New 2010 Data on How America Spends: Bundle's first quarter numbers show a spring splurge
What were you doing in March? It was raining here in New York. Leno completed his ouster of Conan, and scientists discovered a new planet! The rest of us, however, were taking a big swan-dive off the frugal wagon. According to Bundle's latest spending data, the average American household spent $3,409 (excluding taxes, rent and mortgage) — a 12.5 percent increase over March of 2009, and the spendiest month of the first quarter of this year.
Why the spring splurge? Financially, our situations haven't improved all that much over the last 12 months. Unemployment is still high. Homeowners remain in default. Shopping sprees fueled by unlimited credit remain a distant memory. And yet, we're spending more. Entertainment spending was up 11 percent in the first quarter, compared to a year ago. We spent 9.9 percent more on our hobbies, 9.6 percent more on electronics, and gave 8.5 percent more to charity.
It isn't just our data showing the bump: The official government estimate showed a similar, but much smaller, goose earlier this month. And while the data comes from different places - the Bureau of Economic Analysis includes spending "on behalf of households," like insurance payments and nonprofit services; Bundle's data is based on credit-card transactions (here's the complete explanation) and therefore only includes money that actual people spend — together they point to some renewed optimism, even if it might be fleeting.
For context, "this is the highest it's been in three years," says Kyle Brown, an economist at the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The last time we were spending like this, the stock market was in the middle of a five-year climb and housing prices had yet to fall. This time, the causes may well be psychological - one reason economists think it's unlikely to last. At the beginning of the year, consumers gradually came around to the idea that, no matter how bad things were, they weren't likely to get much worse. The biggest of the layoffs and pay cuts seemed to be over. Months of abstinence had created small pockets of savings. Consumers felt comfortable again, explained Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Economy.com, and there was stuff they wanted to buy. We were hungry, and so we ate.
Not uniformly, though. There were wide gaps in who did — and didn't — start buying again. In Washington, D.C., and in Texas, residents spent 7.9 percent more in the first quarter than a year prior. In Delaware and Kentucky, spending jumped half as much. At the city level, household spending grew by more than 8 percent in Baltimore and Philadelphia, while it picked up just 3.4 percent in Jacksonville. And Detroit continues to struggle: It was the only one of the 25 biggest American cities to see a spending drop (-0.3 percent) in the quarter.
What we bought varied considerably. New Yorkers spent 11.3 percent more on clothes. In Columbus, spending on cable and satellite services jumped 21.9 percent. Los Angelenos went back to the spa and re-upped their gym memberships, spending 13.5 percent more on personal care. And in Chicago, spending on healthcare rose by 9.7 percent.
Across the country, though, the revival was fueled by one group in particular: the wealthiest Americans. Households earning between $100,000 and $125,000 increased spending by 6.7 percent in the first quarter; households that earn more than $125,000 kicked up spending by 7.4 percent. In every other income category, spending grew by less than 6 percent, and for people earning less than $20,000, spending increased by less than 2 percent. This is another reason economists worry that this particular recovery isn't sustainable: for the economy to truly grow, everyone has to spend, and that won't happen until more people have jobs. "We need to see some hiring," says Sweet. "Until then, I think consumers are going to pull back, get a little more cautious with their spending."
To be sure, percentages and averages don't always tell the full story. Given that the average American household spent $9,013 total, for the quarter, and some of the categories are small to begin with, little jumps can look big, and bigger increases can seem smaller. For example, the extra $14 spent on entertainment translated to an 11.5% jump in the first quarter, while the additional $100 in the food budget translates to a 6.9 percent increase.
That doesn't mean these can't be helpful. Businesses often use the official government estimates as a reality check on their own forecasting. Consumers could do worse than to do the same. There's no rational reason our spending should have changed this spring. But it did: largely because we felt better. That, at the very least, ought to serve as a personal reality check.
Bundle's spending data for January through March is now available for free with our Everybody's Money tool. Dig into it and tell us what you see in your city or your situation. A few other findings based on analysis of household status, income, and age:
MORE FIRST QUARTER SPENDING FACTS
- Households classified as "Married without kids" and "single with kids" had the biggest increase in spending versus last year, with 12 percent jumps in spending, respectively.
- Also in households: The lowest spending increase came from single females without kids (up 4 percent, with spending increases in charity and "general shopping"), and their change was just a bit less than single males without kids (whose spending jumped 5 percent, with bumps in categories including insurance and entertainment).
- Those who are married with kids spent 10 percent more in the first quarter 2010 compared to last year. For the parents, purchases from "clothing, shoes and other wear" and entertainment each jumped 20 percent while home maintenance and home improvement spending categories each dropped 4 percent.
- Daddy, buy me a dog: Married households with kids saw the most dramatic increase in pet spending, up 13 percent in the first quarter 2010. Compare this to below 10 percent increases in other segments.
- The biggest jump in electronics spending came from single households with children (up 16 percent in the first quarter). Single with kids also had the biggest drop in home maintenance spending (down 6 percent).
- 26-35-year-olds had the biggest increase in spending first quarter, up 7 percent on average.
- Biggest category increases for 18-25-year-olds? "hobbies" (+15 percent) and "general shopping" (+14 percent)
(Top 25 cities by population, ranked by largest percentage change in avg. household spending, Jan.-March 2010)
1. Baltimore (average household spending up 8.7% in first quarter)
2. Austin (+8.5%)
3. Philadelphia (+8.2%)
4. New York (+7.7%)
5. Boston (+7.7%)
6. Chicago (+7.3)
7. Seattle (+7.1%)
8. Los Angeles (+7%)
9. San Antonio (+6.8%)
10. Phoenix (+6.4%)
11. San Diego (+6.4%)
12. Dallas (+6.4%)
13. Fort Worth (+6.3%)
14. El Paso (+6.2%)
15. Houston (+6%)
16. Memphis (+5.9%)
17. San Francisco (+5.7%)
18. Milwaukee (+4.5%)
19. Denver (+4.2%)
20. Columbus (+4.1%)
21. Charlotte (+3.6%)
22. San Jose (+3.4%)
23. Jacksonville (+3.4%)
24. Indianapolis (+2.4%)
25. Detroit (-0.3%)
What's your spend type? Take the Bundle spending quiz The truth about food spending in America — a city-by-city breakdown
The top-spending households for 2009: A 50-state infographic