News & Politics

DC Spends Least on Fashion, Most on Books

Compared with residents of other major US cities.

Photograph by LittleBee80/iStock.

As any resident of the DC region knows, this is an expensive place to live. That’s in part balanced by the region’s wealth. But how do expenses compare to other major metropolitan areas? I often wonder this when I visit other cities, perusing their shops and real-estate listings. A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics study looks at this very question and reports the average spending of consumer units (like households) across a range of categories.

Check out the interactive chart below to see the percentage of annual expenditures an average consumer unit spends on each category across 18 of the country’s largest urban areas. Press a button to change the view and hover over a bar to see the actual dollar amount spent.

The DC area is on the low end for many categories because the region has the largest incomes and overall annual expenditures. So even when the dollar amount is high, the piece of the pie is smaller. This isn’t to say DC is relatively cheaper, major costs like housing are not shown above. But what can we take away from this?

It’s expensive to get around Washington.

Not only is the region the fourth-highest for percent spent on public transit and in the top half for car costs, in absolute terms it spends the most on car costs and is second to New York in public transit. Washington is unique in high spending for both categories; most cities are high in one or the other. With a Metro system that is literally falling apart and heavily congested roadways with rush-hour peaks, many in the DC region are spending heavily on both.

This city is full of book nerds.

The DC region spends the most both in absolute and proportional terms on reading. The category encompasses newspapers, magazines, and books. It is the only category that DC comes out on the top, reflecting both the region’s highly education population and focus on current events. But, hey, DC maybe put down the book and pick up a fashion mag? The region also proportionally spends the least on beauty and hygiene products and clothing.

DC likes to have a good time.

While proportionally on the low end, DC spends the third-most in absolute dollars on entertainment, a category that includes everything from event tickets to hobby expenses, pets and television. DC also likes to eat out. As shown in the chart below DC comes in third for the proportion of personal food budgets spent eating at restaurants. So, yeah, we’re nerds, but we’re nerds that know how to indulge ourselves.

Technical notes: Data come from the 2013-2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey. Data are shown at the MSA level, which typically encompasses a city and its surrounding suburbs. Not all spending categories are shown. The data do not include the effect of local tax rates, which could be significant in categories such as tobacco or alcohol purchases, or the income elasticity of spend categories. Full definitions of each category shown can be found in the BLS glossary. You can find complete code for this post on my GitHub page.

Kate Rabinowitz is the founder of the blog DataLensDC.