The news from the nation’s biggest retailers has been bleak as one after another have reported weak sales. Whether it’s Macy’s, which is laying off people to recover from declining sales or Walmart, which reported its first ever annual drop in revenue this week, retail sales have been weak.
Personal consumption expenditures, which track price changes in consumer goods and services, have been lackluster with monthly gains ranging from zero to 0.55 percent.
“Jobs are running at a strong pace and the large decline in oil prices should help consumers, says Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Barclays. “The question is why the rate of consumption growth isn’t more solid than it is,”
Americans are not saving the money either. The personal savings rate is currently at 5.4 percent, which is equivalent to the primary stage of the recovery.
So maybe consumers are letting the economists and ultimately the economy down. Or maybe economists are looking in the wrong places to see where Americans are spending their money. Just look at the annual report at MasterCard. The purchase volume in the U.S. in 2015 was up 7.7 percent from the year before.
So what are they spending their money on?
One thing is flights. More Americans are flying out of the country now than before the crisis in 2008. 100.9 million passengers flew internationally with an American carrier in 2015, which is up with 2.77 percent from last year’s 98,1 million passengers. A number that has been rising steadily over the last six years.
“People are more likely to travel abroad with the strong dollar,” said David Sloan, senior economist at 4cast Inc. in New York. “But in general I would say that the strong labor market should be supporting consumer spending at the moment.”
Sloan suggests that when employers are confident with their job situation they are comfortable enough to book airline tickets even months in advance, which is often the case with international flights.
Matt Morgan is headed to Europe this summer. The 22 year-old private business owner from Spartanburg, South Carolina is going on a backpacking trip in Europe with his girlfriend for one month at an estimated price of $5,700. Money he could have spend on a new car, new computer or even to develop his business.
“I’d rather spend my money on experiences I’ll remember than depreciating assets,” said Moran. “Now is a good time for me because I don’t have the responsibilities of a family and I can do my work remotely.”
Domestic flights are also on the rise, which leads to another sector, that’s having a good time at the moment. The hotel sector had a strong 2015 on all three key metrics.
Compared with 2014 the occupancy rate gained 1.7 percent to a total of 65.6. The average daily rate added 4.4 percent to $120.01 and the revenue per available room increased 6.3 percent to $78.67.
Also political campaigns are benefiting from the money spend by regular Americans. Now given that the current election is still in its early phase, the total numbers are not comparable at this time. But a pattern seems to be inevitable if you check the FEC numbers. Small donations, which is defined as $200 or less is gaining momentum.
In 2008 the total amount of individual contributions equaled $1.3 billion and the contributions of $200 or less was $551.4 million, which amounts to 41.2 percent.
In 2012 both numbers were higher and the $621.2 million donated in small batches equaled 45.6 percent. So far in 2016 51.6 percent of the individual contributions come from donations of $200 or less.
Especially for Bernie Sanders the idea of small individual contributions is a key element to his campaign. The official campaign did not want to answer questions for this article.
Movement 4 Bernie is a grass root organization, which is helping the official Sanders campaign raising money in support of the senator. One of the members in the group is Rob Thom, 25 and he’s surprised by the economic support from regular people on the street.
“The typical donation is between a couple of bucks and $20,” said Thom. ”People are contributing with a lot more money than expected. People feel their money is going to a good place.”
Even though political spending is a minor part of the bigger economic picture, the average amount contributed to a political campaign equals a pair of jeans and suggests that regular consumers are spending in this category as well.
“I’m sure that something like political contributions are picking up, but it is difficult to single out any items,” said David Sloan.
Even though consumption hasn’t picked up in the pace that economists are expecting, consumer spending in general is not in crisis. Michael Gapen says,
he believes times have changed and that it’s not appropriate to compare current economic indicators with the time before the Great Recession.
“This is a new normal,” said Gapen.