As The Washington Post’s Jim Tankersley writes, consumers are the engine of the U.S. economy, driving about 70 percent of economic activity. This is not just spending on cars, food and clothing, but also on health care, housing and utilities.

The job market, as today’s numbers show, has been crawling steadily upward since the Great Recession. But household consumption had withered after the crisis, long enough for economists to wonder: Was something different about 2007? Have American households permanently changed their spending habits? And if so, what does that mean for the future of the economy?


These charts break out consumer spending into different categories using data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. We can compare the Great Recession to the seven other recessions that have occurred since 1960. The big picture: This has been one of the rockiest recoveries we’ve seen.

Look at food purchases after the 2007 recession: Four years out, and spending had still barely exceeded pre-recession levels. Look at the service sector: Two years of no growth. In both cases, by the same time in prior recessions there already had been considerable growth in expenditures. The financial crisis took a deep gouge out of the consumer economy, and we are still waiting to see what the scars will look like.

A little explanation of the sectors: Durable goods are things that tend to last more than three years. Cars, appliances and furniture are the main examples. Usually, these parts of the economy dry up during a recession because cash-strapped families can wait a little longer to replace their aging cars and rattling appliances.

Families can’t economize as much, though, on non-durable goods, which must be purchased regularly. You still have to buy groceries every week, and replace old clothing. Spending on services is dominated by housing, utilities and health care — categories that are even harder to skimp on.

We can see this general pattern in the charts, which show that durable goods took the biggest hit in the 2007 recession. Spending on cars, in particular, plunged and was hardly healthy even four years after the recession. Non-durable goods showed less of a dip. People cut back on gasoline, and tried to keep food and clothing purchases to a minimum. On the other hand, there was no decline in spending on housing, utilities or health care.