Wednesday, October 14, 2020

New Spending Categories in the 2019 CEX

It is always interesting to note any changes in the line items of the Consumer Expenditure Survey (CEX) each year. New items, combined items, and deleted items reveal the effort by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to keep up with changes in technology and lifestyles. 

In 2005, for example, the expenditure category "personal digital audio equipment" was added to the survey to capture spending on Apple's phenomenally successful iPod and similar devices. But, as Demo Memo reported previously, by the time "personal digital audio equipment" made it into the CEX, average household spending on this item was at its peak, topping out at $22.08 in 2006 (in 2019 dollars). By 2019, average household spending on personal digital audio players had fallen to just $0.51. Yes, that's 51 cents.

CEX researchers occasionally combine items, which can dismay those who track spending trends. Demo Memo reported on one such combo a few years ago. In 2017, the "video cassette, tape, and disc rentals" category was folded into the "streamed and downloaded video" category. Consequently, analysts could no longer track spending on streaming/downloading alone, which had been one of the fastest growing entertainment categories of the 2006-to-2016 decade.

What's new in the recently released 2019 Consumer Expenditure Survey? Only a handful of items. Let's start with the mundane: "swimwear" has been added as an apparel category for men, women, boys, and girls. It's not clear where swimwear spending was housed prior to its becoming a line item  in 2019—perhaps it was included in underwear or in costumes?

More interesting are two other new categories in the 2019 CEX—"scooters and other single rider transportation," and "bike sharing." The average household spent $4.79 on scooters in 2019, which doesn't sound like much because the average includes both purchasers and non purchasers. But this amount is more than twice what the average household spent on men's swimwear in 2019. The biggest spenders on scooters are people aged 75 or older. At this age, the scooter surely must be a mobility device, which raises the question of why it appears under the "sports, recreation, and exercise equipment" umbrella rather in the transportation section alongside cars, motorcycles, airplanes, and buses.  

The average household spent a lot less on bike sharing than on scooters in 2019—just $0.22, although it should be noted that data collection on this item did not start until the second quarter of 2019. Give it time, and spending on bike sharing is likely to rise. Like scooters, bike sharing is in the "sports, recreation and exercise equipment" category, but arguably more deserving of its placement there. The biggest spenders on bike sharing are householders under age 25. Among householders aged 65 or older, there are no 2019 spending data for bike sharing—meaning very few older Americans availed themselves of the service. Note that car sharing, unlike bike sharing, does not yet have its own line item in the CEX. The significant household spending on car sharing shows up in the transportation category, subsumed under "taxi fares" (for services such as Uber, Lyft, etc.), while Zipcar and similar platforms likely add to spending on "rented vehicles." 

Source: Demo Memo analysis of unpublished tables from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2019 Consumer Expenditure Survey

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