Topic Archives: Consumer Spending

The Griswold Family Vacation through the Lens of BLS Data

We have a guest blogger for this edition of Commissioner’s Corner. Joy Langston is a budget analyst at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. She enjoys watching classic movies when she’s not working.

As summer wraps up, let’s slow the transition into cooler weather to explore the dream American summer vacation of the Griswold family. America first met the Griswolds in the cult classic National Lampoon’s Vacation. We’ll relive their vacation through the lens of our gold-standard data. Clark Griswold, the easygoing and optimistic patriarch of the family, wants a fun vacation with his wife, Ellen, and adolescent son and daughter, Rusty and Audrey, before the kids grow up. For the past 15 years, Clark has worked as a food scientist creating “new and better food additives.” Data from the 2017 Employee Benefits Survey show that after 10 years of service, full-time workers like Clark receive on average 18 days of vacation, or almost 4 weeks.

Since he has the time, Clark decides to lead the family on a cross-country expedition from the Chicago suburbs to Walley World — “America’s Favorite Family Fun Park” in Southern California. Ellen agrees to the destination but wants to fly, as it will be less of a hassle. However, data from the Consumer Expenditure Surveys suggest driving may not be a bad idea. The average amount a household spent on vacations was $2,076 in 2017, with $684 for transportation costs, so flying from Chicago to Southern California was likely not in the Griswolds’ budget. To jumpstart this trip, Clark ordered the new “Antarctic Blue Super Sports Wagon with the Rally Fun Pack” from the local car dealership. He is scammed into buying the far less appealing, but now iconic, metallic pea, wood grained trimmed station wagon instead. Nevertheless, Clark is determined to make this the best family vacation ever.

Eventually, Ellen gives in to her husband’s enthusiasm and the Griswolds embark on their adventure, but not before stopping for their first tank of gas. You may remember that Clark struggled to find the gas tank, which was ridiculously located under the hood, by the engine, on the passenger’s side. The average household spent $109 in 2017 on gas for out-of-town trips and $1,797 for all uses. In July 2018, the national average price of gas was $2.93 per gallon, according to the Consumer Price Index. Although America has traded in station wagons for SUVs, neither are gas efficient and the Griswolds probably had to fuel up frequently on the 2,460-mile drive.

The family’s first misstep includes taking the wrong exit in St. Louis, Missouri, where they lose a couple of car parts while stopping to ask for directions in a questionable neighborhood. Despite this portrayal of St. Louis, the Occupational Employment Statistics data show this metro area had about 1.4 million jobs in 2017. About 16 percent of them were in office and administrative support occupations, with an average wage of $37,720 per year. Another 10 percent of jobs were in sales and related occupations, and 7 percent were in healthcare practitioners and technical occupations.

Driving through Kansas, they stop in Dodge City to experience life in the Wild West and order drinks in a saloon. According to the Current Employment Statistics survey, stops like these, including historical sites and other historical institutions, provide an average of 69,000 jobs from May to August nationwide.

The Griswolds make it to Coolidge, Kansas, where Ellen’s cousins live. The cousins pressure Clark and Ellen into dropping off cantankerous Aunt Edna — and her equally feisty dog — at her son’s home in Phoenix, Arizona. According to the American Time Use Survey Americans spend an average of 39 minutes a day — or about 237 hours a year — socializing and communicating in person. The survey also shows that Americans spend an average 4 minutes a day caring for and helping nonhousehold adults. The Griswold family gets a concentrated dose of this social activity by adding Aunt Edna to their road trip party.

For lunch, they stop off at rest stop to enjoy some homemade sandwiches. The average American household spent $56 in 2017 on food prepared for out-of-town trips, and $3,365 on food away from home (including fast food establishments and full service restaurants). The Griswolds’ enjoyment is cut short when they realize there is more to their soggy baloney cheese sandwiches than they bargained for. As it turns out, Aunt Edna’s spiteful dog used the picnic basket as a bathroom during the car ride. If you’re driving with a pet and want to avoid this mishap, Kansas has more than 4,600 restaurants and eating places to choose from, according to the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.

