Americans spending less — but not on health care or gas

·Senior National Affairs Reporter

Consumers reduced their spending on most goods and services last year, as incomes dipped. But spending in two areas bucked the trend, according to a new report.

"Consumer groups" -- essentially, families or single people--spent $48,109 on average last year--a drop of 2 percent from 2009, a Labor Department study found (pdf). Behind the decrease was a 0.6 percent drop in average income, to $62,481. (Remember, we're often talking about two people who combine their income--the average individual income is far lower.)

At the same time, consumer prices increased by 1.6 percent, creating a squeeze for many working families.

The only two types of spending that saw an increase? Health care and transportation.

Health care costs have been rising rapidly over the last decade--a problem that President Obama's health-care overhaul, which won't fully go into effect until 2014, was designed in part to address. A new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation released Tuesday found that the average annual premium for a family covered through an employer increased by a whopping 9 percent last year, to $15,073.

But transportation costs spiked even more than health care: Gasoline prices increased by 18 percent over 2009 prices.

What else did we spend money on? Housing accounted for over a third of our total spending, at $16,557, even as it fell by 2 percent from 2009. Transportation was next, at $7,677 and personal insurance and pensions third, at $5,373.

Food spending dropped by 3.8 percent. Interestingly, around 40 percent of our total food budget goes to food prepared outside the home, though we cut back last year both on that score and on home-made food. We also spent less on clothes and services, and a whopping 7 percent less on entertainment. (No word on whether boredom increased at a corresponding rate.)

It's worth remembering that these mundane personal choices collectively have a profound effect on the economy. Growth and job creation are lagging right now because consumers, hit by a loss of wealth thanks to the housing bust, and a general lack of confidence, are spending less. Until that changes, the economy likely won't recover.

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