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Consumer Expenditure Surveys

Consumer Expenditure Surveys Program Considerations When Using the Public-use Microdata

The following are considerations users should be aware of when working with the Consumer Expenditure Surveys (CE) Public-use Microdata (PUMD). While PUMD contain a wealth of data, the CE surveys were designed with the specific purpose of finding out how U.S. consumers spend their money and therefore may not be applicable to every research endeavor.

The PUMD consist of individual responses to survey questions from the Interview Survey, which is designed to collect data on large or recurring expenditures, and the Diary Survey, which is designed to collect data on small expenditures. The CE program edits some responses in order to impute missing data, allocate grouped expenditures, and protect the confidentiality of respondents. For more information on PUMD, see the CE PUMD Getting Started Guide 1 and for more information on the CE surveys, see Consumer Expenditures and Income 2 in the BLS Handbook of Methods.

While this paper explains considerations when working with PUMD, some of these also apply to the CE tables.

Table of Contents

1. Geographic data
2. Information on purchasers or consumers
3. Information on outlets
4. Information on quantity and quality
5. Reported income, income taxes, and other financial assets
6. Impact of CE methods on some categories of data
7. Analyzing individual households over time
8. Analyzing aggregate data over time
9. Inability to analyze CUs across the two surveys
Additional resources

1. Geographic data

The CE surveys are designed to produce national expenditure estimates. The estimates are calculated from a relatively small sample of predominantly urban areas. Within these areas, the CE program surveys only a small percentage of those households. For example, in New York State the CE program successfully interviewed roughly 1,500 households for the Interview Survey in 2017.

At the subnational level, the current CE sample design allows data users to create estimates for 4 Census regions, 9 Census divisions,3 5 states, and over 25 metropolitan statistical areas.4 However, the PUMD do not contain information by county or zip code. For more information, see the CE geographic data page.

2. Information on purchasers or consumers

Data users cannot identify who bought an item or who consumed it because both CE surveys do not ask these questions. That limits the ability of data users to connect the data with demographic information of the specific purchaser or consumer.

However, data users may be able to infer some demographic characteristics for purchases by single member households because expenditures by single member household are likely purchased and consumed by that person.

Inferring demographic information for households with more than one member is more difficult than for single member households. However, in some cases it may be possible. For example a women's garment is more likely to be used by the women in the household.

3. Information on outlets

PUMD do not provide information on the outlet (or point of purchase) where respondents purchased an item.

However, starting with the 2016 data set, PUMD do provide information on whether some items were purchased online or in-person. PUMD provide this information for three expenditure categories:

  • Clothing and Sewing Materials (CLA)
  • Appliances, Household Equipment, and Other Selected Items (APB)
  • Subscriptions, Memberships, Books, and Entertainment Expenses (SUB)

4. Information on quantity and quality

Generally, the CE surveys only provide the total cost and no unit value. Thus an expense of $220 on wine could be one expensive bottle or several cases of bottles.

However, the CE surveys do provide limited information on the quantity and quality of a few expenditures. For example, the Interview Survey indicates the number purchased for selected large items, like cars or appliances. The Diary Survey may identify the number of meals purchased away from home, but not how many people ate at each meal.

With respect to quality, the PUMD do contain roughly 50 detailed expenditure files that provide additional information about an expenditure. The information booklets distributed to respondents with the survey also describe what information data users can find in the data. For information on the questions the CE surveys ask, see the Survey Materials page.

5. Reported income, income taxes, and other financial assets

Reported data on a Consumer Unit's (CU) income, income taxes, and financial assets may have limited analytical use because of two main factors:

  • Some respondents are unwilling or unable to calculate specific income items. Some income items require calculations that respondents may be unable or unwilling to perform, particularly for income taxes. For example, when the CE program asks in July about wages for the last 12 months, respondents have to sum half of the income from the current year and half from the previous year. With the 2004 data, the CE program began to impute missing income values and with the second quarter of the 2013 data, the program started to provide estimated federal and state income taxes using the NBER TAXSIM program instead of providing respondent-reported values. For more information, see Aaron Cobet's presentation New CE income tax estimates.5
  • The CE sample may underrepresent households with income over $100,000. These high income households have been shown to be more reluctant to respond to the surveys. For more information, see the John Sabelhaus et al. article Is the Consumer Expenditure Survey Representative by Income? 6 The CE program began to adjust the weights of high income households to account for their underrepresentation with the 2015 data.

