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Effects of COVID-19 Pandemic and Response on the Consumer Expenditure Surveys

This page summarizes the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Consumer Expenditure Surveys in 2020. It describes changes in data collection, response rates before and during the pandemic, and effects of the pandemic on estimation procedures and data quality. This page will be updated as more reports become available about how the pandemic affected the Consumer Expenditure Surveys.

We also have more information on the impact of the pandemic on the Consumer Price Index and how it relates to the Consumer Expenditure Surveys.

Data collection

On March 19, 2020, in-person data collection ceased because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We changed procedures in both the Interview Survey and the Diary Survey so the U.S. Census Bureau could continue collecting high-quality data while also protecting the health and safety of respondents and staff. All interviews that normally would have been in person instead were done by telephone. Interviewers use resources on the Consumer Expenditure Surveys respondent webpage to guide respondents through the interview and provide details that were usually discussed during the in-person interview. The Diary Survey usually required respondents to record their spending in a daily diary form. Interviewers now transcribe these diary entries by telephone into a paper diary on the respondent's behalf.

Response rates

Response rates have steadily decreased over time, but the decrease at the start of COVID-19 was noticeably larger. Starting in March 2020, both surveys experienced a drop in response rates, with a much larger decrease in the Diary Survey. While the pandemic caused a larger drop in response rates in the Diary Survey, the drop was partially offset by a larger sample, which was introduced in January 2020. To combat declines in response, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Economic Reimbursable Surveys Division used their research contact frame to supplement the CE surveys. Beginning with April 2020, phone numbers from the contact frame were included in collection. The Interview Survey response rate showed an increase of almost 10 percentage points from July to September 2020. Response rates from September to December 2020 declined slightly, falling to 45.8 percent. The Diary Survey showed a similar uptick in response from April to September 2020, with response rates then falling slightly to 33.9 percent.

Response rates for the Consumer Expenditure Surveys
Month Diary Interview

Jul 2019

56.1% 55.1%

Aug 2019

55.6 52.7

Sep 2019

52.7 52.0

Oct 2019

51.7 54.7

Nov 2019

50.2 50.2

Dec 2019

45.0 50.3

Jan 2020

47.4 53.1

Feb 2020

49.5 52.2

Mar 2020

35.4 51.4

Apr 2020

26.3 46.2

May 2020

26.3 46.9

Jun 2020

25.8 44.7

Jul 2020

27.1 40.2

Aug 2020

30.4 43.3

Sep 2020

41.6 50.1

Oct 2020

38.6 47.4

Nov 2020

37.0 46.4

Dec 2020

33.9 45.8

Estimation procedures

There were no changes to estimation procedures in the Consumer Expenditure Surveys as a result of the pandemic. For further analysis of how the data were affected by the pandemic, see our 2020 calendar year tables. These tables provide annual calendar year means, which use data reported from the first quarter of 2020 through the fourth quarter of 2020. You also can learn more from our Public Use Microdata files. These files include Interview Survey data for all of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021 and Diary Survey data for all of 2020.

Data quality

Our assessment of data from the Interview Survey showed that we cannot draw a conclusion about whether data quality was affected by pandemic-related restrictions. It appears that the changes in data quality measures were driven by the underlying characteristics of the respondents rather than the change in the method of data collection. See our COVID-19 CE Interview Preliminary Report.

In the Diary Survey, our assessment of the data quality showed a significant decline in weekly expenditure entries across the protocols and periods examined. A deeper analysis suggests some of these changes resulted from actual changes in spending patterns. Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic and associated changes in data collection and spending had a negative effect on participation in the survey. The changes affected the demographic characteristics of those who participated and reduced the extent of entries collected from participating households. See our COVID-19 CE Diary Preliminary Report.

We did not see evidence of nonresponse bias in expenditure estimates in the second quarter of 2020. There was some evidence of a small but statistically significant amount of nonresponse bias in the third quarter of 2020. Please see our Report on Nonresponse Bias during the COVID-19 Period.

In comparison with the 2019 estimates, nine of the 14 major spending categories identified in the tables showed decreases in annual means. Of these nine, apparel and services, personal care products and services, alcoholic beverages, education, and food saw the largest percent decrease in average annual expenditures. The decreases in food and alcoholic beverages were primarily associated with purchases away from home. Measures of variance showed minor changes when compared to the 2019 estimates, with only cash contributions and education showing an increase in relative standard error greater than 1 percent. See our follow-up report on the impact of COVID-19 on CE survey estimates for 2020.

Last Modified Date: April 13, 2022