Consumer spending habits reflect the financial health of the nation’s households, yet vary widely across the United States. In 2012, Americans spent $35,498 per capita, a 3.3% increase from the year before when Americans spent $34,356 on average.
According to data released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), Mississippi residents spent $27,406 per capita -- the lowest in the nation -- and Massachusetts reported the highest expenditure, at $47,308 per capita in 2012. These are the states spending the most and least per capita.
As might be expected, income is a major driver of spending power. With the exception of Hawaii and Utah, median household incomes in all of the lowest-spending states were well below the national median of $51,371. Households in the highest-spending states, on the other hand, all had among the highest incomes. In terms of personal income per capita, residents in every low-spending state, except for Hawaii, earned less than the average American, while residents in all of the highest-spending states earned among the most in the nation. Speaking with 24/7 Wall St., Barry Bosworth, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, confirmed that “states that have higher incomes definitely have higher levels of consumption.”
Consumers save what they do not spend. The savings rate, or consumption-to-personal-income ratio, varied widely between the states. Residents in half of the highest-spending states spent a smaller percentage of their income than the national rate of 81%. But, as Bosworth noted, “Americans never lack for incentives to spend whatever they have.” In fact, people in seven of the lowest-spending states actually spent a greater percentage of their incomes than average Americans.
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The high level of consumption in America also makes it difficult to get an accurate picture of spending habits. “Nobody can remember how they spent their money,” Bosworth said. In wealthy countries like the U.S., there are simply too many ways to spend money to accurately measure.
High spending is closely tied to housing costs, which are largely made up of mortgage payments. In the states spending the most, residents paid an average of $44,824 on their mortgages in 2012. By contrast, residents in the 10 lowest-spending states paid just over $16,000 for housing. Bosworth noted that housing tends to be such a distinguishing feature because higher-income Americans purchase more valuable homes, “and hence the consumption shows up as being higher in turn.”
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There is also a clear relationship between people’s spending habits and their level of education. Six of the states that spent the least also had the lowest percentage of residents with at least a bachelor’s degree. Among the states that spent the most, seven had the highest educational attainment rates in the country. “The strongest driver of people’s income is their education,” Bosworth said, highlighting the link between current levels of educational attainment and economic mobility across generations. In turn, he added, “people with high income tend to ensure their children have a lot of education.”
This may partly explain why levels of spending have been fairly steady in each of these states. All of the lowest-spending states have remained among the lowest spenders since 1997, the earliest year for which data is available. The same is true for the highest-spending states, with the exception of North Dakota, which spent less than the national rate every year until around 2008, when spending began to increase dramatically due to the oil boom in the region.
Based on personal consumption expenditure (PCE) data recently released by the BEA, 24/7 Wall St. assessed the states that spent the most and the least. In addition to out-of-pocket household expenditures, PCE data also reflect expenditures by businesses, state and local governments, government enterprises, and nonprofit institutions serving households for each year between 1997 and 2012. PCE data are not adjusted for cost of living or inflation. We also looked at unemployment rates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Education attainment rates and median household income levels are from the U.S. Census Bureau. Also from the BEA, we looked at personal income, which includes all income received by state residents but does not include personal income taxes. The ratio between personal consumption expenditure and income refers to personal income, not household median income, and is effectively the savings rate.
States with the Most Big Spenders:
5. New York
> 2012 spending per capita: $42,043
> Personal income per capita: $53,241 (6th highest)
> Pct. bachelor's degree: 33.4% (9th highest)
> June unemployment rate: 6.5% (tied-16th highest)
Nearly 476,000 New York households earned at least $200,000 in 2012, second only to California. These wealthy residents made up 6.6% of all households, also more than the vast majority of other states. New York residents spent the fifth most per capita of any state and, in 2012, total personal consumption expenditure topped $820 billion, more than all but two other states. Durable goods accounted for less than 10% of spending, among the smallest shares of statewide consumption expenditures in 2012. Services, on the other hand, made up more than 65% of spending, among the higher proportions.
4. New Jersey
> 2012 spending per capita: $42,654
> Personal income per capita: $54,987 (3rd highest)
> Pct. bachelor's degree: 36.2% (5th highest)
> June unemployment rate: 6.4% (tied-19th highest)
Like the majority of high spending states, New Jersey residents’ spending habits tended towards services, rather than durable and nondurable good spending. More than two-thirds of all spending in New Jersey went to services, such as housing, health care, and recreation in 2012, a higher share than in all but two other states. Unsurprisingly, New Jersey residents are quite wealthy. More than 8.5% of households earned more than $200,000 in 2012, more than in any other state. A typical household earned nearly $70,000, the second-highest median income in the country.
3. North Dakota
> 2012 spending per capita: $44,029
> Personal income per capita: $54,871 (4th highest)
> Pct. bachelor's degree: 27.9% (25th highest)
> June unemployment rate: 3.0% (the lowest)
North Dakota is exceptional among states spending the most because the wealth of its residents is a relatively recent development. Annual personal spending growth has led the nation for several years. Between 2011 and 2012, total personal consumption expenditure rose by 11.5%, far more than any other state. Increased spending has accompanied staggering growth rates for the state’s economy. Due to the recent oil boom, the state’s economic output has roughly doubled over a 10 year period. North Dakota’s unemployment rate was the lowest in the country as of June, at just 3.0%.
