Then and Now: How Spending Has Changed Over the Past Century



It’s hard to imagine what life was like in 1901, over 100 years ago. Unemployment was low, women rarely worked, the yearly household income averaged $750, and the U.S. population was a mere 76 million people. Today, there’s more than 318 million people in America, the unemployment rate has fallen over the past few years but is still an issue, and many women work. A lot has changed in just over 100 years, including the way that Americans spend their money.

In 1901, the majority of the money that Americans spent was on housing, and not many Americans owned their own homes. The rest of their money was primarily spent on food and clothing; today, many Americans spent a lot of money on food and clothing, but we also spend a lot of money on entertainment, transportation, and donations or cash contributions.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1901, 42.5 percent of annual expenditures went to food ($327), 14 percent for clothing ($108), and 23.3 percent for housing ($179) (the rest went to other items). As of June 2013, the average income before taxes was $65,029. Food represents on average $6,598, which is just about 10 percent of the average income. Of food purchases, $2,698 is spent on food away from home, which never would have happened in 1901. Many Americans now eat dinner regularly at restaurants, and also eat lunch out for work meetings or just because they don’t have the time or the interest in making food at home to bring to work.

Also in 1901, there were 7.2 million owner-occupied housing units (only 19 percent of US families owned their homes though). According to the Census Bureau, in the first quarter of this year, 64.8 percent of Americans owned their own home.

It’s difficult to imagine spending $108 for clothing, but spending 14 percent of our income on clothes seems reasonable. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average household spending as of June 2013 was $1,706 for apparel and services, which is actually less than our 1901 counterparts might have guessed for future spending. Although we are not spending a huge percentage of our incomes on clothing, many of us still require several different outfits in order to have enough clothing to dress appropriately at work, and what is required has certainly changed since 1901.

What probably comes as no surprise is the fact that far fewer women were working in 1901 than are working now. In 1901, women made up only 18 percent of the workforce, and only 8.5 percent of US households reported earnings from wives (but 22 percent had earnings from children). In 2011, female employment accounted for 47 percent of total employment. Women have risen to many important roles, and women now account for 51 percent of all management, professional, and related occupations. Women also handle much of the education industry; 82 percent of elementary and middle school teachers are women.

Today, the Consumer Expenditure Survey also considers selected demographics. According to the survey, between July 2012 and June 2013, the lowest 20th percentile for income allocated more money to food and housing than the other 80 percent of those surveyed, whereas the highest 20th percentile allocated more money to personal insurance and pensions. Obviously, food and housing were important in 1901, but Americans in 2014 have other issues to consider as well. A lot has changed in the past 100 years.

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