Americans' Spending on Gasoline Refuels in Third Quarter

John Fleming

Thursday, October 15th, 2015

Americans' reported changes in spending have remained stable in most categories of goods and services over the past year -- except for gasoline. The percentage of Americans saying they are spending more or less on gas and fuel has bobbed up and down along with gas prices since June 2014.


At the end of this summer, 35% of Americans said they were spending more on gasoline, which is up from 21% earlier this spring but still nowhere near the levels measured last summer (58%). Americans in the third quarter were nearly as likely to be spending less (31%) as they were to be spending more (35%) on gas and fuel. Just 12% said they were spending less one year ago. The net change in spending (percentage spending more minus percentage spending less) has swung wildly from +46 last year, to -34 this spring, to +4 today.


As Americans head into autumn, a majority, 54%, continue to say they are spending more than they did last year on groceries. This is an area in which Americans have consistently said they are spending more. Across five separate updates since June 2014, the three categories with the highest percentages of consumers saying they are "spending more" (groceries, utilities and healthcare) have remained in the top four in each survey.

These trends continue to illustrate that Americans are still primarily spending more on things they need -- but not on things they want. They still say they are spending less, rather than more, than they did in the past year on discretionary purchases such as retirement investments, leisure activities, clothing, consumer electronics, dining out and travel. Nonetheless, there are some signs that discretionary spending is making a modest comeback. Net spending on travel and dining out has become significantly less negative. The 2014 data seem to suggest there is a seasonal effect, so it will be interesting to see whether these changes this year are seasonal (namely, a function of greater spending on travel during the summer travel season) or are more permanent.



After more than a year of following Americans' self-reported spending patterns, several conclusions seem worth reinforcing. First, net changes in spending -- the percentage of Americans reporting that they are spending more within a category minus the percentage saying they are spending less -- have been fairly stable for all categories, except gas or fuel. It's possible that people's reports of spending may be less sensitive to modest cost increases or spending fluctuations than to more dramatic shifts, such as the variations in gas prices over the past year. People may simply be inclined to overlook smaller spending changes in what they report. Conversely, people may interpret stable prices following a big slide as a sort of increase, and adjust their reports to reflect this.


Second, the overall order of the categories based on net spending increases hasn't changed much since Gallup began measuring spending this way. Three of the top four net spending categories back in June 2014 -- groceries, utilities and healthcare -- all remain at the top, and four of the bottom five net spending categories remain at the bottom -- travel, dining out, consumer electronics and clothing. It is possible that the higher percentages of Americans reporting that they are spending less on these categories reflect an aspirational self-perception -- "I'm thrifty and don't waste money" -- especially when reporting on discretionary items.

The prior spending report speculated about the effects of the summer travel season, and if Americans would report spending more on gas, travel and leisure activities. The current data -- collected at the end of summer -- suggest that Americans did in fact report spending more on gas, travel and slightly more on leisure activities.