Consumer Expenditure Survey

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

On this Page:

  1. What is the Consumer Expenditure Survey?
  2. How is the Consumer Expenditure Survey used?
  3. What is a consumer unit?
  4. Who is the reference person?
  5. What types of data are available and in what form?
  6. What geographic data exist in the survey?
  7. Is income information available from other sources?
  8. Does the Consumer Expenditure Survey include information on assets and liabilities?
  9. Are historical data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey available?
  10. How are the Consumer Expenditure Survey data collected?
  11. How do the Census Bureau and BLS handle respondent confidentiality?
  12. Why are there two survey components?
  13. What are some of the limitations of the data?
  14. Do the data that are published come from both surveys?
  15. How are the data integrated?
  16. What are the standard errors as reported in the Consumer Expenditure Survey standard error tables?
  17. Coverage: How good is it in the Consumer Expenditure Survey?
  18. Do the data show cost-of-living differences among areas?
  19. Why do some expenditure levels, such as those for vehicle purchases, appear to be so low?
  20. Are reimbursed expenditures, such as those for medical expenses or car repairs, included in the published totals?
  21. Why do average annual expenditures exceed income for some of the demographic groups? How can consumer units spend more than they earn?
  22. I understand that, beginning with publication of the 2004 tables, the Consumer Expenditure Survey results include imputed income data. What does this mean for the typical user?
  23. Why are 2013 incomes taxes so different than earlier years?
  24. Why doesn’t the Bureau of Labor Statistics publish more detailed expenditures?
  25. How can I convert Consumer Expenditure Survey Text data tables into Excel format?
  26. How can I obtain additional Consumer Expenditure Survey information?
  27. How are CE data used to estimate experimental poverty thresholds?

What is the Consumer Expenditure Survey?

The Consumer Expenditure Survey collects information from the Nation's households and families on their buying habits (expenditures), income, and household characteristics. The strength of the survey is that it allows data users to relate the expenditures and income of consumers to the characteristics of those consumers. The survey consists of two components, a quarterly Interview Survey and a weekly Diary Survey, each with its own questionnaire and sample.

How is the Consumer Expenditure Survey used?

Data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey are used in a number of different ways by a variety of users. One important use of the survey is for the periodic revision of the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index (CPI). The Bureau uses survey results to select new market baskets of goods and services for the CPI, to determine the relative importance of CPI components, and to derive new cost weights for the market baskets. Market researchers find the data useful in analyzing the demand for groups of goods and services. The data allow them to track spending trends of different types of consumer units (See the response to question 3 for the definition of a consumer unit). Government and private agencies use the data to study the welfare of particular segments of the population, such as those consumer units with a reference person aged 65 and older or under age 25, or for low-income consumer units (See the response to question 4 for the definition of a reference person). Economic policymakers use the data to study the impact of policy changes on the welfare of different socioeconomic groups. Researchers use the data in a variety of studies, including those that focus on the spending behavior of different family types, trends in expenditures on various expenditure components including new types of goods and services, gift-giving behavior, consumption studies, and historical spending trends.

What is a consumer unit?

A consumer unit consists of any of the following: (1) All members of a particular household who are related by blood, marriage, adoption, or other legal arrangements; (2) a person living alone or sharing a household with others or living as a roomer in a private home or lodging house or in permanent living quarters in a hotel or motel, but who is financially independent; or (3) two or more persons living together who use their incomes to make joint expenditure decisions. Financial independence is determined by spending behavior with regard to the three major expense categories: Housing, food, and other living expenses. To be considered financially independent, the respondent must provide at least two of the three major expenditure categories, either entirely or in part.

The terms consumer unit, family, and household are often used interchangeably for convenience. However, the proper technical term for purposes of the Consumer Expenditure Survey is consumer unit.

Who is the reference person?

The reference person of the consumer unit is the first member mentioned by the respondent when asked to "Start with the name of the person or one of the persons who owns or rents the home." It is with respect to this person that the relationship of the other consumer unit members is determined.

What types of data are available and in what form?

