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
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
For more information on PUMD, see the following resources:
1 CE staff, Getting Started with the Consumer Expenditure Survey (CE), Public-use Microdata, 2018, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
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.
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.
Last Modified Date: June 14, 2019