What America Buys

How does the “average” American spend his or her money? And how have spending patterns changed over time?

This infographic from Planet Money offers a tidy breakdown of what everyday American households purchase, drawing on government data (PDF) from the past year.

While the researches couldn’t include everything, they listed the largest expenses, along with some notable smaller categories that may catch readers’ interest.



Strangely, educational costs are not covered here, but an average family in the U.S. spends about 3% of all income on tuition and child care. Health costs are also quite variable. Those injured at work can incur both medical expenses and lost wages. Contact an employment attorney if you need assistance recovering benefits from your L&I claim, or if you need help appealing a rejected workers’ compensation claim.

Researchers have also crunched this data to determine how American spending patters have shifted over time. Here’s a comparison of spending in 1949 versus 2011.


One element that people immediately notice is the sharp decline in spending on food and clothing. This is overwhelming the result of large-scale increases in agricultural productivity and manufacturing, which have made food and clothes dramatically cheaper in real terms.

The Atlantic recently studied ways that consumer spending has changed over a number of decades. Here’s how they summarized some of the key shifts:

Across the U.S. economy one sees that items requiring fewer workers (such as socks) become cheaper, while services in which American workers can’t be replaced (such as health care and education) don’t become cheaper at all. In fact, they usually grow more expensive.

However, that’s not necessarily bad news. A booming economy that has less need for people to manufacture stuff can employ those people in other jobs. We should design an economy that empowers workers to move into new industries that serve our needs. Of course too many workers serving a need pushes prices in one direction: Up.

The spike in housing costs from 1949 and 2011 is also noteworthy. It’s striking that people are buying or renting considerably larger homes these days. While an average home in 1950 was about 1,000 square feet; in 2000, an average new house is well over 2,000 square feet.

The increase in spending on transportation costs is directly linked to the increase of cars. In 1950, there was only one vehicle per three Americans. Yet by 2000, that ratio had grown to 4 in 5.

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