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December 15, 2020

How much, and on what, was the average American household spending in a year before the coronavirus pandemic?

The Consumer Expenditure Survey (CEX) for 2019 provides the most definitive answer to that question, which we can compare with the previous 35 years worth of annual data to see how consumer spending has changed over time. Produced as a joint product of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau, the CEX compiles the information collected through tens of thousands of surveys, diaries and interviews submitted by U.S. households, or "consumer units" as the BLS' data jocks affectionately call them, which provides a tremendous amount of insight into how Americans allocate their limited resources.

In 2019, the average amount spent per American 'consumer unit' household was $63,036, which was up 3% (or $1,812) from 2018's level.

We've broken down that spending by major category and visualized the data from 1984 through 2019.

Major Categories of Average Annual Expenditures per Consumer Unit, 1984-2019

Illustrating the same major expenditure categories as a percent of the average annual expenditures of a U.S. household/consumer unit makes it easy to see the trends for each of the major categories.

Percent Share of Major Categories of Average Annual Expenditures per U.S. Household Consumer Unit, 1984-2019

We have one last chart to show how consumer spending has evolved over the 36 years from 1984 through 2019. The expenditures shown on the bottom of the chart, in shades of purple, show those expenditures whose share among the total has increased over time, while the expenditures shown toward the top of the chart, in shades of green, show the household expenses whose share of total spending has fallen.

Major Categories of Consumer Spending as Share of Average Annual Total Expenditures, 1984-2019

Here's the list of major categories of consumer expenditures whose share has risen from 1984 through 2019:

  • Housing
  • Financial Products (Life Insurance, Pension Savings & Social Security)
  • Health Care (Health Insurance and Medical Expenses)
  • Charitable Contributions
  • Education

And here's the list of major categories of consumer expenditures whose share has declined over the 36 years for which the data is available:

  • Apparel and Other Products
  • Food and Alcoholic Beverages
  • Transportation
  • Entertainment

Next year's data will be fascinating since almost all of 2020's data will have been affected by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. We'll have to wait until sometime in September 2021 to get complete data for 2020, but we may get a preliminary glimpse from interim Consumer Expenditure Survey results earlier in 2021.


U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Consumer Expenditure Survey. Multiyear Tables. [PDF Documents: 1984-1991, 1992-1999, 2000-2005, 2006-2012, 2013-2019]. Reference URL: http://www.bls.gov/cex/csxmulti.htm. 9 September 2020. 

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