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How Americans spend money, compared with other countries

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a fascinating new report out that compares consumer budgets in the United States, Canada, Britain and Japan. As the graph below shows, there’s a huge amount of variation in what people in each country are spending their money on:

Bureau of Labor Statistics

In short: Americans appear to spend more than their peers on housing, transportation, and health care — and we spend far less on clothes, food, and booze.

At this point, it shouldn’t come as a shock that American consumers devote a far bigger fraction of their budgets to health care than their peers abroad. That’s partly because Canada, Japan, and Britain all have more comprehensive taxpayer-financed nationalized health systems that curtail out-of-pocket expenses. (Though, as Catherine Rampell points out, when you add up both taxes and out-of-pocket expenses, the United States is still paying significantly more for health care than other countries.)

Also noteworthy is the fact that Americans spend a much bigger chunks of their budgets on housing, and far less on food. As the BLS report’s detailed breakdown here shows, Americans spend more money eating out than their peers, but they spend a significantly smaller portion of their budgets on cooking at home than Canada, Britain, or Japan. Here’s an old article by Derek Thompson looking at why food in the United States is so cheap — the story starts with corn subsidies — and how that might be fueling rising obesity rates.

The transportation numbers, meanwhile, suggest that owning a car can be costly. Residents of the two most auto-dependent countries, Canada and the United States, pay the most to get around. (Canadians pay more to drive than Americans do because gas prices are about $1 per gallon higher in Canada, thanks to steeper fuel taxes.) The British and Japanese spend more for public transit, including buses and subways, but they pay less for transportation overall.

Meanwhile, it’s curious that Americans spend the smallest portions of their budgets on clothing, alcoholic beverages, tobacco products and “culture/entertainment, and recreation.” Is that because our booze and clothes are just cheaper or do we just not value those things as much?

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