How Americans spend their money

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Americans spent slightly more than 15 percent of their income on food last year, and nearly 17 percent of their income on transportation. Those statistics and much more, comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and provides a unique look at how Americans spend their money.

In a series of articles for NPR.org, Jacob Goldstein and Lam Thuy Vo compared how spending on various items has changed over time. Specifically, the authors compared statistics from 2011 with those from 1949 and found food spending had decreased dramatically. While the 2011 total for food spending was 15.3 percent of income, Americans in 1949 spent 40 percent of their income on food. In 2011 the total includes 8.6 percent on groceries and 5.7 percent of income on food at restaurants, delis, etc.

We may be spending much less on food than in 1949, but spending on transportation last year was significantly higher. Total transportation in 2011 accounted for 16.9 percent of income, compared with just 7.3 percent in 1949. The transportation breakdown for 2011 includes the following: gasoline 5.3 percent; cars (new and used) 5.7 percent; car parts, repairs, etc. 1.6 percent; public transportation 1.2 percent; other 3.1 percent.

Goldstein and Vo noted that the rise in spending on transportation was driven by the increase in cars on the road. “In 1950, there were only three vehicles for every 10 Americans. By 2000, that had risen to eight vehicles for every 10 Americans.”

Americans largest expense in 1949 was food, but in 2011 the largest money drain was housing at 41.0 percent. In comparison, Americans spent 26.1 percent of their income on housing in 1949. The housing breakdown in 2011 included 31.5 percent for rent and mortgages; 5.4 percent for utilities; and 4.1 percent for furniture and other household items.

Also of note is the fact Americans spent 3.6 percent of their income on clothes and apparel in 2011, down significantly from the 11.7 percent spent in 1949.

Regarding medical care, the trend is up. In 1949 Americans spent 3.2 percent of their income on medical care compared with 7.1 percent last year.

Recreation spending remained nearly steady – 5 percent in 1949 compared to 6 percent of income in 2011.



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