> 2012 spending per capita: $45,800
> Personal income per capita: $59,687 (the highest)
> Pct. bachelor's degree: 37.1% (3rd highest)
> June unemployment rate: 6.4% (tied-19th highest)
Connecticut residents spent an average of $45,800 in 2012, more than $10,000 above the national average. Yet, between 1997 and 2012, total expenditure grew at an annualized rate of 4.4%, one of the lower rates in the country. Low expenditure growth may be expected in states where spending was already high. Higher expenditure levels may also be tied to education. More than 37% of Connecticut adults had at least a bachelor’s degree, the third-highest rate in the country. As a share of personal income, however, residents spent 76.7% in 2012, the fifth-lowest share in the country.
> 2012 spending per capita: $47,308
> Personal income per capita: $55,976 (2nd highest)
> Pct. bachelor's degree: 39.3% (the highest)
> June unemployment rate: 5.6% (20th lowest)
Massachusetts residents spent $47,308 per capita in 2012, more than people in any other state. Total consumption expenditure has also been among the highest nationwide since at least 2007. Massachusetts consumers spent well over $300 billion in 2012, the 10th highest in the country. Like a majority of states on this list, Massachusetts has exceptionally high levels of educational attainment. In 2012, nearly 40% of adult residents had at least a bachelor’s degree, more than any other state. This likely contributed to higher incomes, which in turn helped people in the state to adopt more flexible and generous spending habits. Nearly 8.0% of households earned at least $200,000 in 2012, more than all but three other states. A typical household earned more than $65,339 that year, well above the national median household income of $51,371.
States with the Fewest Big Spenders:
> 2012 spending per capita: $30,160
> Personal income per capita: $44,767 (20th highest)
> Pct. bachelor's degree: 30.1% (17th highest)
> June unemployment rate: 4.9% (13th lowest)
Hawaii is the only state among the lowest spenders where the average personal income was above the national rate of $43,735. However, Hawaii residents spent less than 68% of their incomes in 2012, the lowest share in the country. This may change in the future as consumption expenditure has risen rapidly in recent years, growing at an annualized rate of 6.8% between 1997 and 2012. However, between 2011 and 2012, per capita expenditure grew by just 1.8%, among the lowest rates in the nation.
> 2012 spending per capita: $29,537
> Personal income per capita: $35,926 (9th lowest)
> Pct. bachelor's degree: 23.3% (7th lowest)
> June unemployment rate: 7.1% (10th highest)
More than one in 10 Alabama residents earn less than $10,000 a year, which likely contributes to low consumption expenditure. Low earnings may also be tied to low education rates in the state. As of 2012, only 84% of adult residents had at least a high school diploma and only 23.3% had at least a bachelor’s degree, both among the lowest rates in the country. And while total consumption grew between 1997 and 2012, annualized growth was only 4.2%, suggesting that poverty and poor education may stifle income and consumption growth. In 2012, residents allotted nearly 15% of their total expenditure to health care, the fourth-lowest rate in the country.
> 2012 spending per capita: $29,514
> Personal income per capita: $38,221 (14th lowest)
> Pct. bachelor's degree: 22.4% (6th lowest)
> June unemployment rate: 7.8% (4th highest)
In June, 7.8% of Nevada’s workforce was unemployed, a substantial improvement from recent years, but still higher than all but two other states. Like a majority of states spending the least, educational attainment rates were relatively low in 2012. Less than 85% of adults had received at least a high school diploma, and 22.4% had completed at least a bachelor’s degree, both among the lowest rates nationwide. While personal incomes in Nevada were also relatively low, Nevadans spent just 77.2% of their income in 2012, among the lower ratios in the country. This may mean Nevadans are better able to save money.
> 2012 spending per capita: $28,366
> Personal income per capita: $35,437 (6th lowest)
> Pct. bachelor's degree: 21.0% (3rd lowest)
> June unemployment rate: 6.5% (tied-16th highest)
A typical household in Arkansas earned just over $40,000 in 2012, less than every state except for Mississippi. And nearly one in five residents lived beneath the poverty line that year, nearly the highest rate in the country. Low income and poverty mean Arkansas residents will spend considerably less than wealthier residents in other states. A less-educated population also generally reports lower earnings. Just 21% of Arkansas’ adult residents had attained at least a bachelor’s degree in 2012, less than all but two other states.
> 2012 spending per capita: $27,406
> Personal income per capita: $33,657 (the lowest)
> Pct. bachelor's degree: 20.7% (2nd lowest)
> June unemployment rate: 8.7% (the highest)
Mississippi residents spent $27,406 in 2012, $20,000 less than the average person in Massachusetts. The state had among the highest unemployment rates in the country, peaking at nearly 12% in 2011. Poverty likely explains residents’ low consumption levels. Nearly one in four Mississippi residents lived below the poverty line at some point during 2012, the highest rate in the country. Additionally, only 20% of adult residents had at least a bachelor’s degree, the second lowest rate in the country. Nearly 30% of the income that residents spent in 2012 went towards non-durable goods. Of this, a third was spent on food and beverages in grocery and convenience stores, one of the higher rates in the country.
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