6. Impact of CE methods on some categories of data

The available detail for some categories may have limited analytical use due to the following major reasons:

  • CE program bundles some products into single categories: Some items are grouped with others into one Universal Classification Code (UCC)7 because sparse data preclude them from being presented separately. For example, Apple watches, answering machines, Bluetooth accessories, cell phones, cell phone covers, chargers, cordless telephones, headsets, phone jacks and cords, selfie sticks, smartphones, and smartwatches are all bundled into the category "Telephones and accessories." In this case data users cannot identify expenditures on the individual items that are contained in the bundled UCC.
  • PUMD exclude data that could divulge a respondent's identity. To prevent data users from identifying respondents, the CE program applies a number of methods to mask the identity of its respondents. Thus a published value may differ from the reported value. PUMD flags these items. For more information on these methods, see CE's Protecting Respondent Confidentiality.8

7. Analyzing individual households over time

Trend analysis of individual households is limited because the CE program interviews each household for a fixed time period. The specific duration depends on the survey, the type of data, and the respondent's willingness to participate.

  • Interview Survey expenditures: Data users can analyze one sampled address for up to four quarters. This means that one household can provide data for a maximum of 12 months. However, some households drop out earlier, because they move or do not continue to participate. This attrition biases the sample of households that participate for four quarters toward older and more affluent households, and toward owners over renters. In addition, because the CE surveys sample addresses, not people, if a new household moves into a sampled address, the CE program will continue the survey with the new household.
  • Diary Survey expenditures: Data users can analyze one household for up two weeks because the Diary Survey asks a household to provide their expenditures only for two consecutive weeks.
  • Income and assets: Both CE surveys collect various types of income data and in addition the Interview Survey collects data on some types of assets of the previous 12 months. Data users cannot analyze these trends for individual households over time.

8. Analyzing aggregate data over time

Trend analyses of aggregated PUMD variables and to a lesser degree, items in CE tables, over several years are limited by the changes in collection and sampling methods. For example, every ten years the CE program introduces a new sample design. Generally, when the CE program introduces a new sample design, method, item, or question, the program does not create an overlap where both the old and the new version are available during the transition.

However, longitudinal analysis of major categories across several years is possible if the data user concludes that the changes in the underlying collection methods do not affect the overall trend. Generally, larger categories are less impacted than small categories. For a list of the main survey changes in the history of the CE program, see Consumer Expenditures and Income: History 9 in the BLS Handbook of Methods.

9. Inability to analyze CUs across the two surveys

CUs cannot be traced across the Interview Survey and the Diary Survey, because the surveys use two independent samples. Thus, each CU appears only in one or the other survey but not both surveys.

CE surveys use two independent samples

Additional resources

For more information on PUMD, see the following resources:

  • The PUMD documentation page lists all available documentation for PUMD.
  • The CE Survey Materials page lists materials used to collect data with the Interview Survey and the Diary Survey. The material may provide data users insight in how respondents responded to particular questions.
  • The chapter Consumer Expenditures and Income in the BLS Handbook of Methods provides an overview of the CE concepts, sources, design, calculations, and presentation. The material may provide data users insight into how CE methods affect the data.
  • The CE library page allows data users to search for CE-related publications.




1 CE staff, Getting Started with the Consumer Expenditure Survey (CE), Public-use Microdata, 2018, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

2 CE staff, Consumer Expenditures and Income, 2018, Bureau of Labor Statistics Handbook of Methods.

3 Census Divisions are geographic subsets within the four Census Regions in the United States. Divisions contain a number of states, and two or three Divisions make up one Census Region.

4 A Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) is a geographic area with a large population nucleus. MSAs are located adjacent to communities with a high degree of economic and social integration with that nucleus. The Office of Management and Budget defines the term as a standard for Federal agencies in the preparation and publication of statistics related to metropolitan areas.

5 Aaron Cobet, New CE income tax estimates, 2015, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

6 John Sabelhaus, David Johnson, Stephen Ash, David Swanson, Thesia I. Garner, John Greenlees, and Steve Henderson, Is the Consumer Expenditure Survey Representative by Income?, 2015, University of Chicago Press.

7 UCCs are the most detailed breakout of CE data in PUMD. For a complete list of UCCs, see the hierarchical grouping files on the PUMD documentation page.

8 CE staff, Protecting Respondent Confidentiality, 2018, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

9 CE staff, Consumer Expenditures and Income, 2018, Bureau of Labor Statistics Handbook of Methods.


Last Modified Date: June 14, 2019