A number of types of data, in several different formats, are available from the Consumer Expenditure Survey. The standard data releases include the following:

MIDYEAR NEWS RELEASE. This new release covers expenditures from July of one year through June of the next and includes a brief discussion of the latest survey results. The information generally is available on the Consumer Expenditure Survey Web site on the day on which the midyear tables are released. The first midyear news release was published in March 2013.

ANNUAL NEWS RELEASE. This annual release covers a calendar year of expenditures, and includes a brief discussion of the latest survey results. The information generally is available on the Consumer Expenditure Survey Web site on the day on which the annual data tables are released. The annual data are released in September in the year following the reference year (for example, 2012 data will be available in September 2013).

ANNUAL REPORT. The report includes integrated data from the Diary and Interview portions of the Consumer Expenditure Survey in ten standard tables. The tables show average expenditures, income, and characteristics for consumer units classified by 13 standard characteristics—quintiles of income, before-tax income class, age, size of the consumer unit, composition of the consumer unit, number of earners, housing tenure, race, type of area (urban or rural), Hispanic origin of reference person, region, occupation, and education.

TWO-YEAR REPORTS. Two separate reports are published in alternating years.

Biennial Report – This report includes integrated survey data and is published at 2-year intervals. The tables included in the biennial report cover the same characteristics that are shown in the annual report, but with additional detail. Also included are tables showing average annual data over a 2-year period for the following characteristics: Income before taxes cross-tabulated by either age, consumer unit size, or region; single consumers by gender cross-tabulated by either income or age; and selected Metropolitan Statistical Areas. The biennial report also compares survey data with other data sources.

Anthology – This report includes both methodological and analytical articles. The methodological articles are intended to provide data users with greater insight into ongoing improvements in the survey as well as issues that are faced in collecting, processing, and publishing information from such a complex survey. The analytical articles provide information on topics of interest using Consumer Expenditure Survey data.

PUBLIC-USE MICRODATA (PUMD). Annual Diary and Interview Survey microdata—that is, data for individual consumer units—are available. The interview files contain demographic, income, and expenditure data. The demographic and income data are at the consumer unit and individual level. The expenditure data are in two different formats: MTAB files that present monthly values in an item coding framework based on the CPI pricing scheme, and EXPN files that organize expenditures by the section of the Interview questionnaire in which they are collected. Expenditure values on EXPN files cover different periods, depending on the specific question asked, and the files also contain relevant non-expenditure information not found on the MTAB files. The Diary files are structured in the same way as the Interview files. Currently available are PUMD releases back to 1990 and for selected earlier years.

MONTHLY LABOR REVIEW AND OTHER JOURNAL ARTICLES. Analyses of Consumer Expenditure Survey data appear frequently in articles in the Bureau's Monthly Labor Review and occasionally in other economic journals.

What geographic data exist in the survey?

The Consumer Expenditure Survey (CE) includes a few lower levels of geographic data.

Online Tables

The data are sampled to be representative of the U.S. civilian non-institutionalized population at a national level and a regional level. The four Census-defined regions are Northeast, Midwest, South and West. Consumer expenditure data for these regions can be found in our One-Year tables. For a list of which states are in which regions see the CE glossary.

Consumer expenditures for a selected group of the largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) are also published. Starting in 2006 there are 18 MSAs in the published tables which are broken up by region. Consumer expenditure data for these MSAs are published in our Two-Year tables.

Public-Use Microdata

In addition to region, there are also geographic data for states and the 18 self-representing Primary Sampling Units (PSUs) in the public-use microdata. Not all states are sampled, and some state codes are suppressed or recoded for confidentiality reasons. Suppression or recoding of the state variable is necessary in some instances because consumer units (CUs) could be indirectly identified due to the low number of respondents from their geographic locale.

Important Note: The CU weights do not aggregate to equal state populations. They are regional weights.

Beginning with the 2006 data, the largest, category "A" PSUs have been included in the microdata. These coincide with the larger MSAs from the four regions. For the list of PSUs in the microdata see the most recent interview data dictionary.

For additional information on geographic data included in the CE please see our geography web page.

Is income information available from other sources?