They spend the night in one of Colorado’s 98 campgrounds in three large, smelly tents. Despite their positive attitudes the next morning, the Griswolds meet with more misfortunes, including being pulled over by a state trooper, Ellen losing her bag with the credit cards, quarrels over their dwindling cash supply, and crashing in the Arizona desert while trying to find a shortcut to the Grand Canyon. After they are rescued and towed to a service station, Clark haggles with the local mechanic, who doubles as the local sheriff, and takes the rest of Clark’s cash. The average American household spent $954 on car maintenance and repairs in 2017, although costs usually are spread throughout the year and not on vacation misadventures.

By the time they drop off Aunt Edna in Phoenix, Ellen and the kids are begging Clark to buy plane tickets to go back home. However, Clark’s enthusiasm hasn’t waned, and he declares this road trip a pilgrimage.

When they finally arrive at Walley World, they discover it is closed for the next two weeks for repairs. Exasperated, Clark demands the security guard open the gates and let the family into the park. After a couple rollercoaster rides, the SWAT team and owner of the park, Roy Walley, arrive. As the police put handcuffs on Clark’s family, Clark begs Roy not to press charges. Clark persuades Roy not only to drop the charges but to allow the family to stay and enjoy all the rides! Americans do love their theme parks. There were nearly 1,000 theme parks in the United States in 2017, with 87 of them in California. These parks provided 185,000 jobs nationwide. This industry increased its labor productivity 13.7 percent in 2017, as theme parks reported higher output while hours worked by employees decreased.

Over the course of their trip, the Griswolds share a number of experiences, many of which either hit a little too close to home, or we hope to never experience for ourselves. After a long and tiresome trip, we hope Ellen finally has her way and Clark doesn’t force the Griswolds to spend another two weeks driving back to Chicago, which would deplete all his vacation days! This classic summer movie shows that BLS really does have a stat for that!

A Clearer Look at Response Rates in BLS Surveys

Hands holding a tablet computer and completing a surveyPeople know BLS for our high-quality data on employment, unemployment, price trends, pay and benefits, workplace safety, productivity, and other topics. We strive to be transparent in how we produce those data. We provide detailed information on our methods for collecting and publishing the data. This allows businesses, policymakers, workers, jobseekers, students, investors, and others to make informed decisions about how to use and interpret the data.

We couldn’t produce any of these statistics without the generous cooperation of the people and businesses who voluntarily respond to our surveys. We are so grateful for the public service they provide.

To improve transparency about the quality of our data, we recently added a new webpage on response rates to our surveys and programs. We previously published response rates for many of our surveys in different places on our website. Until now there hasn’t been a way to view those response rates together in one location.

What is a response rate, and why should I care?

A response rate is the percent of potential respondents who completed the survey. We account for the total number of people, households, or businesses we tried to survey (the sample) and the number that weren’t eligible (for example, houses that were vacant or businesses that had closed). Response rates are an important measure for survey data. High response rates mean most of the sample completed the survey, and we can be confident the statistics represent the target population. Low response rates mean the opposite, and data users may want to consider other sources of information.

Do response rates tell the whole story?

A low response rate may mean the data don’t represent the target population well, but not necessarily. How much a low response rate affects how well the estimates represent the population is called nonresponse bias. Some important research by Robert M. Groves and Emilia Peytcheva published in the January 2008 issue of Public Opinion Quarterly looked at the connection between response rates and nonresponse bias in 59 studies. The authors found that high response rates can reduce the risk of bias, but there is not a strong correlation between response rate and nonresponse bias. Some surveys had a very low response rate but did not have evidence of high nonresponse bias. Other surveys had high nonresponse bias despite high response rates.

This means we should look at response rates with other measures of data quality and bias. BLS has studied nonresponse bias for many years. We have links to many of those studies in our library of statistical working papers.

What should I be looking for on the new page?

With response rates from multiple surveys in a single place, you can look for patterns across surveys and across time. For example, across every graph we see that response rates are declining over time. This is happening for nearly all surveys, government and private, on economic and other topics. It is simply getting harder to persuade respondents to answer our surveys.

