Any attempt to explain US households’ financial struggles must engage the issue of rising spending. While income stagnation is almost certainly part of what is causing households’ money problems, it is only a partial explanation at best. “Stagnation” means not growing quickly – it does not imply that household incomes have necessarily been shrinking (although they often have done so over the past several years). Even if incomes are stagnating, people should be able to maintain their savings by restraining their spending.
The problem is that households generally have not tightened their belts when faced with earnings difficulties – at least not until the Great Recession. The first figure below depicts changes in average personal income and expenditures for the United States from 1921 until 2014. All values are denominated in inflation-adjusted 2014 dollars.
At first glance, the graph suggests that average incomes have generally outpaced average expenditures.However, a closer look reveals that the space between disposable incomes and expenditures has been shrinking. In other words, the average American was spending more of their take-home pay.
This space can be seen more clearly in the figure below, which depicts the ratio of mean per capita total expenditures to disposable incomes. As noted in the previous chapter, the typical household saves about 10% or so of the take-home pay, but spending grew steadily – relative to income – and households were putting aside pennies on the dollar right before the Great Recession. Household savings rebounded after the Recession, but it was to savings rates that prevailed in the early 2000’s, not the 1970s.
These shifts of 5 to 10 percentage points in household savings rates translated into substantial differences in the amount of money people were putting aside from year-to-year. In the late 1950s, the average household put aside about $1750 (at 2014 prices) yearly. With the passage of time, households found themselves able to put aside more money, and by the early 1970s the typical household was putting aside over $3000 (again, at 2014 prices). However, per capita savings fell steadily over the ensuing decades. Even though the average person earn far more money in 2005 than in 1970, Americans typically put aside three times as much from year-to-year. Savings did rebound after the 2008 Crisis, even though people should be putting aside much more money today – retirement, health care, a college education, and many other living costs are much higher today than 40 years ago.
More spending is undoubtedly part of what is causing US households’ money problems. One might argue that, in an age of Walmart, Costco, and cheap Chinese imports, it has never been so easy to save money. Yet people are not saving money. Any endeavor to explain US households’ financial insecurity must engage over-spending.
Also published on Medium.