If you want to relate the expenditures of consumers to their income and characteristics, the Consumer Expenditure Survey is the primary source of data. However, for users interested only in income information, data published by the Census Bureau of the U.S. Department of Commerce may be a better source of information. Data from the Current Population Survey are based on a much larger sample size. For income information, visit the Web site www.census.gov/hhes/www/income.html, or contact the Census Bureau by telephone at (301) 457-2422. The Census Bureau also can provide income information from its Survey of Income and Program Participation, which focuses on low-income households. For information on this survey, visit the Web site at www.sipp.census.gov/sipp, or telephone (301) 457-3242.

Does the Consumer Expenditure Survey include information on assets and liabilities?

Information on assets and liabilities is collected from respondents to the survey; however, like the income data, the assets and liabilities data are not as reliable as the expenditure data. Respondents may be unable or unwilling to provide accurate information on their assets and liabilities. Net changes in assets and liabilities are published in the Consumer Expenditure Survey biennial reports. The public-use microdata also include information on assets and liabilities. An alternative source of data on assets, liabilities, and other financial information of consumers is the Survey of Consumer Finances, conducted by the Federal Reserve Board. For information, visit the Web site at www.federalreserve.gov/pubs/oss/oss2/scfindex.html, or contact the Federal Reserve Board by telephone at (202) 452-2247.

Are historical data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey available?

Yes. Prior to 1980, the Consumer Expenditure Survey was conducted about every 10 years. Since that time, it has been an ongoing survey. Online data tables are available from both the 1972-73 and later surveys. For information about the availability of any Consumer Expenditure Survey data, including historical data, contact the Division of Consumer Expenditure Surveys.

Caution should be used in comparing data from the current survey with those gathered before the 1972-73 surveys, or even during the first few years of the current survey, due to changes in concepts and definitions. For example, integrated data from the Diary and Interview Surveys have been published from 1972-73 and from 1984 onward; prior to 1972-73, data from each survey were published separately. The CE has electronic versions of integrated tables for 1972-73 and annually from 1984 onward. Also prior to 1972-73, published data covered only the urban portion of the population. Beginning in 1972-73 and from 1984 onward, the published data are for the total population, urban and rural.

How are the Consumer Expenditure Survey data collected?

Data collection is carried out by the U.S. Census Bureau under contract with Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the Interview Survey, each consumer unit is interviewed every 3 months over five calendar quarters. In the initial interview, information is collected on demographic and family characteristics and on the consumer unit’s inventory of major durable goods. Expenditure information also is collected in this interview, but is used only to prevent duplicate reporting in subsequent interviews. Expenditure information is collected in the second through the fifth interviews using uniform questionnaires. Income and employment information is collected in the second and fifth interviews. In the fifth interview, a supplemental section is administered in order to account for changes in assets and liabilities over a one-year period.

In the Diary Survey, respondents are asked to keep track of all their purchases made each day for two consecutive 1-week periods. Participants receive each weekly diary during a separate visit by a Census Bureau interviewer.

How do the Census Bureau and BLS handle respondent confidentiality?

The information that respondents provide is used solely for statistical purposes. All Census Bureau data collectors take an oath of confidentiality and are subject to fines or imprisonment for improperly disclosing information provided by respondents. Names and addresses are removed from all forms, and are not included in any statistical release. As a further precaution, the Bureau of Labor Statistics applies certain restrictions to the public-use microdata. These include geographical and value restrictions that prevent the identification of respondents.

Why are there two survey components?

The two survey components—the Interview Survey and the Diary Survey—are designed to collect different types of expenditures. The Interview Survey is designed to obtain data on the types of expenditures respondents can recall for a period of 3 months or longer. These include relatively large expenditures, such as those for property, automobiles, and major durable goods, and those that occur on a regular basis, such as rent or utilities. Each consumer unit is interviewed once per quarter for five consecutive quarters. The Diary Survey is designed to obtain data on frequently purchased smaller items, including food and beverages, both at home and in food establishments, housekeeping supplies, tobacco, nonprescription drugs, and personal care products and services. Each consumer unit records its expenditures in a diary for two consecutive 1-week periods. Respondents are less likely to recall such purchases over longer periods. Although the diary was designed to collect information on expenditures that could not be easily recalled over time, respondents are asked to report all expenses (except overnight travel) that the consumer unit incurs during the survey week.

What are some of the limitations of the data?

