Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Great American Shopping List

Oh, American consumer, how we miss you!

Consumer spending is falling at a 3.1 percent annual rate, according to the latest statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Many of the nation's retailers reported double-digit declines in October sales, with the New York Times calling it a "collapse" in spending. Since consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of our economy, the belt tightening hurts all of us. To weather what looks like a prolonged economic downturn, businesses large and small need to brush up on consumer spending patterns. There is no better place to start than with The Great American Shopping List.

You can learn most of what you need to know about consumer spending by taking a look at the list--the inventory of every product and service purchased by American households, ranked by how much the average household spends on each item. The federal government collects the information by surveying thousands of households each month, asking them how much they spend on everything from cookies and crackers to video games and recreational vehicles. The Consumer Expenditure Survey data are used to create the all-important Consumer Price Index. Although the list is long, with more than 350 products and services, just 10 items consume more than half of the $50,000 spent by the average household each year. Here they are.

1. Social Security payroll taxes The bad news is that Social Security is our single biggest expense. The average household paid $3,811 into the Social Security trust fund, according to the 2006 Consumer Expenditure Survey. The good news is that this flow of funds reverses direction when you retire. If you don't believe it, join the crowd--only 31 percent of today's workers think Social Security will be their most important source of income in retirement, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. The rest will be surprised. The fact is, most American workers do not have a 401(k) or an IRA. Those who do have managed to save very little--and that was before the stock market crash. You don't have to be a number cruncher to realize that Social Security will be even more important tomorrow than it is today. Among people aged 65 or older, 68 percent receive at least half their income from Social Security.

2. Mortgage payments Hyperbole is the word that best describes the media narrative about the dire financial straits of the nation's homeowners. In fact, most homeowners have a manageable, fixed-rate mortgage. Most owe far less on their mortgage than their home is worth. Although there are plans afoot to help homeowners renegotiate their mortgage payment, few will need to take advantage of these efforts. Nevertheless, because mortgage payments are the second largest expense for the average household--an expense that is pretty much non-negotiable--household budget cutting will target items further down the list.

3. Car payments U.S. auto sales are plummeting, down 32 percent in October. Further declines are likely as households cut costs. The automotive industry is caught in a perfect storm--a severe recession, a paradigm shift in what consumers want (hint: better gas mileage), and a demographic transition as SUV-loving baby boomers morph into downsizing empty-nesters. The car payment is one item on which the average household can and is cutting back, forcing car manufacturers to beg the federal government for handouts to stay afloat.

4. Groceries Food prices have been rising at a pace not seen for decades, and forecasters say costs will continue to climb. Americans do not like paying higher prices for food, but they have little choice unless they want to plow up the backyard. Groceries are the fourth largest item in the Great American Shopping List. For grocery stores, the cutback in consumer spending could be good news, since a growing proportion of budget-minded shoppers are likely to head to a grocery store rather than a restaurant. In the grocery aisles, private labels will flourish, as will fresh prepared food--the grocery store's answer to the demand for fast-food convenience. Fresh prepared food is already the single biggest item on America's grocery list. Average household spending on fresh prepared food from the supermarket deli climbed an enormous 53 percent between 2000 and 2006, after adjusting for inflation.

5. Restaurant meals Eating out is a necessity, not a luxury, for busy two-earner and single-parent families with children. Convenience drives them to restaurants and price steers them to fast-food. This is why fast-food restaurants will weather the downturn far better than full-service establishments. At McDonald's, same-store sales were up 8 percent in October. Meanwhile, full-service restaurants such as Bennigan's are filing for bankruptcy.

6. Gasoline Even before prices soared, gasoline was one of the biggest household expenses. Now that Americans are desperately seeking savings, gasoline is an obvious target. Memo to Detroit: Fuel efficiency will be the number-one priority for American car buyers from now on, regardless of the price of a gallon of gas.

7. Federal taxes Taxes are a perennial political issue because they are one of the biggest household expenses. Middle class tax cuts may be on the way, but do not expect this line item to fall much lower in the list.

8. Property taxes With home values declining and local governments strapped for cash, property taxes will become one of the most contentious local issues of the economic downturn.

9. Health insurance The average household devoted $1,465 out-of-pocket to health insurance in 2006, 27 percent more than in 2000 after adjusting for inflation. Most Americans will do just about anything to avoid losing their health insurance, which guarantees budget cutting elsewhere as the cost of health insurance rises.

10. Electricity The average household spent $1,266 on electricity in 2006, placing it 10th on the Great American Shopping List. Consumers are eager for ways to reduce this major expense. This desire will fuel green businesses that can help them save them money.

Every item at the top of The Great American Shopping List is a necessary expense. This is not good news for the hundreds of items further down the list--such as women's clothes in 16th place, television sets in 69th place, ice cream in 123rd place, whiskey in 285th place, or dating services in 359th place. With jobs disappearing, incomes falling, and consumers cutting back, necessities will command a growing share of household spending, leaving less for everything else.


Anonymous said...

Every item on this list is not a necessary expense. I am living fine without three of them; mortgage payment, car payment and health insurance. I own my house and five vehicles outright. I am very careful to take good care of my health through health conscious lifestyle choices.

Anonymous said...

Restaurant eating is not a necessity. Food can be prepared at home much more cheaply, if people would only take the time. But then so many people do not know how to cook anything that doesn't come in a box or is prepared in a microwave.

Anonymous said...

There's a balance between frugality (boring life) and living it up (bankruptcy). For me, as long as I can save for retirement (and am on target to retire at 57 years old) and my kid's college education, I am happy to live it up by eating out (home-cooked is usually not as good as fine dining), taking vacations by air travel, having a nice bank-owned house and bank-owned cars.

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