Individual survey response rates are also interesting compared with other BLS surveys. We see that some surveys have higher response rates than others. To understand why this might be, we’ll want to look at the differences between the surveys. Each survey has specific collection procedures that affect response rates. For example, the high response rate for the Annual Refiling Survey (shown as ARS in the second chart) may catch your eye. When you see that it has a 12-month collection period and is mandatory in 26 states, the rate makes more sense.

We also can see how survey-specific changes have affected a survey’s response rate. For example, we see a drop in the response rate for the Telephone Point of Purchase Survey around 2012. This drop likely resulted from a change in sample design, as the survey moved from a sample of landline telephones to a dual-frame sample with both landlines and cell phones. Because the response rate for this survey continues to decline, we are developing a different approach for collecting the needed data.

What should I know before jumping into the new page?

There’s a lot of information! We’ve tried to make it as user friendly as possible, including a glossary page with definitions of terms and a page to show how each survey calculates their response rates. On the graphs, you can isolate a single survey by hovering over each of the lines. You can also download the data shown in each graph to examine it more closely.

We hope you will find this page helpful for understanding the quality of BLS data. Please let us know how you like it!

Up and Down the Turnpike: The Power of State Estimates of Consumer Spending

You may know New Jersey for its Turnpike, its Parkway, and ribbons of highways crisscrossing the state, but new information shows that New Jersey households have fewer vehicles than the U.S. average. New Jersey households have an average of 1.4 vehicles, compared with an average of 1.8 vehicles nationwide.

This is just one of the tidbits we can glean from experimental state weights in the Consumer Expenditure Survey just released for New Jersey. Producing state estimates is part of our continuing plan to expand the use of data on consumer spending. The first available state weights are for New Jersey. We hope to release weights for more states in the coming months.

The survey is a nationwide household survey designed to find out how U.S. consumers spend their money. It is the only federal government survey that provides information on the full range of consumer spending, incomes, and demographic characteristics. One way BLS uses the consumer spending data is to create the market basket of goods and services tracked in the Consumer Price Index. Besides the spending information, the survey also collects the demographic characteristics of survey respondents. The new state weights allow us to examine what the typical New Jersey household looks like.

New Jersey looks similar to the United States as a whole, and even more similar to the New York metro area, which encompasses much of the northern part of New Jersey. One notable difference between New Jersey and other areas is the number of vehicles. Transportation in the Consumer Expenditure Survey includes vehicle purchases and gasoline and other car-related expenses. We would expect to see lower transportation spending in New Jersey compared with the nation because of fewer vehicles present in the state and other reasons.

A chart showing income and consumer spending levels in 2016 in New Jersey, the New York metro area, and the United States.

Editor’s note: Data for this chart are available in the table below.

Now that we can produce statistically valid state estimates from the survey, we can answer all kinds of interesting questions. Many researchers look at different spending categories to examine public policies and to evaluate how certain decisions affect consumer behavior. Because we can now use the survey data to make estimates for certain states, researchers can explore these kinds of questions with more geographic detail. The chart below shows how New Jersey compares with the New York metro area and the nation in five of the broadest spending categories.

Average annual consumer spending in 2016 for selected categories in New Jersey, the New York metro area, and the United States.

Editor’s note: Data for this chart are available in the table below.

Policymakers, researchers, and other data users have often asked for data about spending habits and income for states. Many times, household surveys just do not have enough sample to provide reliable estimates for all possible user needs. With our continuing improvements to the Consumer Expenditure Survey, we are learning which states provide enough responses for us to produce statistically valid state estimates. Once we create these weights for the states that can support them, data users will be able to explore a wider range of questions about consumer spending.

You can learn more from BLS economist Taylor Wilson’s article, “Consumer spending by state: BLS puts New Jersey to the test.”

Average annual income and selected expenditures, 2016
Measure New Jersey New York
Metropolitan
Statistical Area
United States
Income $89,927 $87,212 $74,069
Total expenditures 63,100 65,764 54,157
Transportation expenditures 7,295 6,828 8,755
Average consumer spending in selected categories, 2016
Geography Housing Food Transportation Healthcare Entertainment
New Jersey $23,617 $8,641 $7,295 $5,239 $2,097
New York Metropolitan Statistical Area 24,308 9,190 6,828 4,260 2,277
United States 17,774 7,203 8,755 4,373 2,497

Why This Counts: Maximizing Our Data Using the Consumer Expenditure Survey

Almost all BLS statistical programs are based on information respondents voluntarily give us. We want to squeeze as much information as we can out of the data respondents generously provide. Limiting respondent burden while producing gold-standard data is central to our mission.