The Interview and Diary Surveys are sample surveys and are subject to two types of errors, nonsampling and sampling. Nonsampling errors can be attributed to many sources, such as differences in the interpretation of questions, inability or unwillingness of the respondent to provide correct information, mistakes in recording or coding the data obtained, and other errors of collection, response, processing, coverage, and estimation for missing data. The full extent of nonsampling error is unknown. Sampling errors occur because the survey data are collected from a sample and not from the entire population. Tables with standard errors and other reliability statistics are available on request. Standard error tables are available on the Consumer Expenditure Survey Web site; these tables are classified by the same demographic characteristics found in the 10 “standard” tables published for the survey, except for the classification by region.

Caution should be used in interpreting the expenditure data, especially when relating averages to individual circumstances. The data shown in the published tables are averages for demographic groups of consumer units. Expenditures by individual consumer units may differ from the average even if the characteristics of the group are similar to those of the individual consumer unit. Income, family size, age of family members, geographic location, and individual tastes and preferences all influence expenditures.

Do the data that are published come from both surveys?

Yes. Since 1984, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has published data integrated from the Interview and Diary components of the survey. Because the two components are designed to capture different types of expenditures, integrating data from them combines the important features of both. The integrated data provide a complete accounting of consumer expenditures and income, which neither survey component alone is designed to do.

How are the data integrated?

Detailed expenditure data for some items, such as food items, are unique to the Diary Survey. Data for other items, such as third-party reimbursements for medical care expenses or the cost of auto repairs, are collected only in the Interview Survey. However, there is considerable overlap in coverage between the surveys. Because of this overlap, integrating the data presents the problem of determining the appropriate survey component from which to select the expenditure items. When data are available from both survey sources, the more reliable of the two, as determined by statistical methods, is selected. As a result, some estimates are selected from the Interview Survey and others, from the Diary Survey. A list showing which survey was used as the source for items in each year's published estimates is available (XLSX).

What are the standard errors and coefficients of variation (PDF) as reported in the Consumer Expenditure Survey combined expenditure, share, and standard error tables?

Sampling error (SE) is the difference between the survey estimate and the true population value. The most common measure of the magnitude of sampling error is the standard error. The primary purpose of standard errors is to provide users with a measure of the variability associated with the mean estimates. This variability measures how close different estimates would be to each other if it were possible to repeat the Consumer Expenditure Survey over and over using different samples of consumer units. A small standard error indicates that multiple samples would produce values that are consistently very close to each other, whereas a large standard error would indicate that multiple samples would produce values that are not close to each other.

Coefficient of variation (CV) is the standard error divided by the mean expenditure, and it is expressed as a percent. It gives the relative amount of variability instead of the absolute amount of variability in the expenditure estimates.

Beginning with year 2000 data, the Consumer Expenditure Survey program has made available standard error tables using integrated data from both surveys. The separate standard error table format has been discontinued with the release of the 2012 data. These separate data tables have been replaced by the combined expenditure, share, and standard error tables.

Also available is an article that describes standard errors of the expenditures and income estimates in the 2013 CE (PDF).

Coverage: How good is it in the Consumer Expenditure Survey?

Coverage is the extent to which a survey represents its target population. Under-coverage is when some population members do not have a chance of being selected for the sample, and over-coverage is when they have more than one chance of being selected or their addresses are nonresidential. It is important to measure coverage because every segment of the target population needs to be properly represented in order to minimize bias in the survey estimates. The target population of the Consumer Expenditure Survey is the U.S. civilian noninstitutuional population.

The list of households from which the sample of the Consumer Expenditure Survey is drawn is based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 100 percent detail file, which is a list of all households from the 2000 census. It is supplemented by three smaller lists designed to improve the survey’s coverage, including a list of housing units constructed after the 2000 census. Research by the Census Bureau concluded that over 99 percent of all households were counted in the 2000 census, which means coverage for the Consumer Expenditure Survey is very good.

Do the data show cost-of-living differences among areas?

No. The Consumer Expenditure Survey data in published tables show average expenditures and incomes of consumer units. The expenditure levels may vary across areas for a number of reasons. These include demographic and economic differences in age levels, income levels, size of consumer units, tastes, and personal preferences. A commonly used method of comparing the cost of living among areas involves developing an estimate of the cost of a similar bundle of goods and services for each area. The Consumer Expenditure Survey makes no attempt to measure the cost of a standard bundle of goods and services, but instead provides actual expenditure levels of consumer units.

