Americans spend more at restaurants than at grocery stores; use restaurants in new ways

Spending data from the Census shows that for the first time Americans spent more at restaurants than on buying food at grocery stores:

More than two decades ago, Americans spent $162 in groceries for every $100 they spent in restaurants. But this past January, they spent nearly equal amounts of money in both places: $50.475 billion in restaurants and bars, and $50.466 billion in grocery stores.

There are several social changes behind this:

Perry attributes the numbers to dropping gas prices, which have left many people with more disposable income. But it’s unlikely that a single factor is to thank for the trend. “I think it’s a combination of a recovering economy and changing eating habits,” he said, extrapolating that “the millennial generation [may be] more likely to eat out than cook at home.” Perry also noted that dining in restaurants simply isn’t the once-in-a-blue-moon event it used to be…

Martha Hoover, the founder of sprawling Indianapolis restaurant empire Patachou, goes one step further: Restaurants have earned a role in society that is equal to “work” or “home.”…

“We’ve seen a huge shift in San Francisco,” she told Yahoo Food. “I’ve seen people who treat restaurants like they do in New York City: as their kitchens.” Weinberg attributes the change to people working longer hours, leaving them with little time to prepare their own meals. Grocery shopping, too, can be a pricey proposition if one develops a predilection for organic and local fare.

In other words, home and family life has changed alongside different economic options. We might also see restaurants more as “third places” between work and home where people can socialize and pay for their meals in a comfortable in between space.

Century 21 survey suggests many Americans would cut back in other areas to buy their “dream home

A new survey from Century 21 looks at what other purchases Americans would be willing to sacrifice in order to afford their “dream home”:

69 percent of homeowners who don’t own what they described as their “dream home” would be willing to make sacrifices to their personal lifestyle to be financially able to purchase it. Non-homeowners are more willing to make sacrifices, and 80 percent indicated they are willing to make changes to their personal lifestyle in order to be financially able purchase their dream home, including:

  • 50 percent: would cut back on dining out,
  • 49 percent: would cut back on their shopping for non-essential items (e.g.,
    clothing, accessories, gadgets, etc.),
  • 47 percent: would give up luxuries (e.g., expensive cable packages, trips to the
    salon, etc.),
  • 39 percent: would cut back on vacations, and
  • 10 percent would contribute less to their 401(k) in order to be able to purchase
    their dream home.

This suggests buying a home is still an important priority for many Americans. At the same time, the questions don’t really get at how much people might be willing to cut back (5% on dining out? 50%), how this compares to other purchases (would people say similar things if they were asked about purchasing a new car or some other big purchase), and how much people would need to cut back if they bought a house (there could be a big difference here if people bought a $220k home versus a $450k home). Also, I’m curious about that 50% that wouldn’t cut back on dining out or the 61% who wouldn’t cut back on vacations; do they not need to or would they seriously not do so in order to buy a dream house?

Another note: this was a web survey.

Harris Interactive® fielded the study on behalf of Mullen Communications from April 24-26, 2012, via its QuickQuerySM online omnibus service, interviewing 2,213 U.S. adults aged 18 years and older, of which 1,416 are homeowners and 734 are renters. This data was weighted to reflect the composition of the general adult population. No estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated; a full methodology is available.

Two issues here: this was not a random sample (hence the need for weighting) and if there can’t be any estimates of the sampling error, how trustworthy are the results?

Americans buy a lot of stuff they don’t need

Americans are known for being consumers. In fact, Americans spend quite a bit of money on non-essential goods:

This Easter weekend, Americans will spend a lot of money on items such as marshmallow peeps, plush bunnies and fake hay, begging a question: How much does the U.S. economy depend on purchases of goods and services people don’t absolutely need?

As it turns out, quite a lot. A non-scientific study of Commerce Department data suggests that in February, U.S. consumers spent an annualized $1.2 trillion on non-essential stuff including pleasure boats, jewelry, booze, gambling and candy. That’s 11.2% of total consumer spending, up from 9.3% a decade earlier and only 4% in 1959, adjusted for inflation. In February, spending on non-essential stuff was up an inflation-adjusted 3.3% from a year earlier, compared to 2.4% for essential stuff such as food, housing and medicine.

It would be helpful if this post had more details about the “non-scientific study” and what data is being examined. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see this story at Easter time: isn’t Christmas supposed to be our most commercial holiday? There does seem to be more stories in recent years about the increased spending at Halloween and Easter. Perhaps we just like holidays because they are excuses to spend!

Here are two possible conclusions regarding this data:

The sheer volume of non-essential spending offers fodder for various conclusions. For one, it could be seen as evidence of the triumph of modern capitalism in raising living standards. We enjoy so much leisure and consume so much extra stuff that even a deep depression wouldn’t – in aggregate — cut into the basics.

Alternately, it could be read as a sign that U.S. economic growth relies too heavily on stimulating demand for stuff people don’t really need, to the detriment of public goods such as health and education. By that logic, a consumption tax – like the value-added taxes common throughout Europe—could go a long way toward restoring balance.

Interesting options: we spend so much on these things because we can (conspicuous consumption?) or we frivolously throw our money away at things that don’t really matter while ignoring important issues. Neither sound particularly good. The second one does seem to be at the root of most advertising: make a pitch so that the consumer thinks they “need” a product. Don’t people need iPhones, new cars, and lots of beer?

Ultimately, we might need some more numbers to settle this debate. How does the discretionary spending of the American individual compare to that of other nations? (During this recent recession, we have heard about how Americans had a lower savings rate than past Americans going into this period but how do we compare to other countries?) What are the total costs of living in such an economy (which certainly must help create jobs and generate wealth for someone) vs. one that does put more money into education or infrastructure? How much do average Americans think they should be spending on non-essential items and if given the choice, would they want to spend more?

h/t Instapundit

Middle class cuts spending on alcohol, clothes, eating out

In these troubled economic times, new data suggests the middle-class is cutting back spending in certain areas:

Households in the middle fifth of the population sliced their average annual spending to $41,150 in 2009, the Labor Department said Tuesday in its annual spending breakdown. That was down 3.1% from 2007 and 3.5% from 2008, the steepest one-year drop since records began in 1984. The drop came even as those households’ after-tax income remained relatively stable over the two years, at an average $45,199.

Middle-class households reined in spending mainly on discretionary items. On average, from 2007 to 2009, they cut spending 20.1% on alcoholic beverages, 15.2% on clothing, and 9.5% on restaurants and other food away from home. They also spent less on some groceries, cutting back on items such as fresh milk and cream, as well as seafood.

Some of the change in spending could reflect a shift to cheaper alternatives, such as picking McDonald’s over sushi.

So when middle-class families need to cut back on spending, this is where they limit their spending: alcohol, clothing, and eating out. Presumably, more positive economic climates lead to more spending in these areas.

This is interesting in that it provides some indication of what the middle class considers “luxury items.” These are not generally big-ticket things but having the ability to drink more alcohol, buy more clothing, and eat out more may be the height of middle-class enjoyment. To reach the middle class may mean that one is able to spend in these areas without worrying too much about the budget.