Percentage of Consumer Expenditures on Food, Housing, and Apparel: 1912 and 2012

16-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Tuesday, January 2, 1912: Started into school again after such a long vacation. Wasn’t glad it was over either. Want to study harder now and make better marks than I did the fore part of the term. That is a new year’s resolution I made yesterday. Bumped my head a little while again above the eye. Kinda sore. Isn’t this here scratching?

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Time will tell whether Grandma was able to keep her resolution to study harder.

Today many people make resolutions to manage their money better in the upcoming year. I was surprised to discover that what people spend their money on has changed over time.A hundred years ago about 30% of a household’s expenditures were on food—today it’s approximately 12%.

But we now spend  a higher percentage of our income on housing than was done in the past. In 1912 people spent about 15% on housing; today we spend about 34%.

Given today’s consumer culture, I was surprised to discover that we spend relatively less on apparel. A hundred years ago about 15% of household expenditures were for apparel; today it’s only about 4%. I suppose that it was more labor intensive to make clothes and shoes back then. Also, families were bigger so maybe households needed to spend more on apparel.

I got the 1912 data from an article in the January 1912 issue of Ladies Home Journal on budgeting. For 2012, I used data from the 2010 Consumer Expenditure Survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics since that was the most recent year available.

4 Responses

  1. Great idea! How intriguing, like you I’m surprised by the breakdown. The inroads into “Other” aren’t all that great considering appliances, technology and the like especially given 21st century advertising. It’s fascinating that housing is the really big differential. Thanks for this insight.

    • I had a hard time sorting things out beyond housing, food, and apparel because the categories were so different, but I think that we spend a lot more on transportation, health care, and insurance now than people once did. “Contingency” seemed to be a major category a hundred years ago–which probably would encompass health care and insurance

  2. I found the food statistic surprising. I suspect, though, that people who try to buy organic and local food spend more than the 12% average. I’m pretty sure that is the case with us. There is so much emphasis on fast, cheap food today – it’s just sad that the least expensive food is also the least nutritious…

    • I agree. Like you, I try to eat good and nutritious foods; but so many people eat cheap, low-quality foods that are highly advertised. I find myself drawn to growing (though I currently am able to raise very little) and cooking my own foods so I know what I’m eating.

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