Why do some expenditure levels, such as those for vehicle purchases, appear to be so low?

The data shown in the published tables are averages for all consumer units, or for all the consumer units in a particular demographic group. For example, the expenditures, income, and characteristics for the group with a reference person under age 25 are averaged across all consumer units with that characteristic. Because not all consumer units purchase each item during the survey period, the average expenditure for an item is generally considerably lower than the expenditure by those consumer units that purchased that item. The less frequently an item is purchased, the greater the difference between the average for all consumer units and the average for those purchasing the item.

Are reimbursed expenditures, such as those for medical expenses or car repairs, included in the published totals?

No. Expenditures shown in the published tables are direct out-of-pocket expenditures. The amounts are net of reimbursements.

Why do average annual expenditures exceed income for some of the demographic groups? How can consumer units spend more than they earn?

Data users may notice that average annual expenditures presented in the income tables sometimes exceed income before taxes for the lower income groups. For data prior to 2004, the primary reason for that is believed to be nonresponse to questions about income, a common problem in household surveys. The average incomes shown in the published tables for 2003 and earlier are derived from information provided by complete income reporters (consumer units that provide information for at least one of the major sources of their income, such as wages and salaries, self-employment income, or retirement income). However, even complete income reporters may not have provided a full accounting of all income from all sources. Research has shown that some complete reporter consumer units classified in the lower income classes have expenditure levels that are more typical of upper income consumer units. Their expenditures raise the average expenditure levels of the income class in which they are classified.

Beginning in 2001 for the Interview Survey and 2004 for the Diary Survey, the income data include information collected from respondents using income ranges or brackets—for example $2,000-$2,499—in addition to discrete income amounts, as provided in the past. Respondents who are unable or unwilling to provide a specific dollar amount may be able or willing to estimate a range for their incomes. The use of bracketing in data collection provides more reliable income estimates to the extent that it increases the percentage of households providing income data.

In addition, starting in 2004, the Consumer Expenditure Survey uses imputation to fill in missing values for income data. The published tables now include income data from all consumer units—not just complete reporters. (See FAQ 22.) Income imputation has reduced the gap between income and expenditures when negative, and increased it when positive. For example, in 2003 (the last year prior to imputation), expenditures exceed income on average for all complete reporters who report less than $40,000 in income. In 2004, expenditures exceed income on average for all consumer units for whom less than $30,000 is reported or imputed. Similarly, in 2003, income exceeds expenditures for total complete reporters by less than $8,400; in 2004, income exceeds expenditures for all consumer units by more than $11,000.

However, there are reasons why expenditures exceed income for the lower income groups despite the use of imputed income data. Consumer units whose members experience a spell of unemployment may draw on their savings to maintain their expenditures. Self-employed consumers may experience business losses that result in low or even negative incomes, but are able to maintain their expenditures by borrowing or relying on savings. Students may get by on loans while they are in school, and retirees may rely on savings and investments.

I understand that, beginning with publication of the 2004 tables, the Consumer Expenditure Survey results include imputed income data. What does this mean for the typical user?

Nonresponse is a common problem in household surveys, particularly for questions regarding income. Nonresponse means that the respondent either does not know, or refuses to provide, the information requested. Prior to publication of the 2004 tables, the Consumer Expenditure Survey handled nonresponse to income questions by publishing income data for complete income reporters only. To be classified as a complete income reporter, the respondent had to provide a value for at least one major source of income for the consumer unit. However, not all “complete” reporters provided a full accounting of income for all sources for which receipt was reported.

Starting in 2004, the Consumer Expenditure Survey introduced multiple imputation to fill in the blanks resulting from nonresponse to income questions. In this method several estimates are made each time the respondent reports the receipt of, but no value for, a particular source of income. The estimates are made based on characteristics of the member or consumer unit for which receipt is reported. The average of these estimates is used to provide the final figures shown in the tables. Because all consumer units now have actual or imputed values for income data available to produce means and other information, the old complete income reporter data are no longer published in tables.