Let’s take a look at how one program, the Consumer Expenditure (CE) Survey, squeezes every last drop of information from the data to provide you, our customers, with more relevant information.

What is the Consumer Expenditure Survey?

The CE survey is a nationwide household survey that shows how U.S. consumers spend their money. It collects information from America’s families on their buying habits (expenditures), income, and household characteristics (age, sex, race, education, and so forth). For example, we publish what percentage of consumers bought bacon or ice cream and how much they spent on average.

A little back story: The first nationwide expenditure survey began in 1888. BLS was founded in 1884, so the CE Survey is one of our first surveys! It wasn’t until 1980 that we began publishing CE data each year, however. A 2010 article, The Consumer Expenditure Survey—30 Years as a Continuous Survey, provides more historical information.

How is the CE program doing more with what we have?

We’ll briefly look at four different areas, starting with the most recent improvements:

  • Limited state data
  • Higher-income data
  • Generational data
  • Estimating taxes

Limited State Data – Starting with New Jersey

  • Regarding geographical information, the CE survey is designed to produce national statistics. Enough sample data are available to produce estimates for census regions and for a few metropolitan areas.
  • Up to now, however, we did not produce state data. The CE program recently published state weights for New Jersey, which will allow for valid survey estimates at the state level for the first time.
  • State-level weights are available for states with a sample size that is large enough and meet other sampling conditions.
  • Right now, the state-level weighting is experimental. We provide state-level weights to data users to gauge interest and usefulness.

 Higher-Income Table

  • We evaluated the income ranges of the published tables and found that over time more and more households were earning more, and the top income range had not increased to keep pace. To provide greater detail, we divided the existing top income range of “$150,000 and over” into two new ranges: “$150,000 to $199,999” and “$200,000 and over.” We integrated these changes into the 2014 annual “Income before taxes” research table, allowing more robust analysis for our data users.
  • In addition, we added four new experimental cross-tabulated tables on income without the need for additional information from our respondents.

Generational Table

Grouping respondent information by age cohort can be helpful, since a person’s age can help to predict differences in buying attitudes and behaviors. The CE program has collected age data for years, but never grouped the data into generational cohorts before. A Pew Research Center report defines five generations for people born between these dates:

  • Millennial Generation: 1981 or later
  • Generation X: 1965 to 1980
  • Baby Boomers: 1946 to 1964
  • Silent Generation: 1928 to 1945
  • Greatest Generation: 1927 or earlier

The 2016 annual generational table shows our most recent age information for the “reference person” or the person identified as owning or renting the home included in the CE Survey. In 2016 we wrote a short article on Spending Habits by Generation, including a video, which used 2015 data. We’ve updated the chart using 2016 data:

A chart showing consumer spending patterns by generation in 2016.

Editor’s note: Data for this chart are available in the table below.

Estimating Taxes

CE respondents used to provide federal and state income tax information as part of the survey. These questions were difficult for respondents to answer.

Starting in 2013, the CE program estimated federal and state tax information using the TaxSim model from the National Bureau of Economic Research and removed the tax questions from the survey. As a result, the quality and consistency of the data increased, and we have reduced respondent burden!

If you have any questions or want more information, our staff of experts is always around to help! Please feel free to contact us.

This is just one example of how we at BLS are always looking for ways to maximize our value while being ever mindful of the costs—and one of those important costs is the burden our data collection efforts place on our respondents. Maximizing our data means providing gold-standard data to the public while reducing the burden on our respondents—a true win-win!

