If you feel like there’s nothing left at the end of the month, you aren’t alone. A recent Pew study found that 46% of Americans spend more than they make every month. Nearly half!
So where’s all the extra money going?
Are We Overspending on Luxuries?
You’ve probably heard that many Americans get themselves into financial trouble because they spend too much money eating out or buying clothes. Like many popular anecdotal observations, there’s a grain of truth to it—many people complain about money but still wear the latest fashions. But does that belief hold up to scrutiny?
Fortunately, we can test this claim. The US Census Bureau continuously compiles something called the Consumer Expenditure Survey by asking a representative sample of Americans for detailed spending information. The Bureau of Labor Statistics then releases this data once each year. This survey enables consumers to compare spending over time and really see where money is going.
What Do Americans Spend Money On?
The survey for 2016 was released recently, and here’s what the numbers say: average household spending totaled $57,311 in 2016, a tidy 2.4% increase from 2015. But we can’t argue that Americans are living it up. On average, each household spent only $6,602 on entertainment, food away from home, and clothing in 2016. That’s about one-third of what we spent on housing last year, which was $18,886.
Transportation and health care were the other budget killers. The average American spent $9,049 on cars (buying them and taking care of them) and $4,612 on health care ($3,160 on health insurance premiums).
What about Housing Costs?
Housing costs continue to rise fast. Just two years ago, they were $17,798 per year on average. They’ve gone up almost $1,000 since then, or nearly 7%. Meanwhile, spending on clothes and transportation were both down in the past year—and gas spending was down sharply, thanks to lower oil prices.
“The data does show [that] housing is growing as a percent of total spending,” said Steve Henderson, a supervisory economist in the Office of Prices and Living Conditions at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In fact, 33% of family spending now goes toward housing. For years, both banks and government agencies warned against families spending more than 30% of their budget on housing. Now, that’s become normal—another reason US households are on edge about the future.
What Does the Typical Monthly Budget Look Like?
Here’s the typical monthly budget for US households. How does your budget compare?
Housing: 33% ($18,886)
Transportation: 16% ($9,049)
Food: 13% ($7,203)
Pensions and insurance: 11% ($6,831)
Health care: 8% ($4,612)
Other: 7% ($3,933)
Entertainment: 5% ($2,913)
Apparel and services: 3% ($1,803)
(Calculations based on BLS data. Does not equal 100 because of rounding).
How Do These Numbers Compare with Those of the Past?
In general, expenses like food and clothing are way down, while housing eats up far more of the family budget than before. There’s a fascinating chart at howmuch.net that shows these effects over a 75-year span, based on data collected by the Census Bureau.
For example, in 1961, Americans spent an average of $4,157 on clothing in today’s dollars. That’s down to $1,803 now. Americans spent nearly $10,000 on food in 1961. That’s $7,203 now. On the other hand, housing costs were about $12,000 in 1961, and they are almost $19,000 now, a 50% rise in inflation-adjusted costs. But it gets even worse when we consider what goes into housing costs.
What Counts as a Housing Expense?
When calculating housing costs for homeowners, only mortgage interest, taxes, insurance, and repairs are included by the BLS. However, the amount of a mortgage payment that is applied to mortgage principal is not. That’s because it’s not technically considered an expenditure, says Henderson. It’s considered an acquisition of an asset—in this case, equity in the home.
While this is accurate in the long term, families certainly don’t feel that asset at the end of the month. On a month-to-month basis, principal payments are still expenditures for the family and still impact the family budget. Also, as we discovered during the collapse of the last housing bubble, when you put money into housing, you are definitely not guaranteed to get it back.
How Much Do American Households Eat Out?
There are some other interesting short-term trends in the survey data. The most obvious is this: as the recession slowly loosens its grip, American consumers are starting to eat out more. Consumer spending on food away from home jumped 8% last year and another 5% this year, while food at home inched up only 1% both years.
The rise in health care costs during the past six years is rather stunning, too. In 2011, the Consumer Expenditure Survey pegged healthcare spending at $3,313. In 2016, though, it went up to $4,612. That’s a 39% increase in only half a decade. For comparison, during that same span, spending on entertainment went up only 13%. Over the same stretch, overall spending was up 15%. Apparently, movies are out and health care premiums are in.
So What Does This All Mean?
These findings show that the US economy is now driven by consumer spending, which accounts for about two-thirds of all economic activity—but even as incomes and spending pick up a little, that money isn’t going to food or entertainment. It’s getting sucked up by healthcare and housing. And that’s a big reason the post-recession economic recovery seems to be moving along at a snail’s pace.
So the next time someone suggests Americans are struggling because they waste money on frivolous things, ask them about the Census Bureau data.
“I can’t say whether people are wasting money on clothing or entertainment,” Henderson says. “But housing gobbles up the biggest share, and . . . it squeezes out money you have for other things.”
What Can You Do?
Households in the US continue to face challenges. If housing and health care costs keep rising like this, US consumers may be in for some economic trouble in the future. If you’re concerned about our current trajectory, there are a few things you can do—including spending wisely, getting out of debt or avoiding debt, setting aside some savings each month, and keeping an eye on your credit. You can check your credit report for free at Credit.com.