The introduction of multiply imputed data allows for use of the full set of income data from all consumer units, and therefore more accurate comparisons of income and expenditures. For example, instead of producing estimates for complete income reporters, some of whom are still missing income information, income data are now provided in tables for all consumer units with these blanks filled in, resulting in smaller gaps by which expenditures exceed income for low income consumer units. (See FAQ 21.) In addition, when examining income by demographic—such as age or composition of consumer unit—income data now are presented for all consumer units within that category rather than for complete reporters only. Consider, for example, consumer units whose reference person is under 25 years old. Prior to 2004, the age tables show average annual expenditures for all consumer units in this age group, but income is shown only for complete reporters in this age group. Starting in 2004, both expenditure and income data are shown for all consumer units within this age group. Therefore, the data are more appropriately compared. For additional information, see Special Notice Income Imputation Introduced With 2004 Data on CE home page.

Why are 2013 incomes taxes so different than earlier years?

New with the 2013 data: The Consumer Expenditure Survey introduced new estimates of state and federal tax liabilities using the TaxSim calculator produced by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Beginning with the second quarter of 2013, all state and federal tax amounts used in the tables are estimates based on the expenditures and income and family characteristics. The CE introduced these estimates to improve the quality of the tax liabilities, which suffered from low response rates, and to improve the estimates of after-tax income. The CE gratefully acknowledges the support of NBER for improving the tax estimates.

Prior to the 2013 tables, the published income tax data were collected in the Consumer Expenditure Survey from respondents and were subject to large non-response errors. The Consumer Expenditure Survey did not impute values for federal and state income taxes when the amounts were unanswered. Missing values happened, for example, when the respondents did not know their level of income tax or were unwilling to share that information with the interviewer.
When the CE computed the income taxes shown in the standard tables through 2012, these missing values had been treated as zeroes which, subsequently, lowered the sample means for income taxes. An alternative source of data on income taxes as well as other taxes is Tax Stats, produced by the Statistics of Income Division of the Internal Revenue Service. For more information on individual income taxes, visit the web site at www.irs.gov/taxstats/indtaxstats/article/0,,id=96981,00.html

Why doesn’t the Bureau of Labor Statistics publish more detailed expenditures?

Average expenditures on items at finer levels of detail might not be as reliable as those published for more aggregate levels because there are sometimes few reports of expenditures on more detailed items. A small number of unusually large purchases of infrequently reported items or an increase in the number of consumers reporting such expenditures might cause a large change in the average expenditure from one period to the next. The tables published in the two-year reports, and on the Consumer Expenditure Survey Web site, show the expenditure component level at which the estimates are considered to be reliable. However, even in those tables, data in some cells are footnoted as being likely to have large sampling errors due to the scarcity of reports.

How can I convert Consumer Expenditure Survey Text data tables into XLS format?

The Consumer Expenditure Survey data tables in Text format can be converted into XLS format (which can be used in Microsoft Excel or other spreadsheet applications) by taking the following steps:

  1. Highlight and copy the text data table.
  2. Paste the copied table into an Excel spreadsheet.
  3. Highlight the column that the data were pasted in.
  4. In the "Data" menu in Excel, select "Text to Columns" option.
  5. Choose "fixed width" in the text to columns wizard.
  6. Column dividers should default to the appropriate column positions. If not, click on the places you want the columns to be located.
  7. Select finish.

How can I obtain additional Consumer Expenditure Survey information?

Consumer Expenditure Survey information can be obtained by contacting the Division of Consumer Expenditure Surveys, Bureau of Labor Statistics. All reports are mailed via the U.S. Postal Service.

Information can also be obtained from any of the eight regional offices of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

How are CE data used to estimate experimental poverty thresholds?

Consumer Expenditure Survey (CE) data are used to estimate experimental poverty thresholds based on recommendations by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and observations of a 2010 Interagency Technical Working Group. The most recent measure, referred to as the Supplemental Poverty Measure, is not designed to replace the current, official poverty estimates published each year by the U.S. Census Bureau, but rather is intended to provide additional information on poverty in the U.S. Details on the experimental poverty measures can be obtained from the BLS Division of Price and Index Number Research.

Last Modified Date: September 25, 2014

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