half.

In 1930, the person would need just $7.05. That's because the Great Depression of 1929 created deflation. That's when prices drop or deflate. The dollar gains value. Ten years later, he would need even less money.

Only $5.91 bought what $100 would buy today. After World War II, the global economy grew. Inflation returned. Here's how much someone would need to buy $100 worth of goods today. By 1950, the dollar's value had dropped even lower than before the Depression. The following table shows how much it has fallen.

(Source: "CPI Inflation Calculator.")

Year  = $100 TodayComments
1950 $10.17Inflation resumed after World War II. The dollar's value fell by nearly half since 1940.
1960 $12.49Inflation subdued and dollar retains most of its value.
1970 $16.37JFK and LBJ used deficit spending to spur economic growth. That increased inflation, and lowered the dollar's value.
1980 $34.77Nixon ended the gold standard in 1973. The dollar lost half its value.
1990 $55.14Reaganomics cut taxes and increased the deficit, boosting inflation.
2000 $72.65Although the budget was balanced in the 1990s, inflation continued due to expansive monetary policy that boosted the money supply.
2010 $92.00Expansive monetary and fiscal policy added to the money supply to fight the Great Recession. 

Why Is the Dollar's Value Lower Today than 100 Years Ago?

Inflation is the necessary cost of an expanding economy. The Fed keeps interest rates low to stimulate spending. This drives demand and ultimately economic growth. In fact, the F​ed targets a 2percent core inflation rate. In other words, as long as prices only rise two percent a year, the economy will grow at a healthy rate. These prices exclude volatile food and energy.

Many countries that export to the United States accumulate dollars as payments.

They keep these on hand as foreign currency reserves.  Without foreign currency reserves, the value of the dollar today would be much lower. Here are three reasons why:

  1. The dollar is the world's reserve currency. That means that most international transactions are made in dollars. Foreign governments keep dollars on hand in case their businesses need it for global trade.
  2. Some countries, like China and Japan, export a lot to the United States. They get a lot of dollars in return for their goods. If some companies have too much, the government will exchange it for them.
  3. China and Japan also like to keep buying dollars. This practice keeps its value higher relative to their currencies. That makes their exports cheaper in comparison. Their companies then gain a competitive advantage.

President Trump and many Congressmen have accused China of manipulating its currency, the yuan.

They want China to let the yuan's value rise. That would allow U.S. exporters in many states to be more competitive. But this would be disastrous to most of us. Many experts say that the yuan is 30 percent lower than it should be. If the yuan rose 30 percent, so would the prices of the things China exports. Next time you want to buy something that says "Made in China," imagine it costing about a third more.

What It Means to You

The dollar's loss in value means that imports from places other than China or Japan will cost more. That's one reason why gas prices kept rising. They have fallen since 2014. It also means that trips overseas will be more expensive over time. However, a declining dollar value helps U.S. manufacturers export because their products cost less in foreign countries.

A decline in the dollar's value will eat away at your standard of living. For many Americans, that is exactly what has happened. That's because income inequality has increased. Between 2000-2006, average wages remained flat despite an increase in worker productivity of 15 percent. In those six years, corporate profits increased 1.3 percent per year. And that was before the recession.

Since the recession, the rich have just gotten richer. In 2012, the top 10 percent of earners took home 50 percent of all income. The top 1  percent earned 20 percent of all income. These are the highest percentages recorded in the last 100 years. (Source: “The Rich Get Richer Through the Recovery,” The New York Times, September 10, 2013.)