Annual consumer spending by generation of reference person, 2016
Item Millennials, 1981 to now Generation X, 1965 to 1980 Baby Boomers, 1946 to 1964 Silent Generation, 1928 to 1945 Greatest Generation, 1927 or earlier
Food at home $3,370 $4,830 $4,224 $3,450 $2,023
Food away from home 2,946 4,040 3,100 2,042 1,095
Housing 16,959 22,669 18,917 14,417 17,858
Apparel and services 1,753 2,577 1,602 920 615
Transportation 8,426 10,545 9,762 5,952 3,142
Healthcare 2,473 4,492 5,492 6,197 5,263
Entertainment 2,311 3,613 3,144 2,114 1,223
All other spending 10,338 15,766 14,963 6,671 4,125

BLS Celebrates Read Across America Day

BLS celebrates the National Education Association’s Read Across America Day on March 2. Not by coincidence, it is also the birthday of the well-known author Dr. Seuss.

In the words of the famous author, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

BLS data show that reading is every bit as important as Dr. Seuss claimed. Only 2.5 percent of workers do not need to read or write on their job, according the Occupational Requirements Survey. However, the American Time Use Survey finds that only about 20 percent of people read for personal interest on an average day.

In honor of Dr. Seuss and Read Across America Day, how about taking some time to learn what else BLS data tell us about reading?

“Fill your house with stacks of books, in all the crannies and all the nooks.” –Dr. Seuss

Consumers spent $15,268,000,000 on reading in 2016, according to the Consumer Expenditure Surveys. On average, households (technically referred to as consumer units) spent $118 on reading. So, of the Whos down in Whoville, which Whos are reading?

  • Households in the West region spent an average of $171 on reading. Those in the Midwest averaged $121, while households in the Northeast and South regions averaged just under $100.
  • Married couples without children spent an average of $174 on reading for their household; those with children spent $123. The households of single parents with children under 18 spent an average of $41.
  • Generationally, when the reference person was a baby boomer (born between 1946 and 1964), the household spent an average of $130 on reading. That compares with an average of $64 spent by households of millennials (those born in 1981 or later).

The Consumer Price Index gives us information about changes in the prices of the goods and services we buy. For example, prices for eggs (white or brown, but not green) increased 11.6 percent in 2017, and prices for ham were up 2.7 percent.

  • Prices for recreational books decreased 3.2 percent in 2017 and were 7.7 percent lower than in 2007.
  • Costs for newspapers and magazines declined 1.1 percent in 2017, but were 37.5 percent higher than a decade ago.
  • Prices for educational books and supplies decreased 1.8 percent in 2017, but were 58.3 percent higher than in 2007.

“I can read in red. I can read in blue. I can read in pickle color too.” –Dr. Seuss

According to the American Time Use Survey, the share of women who spent time reading for personal interest was larger than the share of men. In addition, women were slightly more likely than men to spend time reading to and with children in the household (excluding education- and health-related reading).

  • Seventeen percent of men and 21.8 percent of women spent time reading for personal interest on an average day. On the days they read, men and women spent an average of around an hour and a half participating in this activity.
  • On an average day, 13.4 percent of fathers and 18.5 percent of mothers spent time reading to and with their young children. On days they engaged in this activity, it accounted for about a half an hour of time for both fathers and mothers.

“You’re never too old, too wacky, too wild, to pick up a book and read to a child.” –Dr. Seuss

Do you want to spend more time with Thing 1 and Thing 2? How about a fox in socks or a cat in a hat? Library workers get to do all of that!

Librarians, library technicians and clerical library assistants spend all day with books. Librarians earn the highest wages of the three and also require higher levels of education and work experience, according to the Occupational Employment Statistics and the Occupational Requirements Surveys.

  • Nearly 50 percent of librarian jobs required a bachelor’s degree, and another 42 percent required a master’s degree in 2017. High school diplomas were more common for library techs (42 percent) and clerical library assistants (80 percent).
  • The average annual wage for librarians in 2016 was $59,870. Library technicians averaged $34,780 and clerical library assistants, $27,450.
  • Lifting books is a big job. On a scale from sedentary to very heavy, a medium level of strength was required for about 57 percent of librarian jobs and 71 percent of clerical library assistant jobs.

“There’s no limit to how much you’ll know, depending how far beyond zebra you go.” –Dr. Seuss

So, how will you celebrate Read Across America Day—in a boat, with a goat, in the rain, on a train, in a box, with a fox, in a house, with a mouse? Don’t forget the green eggs and ham! And remember, “You can find magic wherever you look, sit back and relax, all you need is a book.” –Dr. Seuss