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Consumer Spending Has Surpassed Pre-Pandemic Levels in 11 of 51 Major U.S. Metros

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Consumer spending has been all over the map amid the coronavirus crisis as Americans try to deal with the new normal alongside widespread job and income loss.

But, according to the latest LendingTree study, consumer spending in the U.S. is still lower than it was pre-pandemic. And only 11 of the 51 major metros we reviewed saw an increase during this period.

Here’s a breakdown of the findings.

Key findings

  • Consumer spending across the U.S. was 1.6% lower at the end of February 2021 than in mid-January 2020.
  • Just 11 of the 51 metros LendingTree reviewed had an increase in consumer spending between mid-January 2020 and February 2021.
  • Consumer spending in Baltimore is 35.8% higher than prior to the pandemic — far and away the highest gain. Up next is Honolulu (17.8%) and Fresno, Calif. (14.9%), despite unemployment rates of 8.8% and 10%, respectively, in January 2021.
  • Kansas City, Mo., was hit especially hard by consumer spending that plummeted 25.3% between mid-January 2020 and the end of February 2021. Cities in neighboring Oklahoma followed, with spending reductions of 21.2% (Oklahoma City) and 17.2% (Tulsa).
  • The average dining transaction nationally rose from $25.66 in February 2020 to $47.53 in February 2021 — an 85.2% increase. This was the biggest increase among the categories tracked.
  • Professional service transactions dropped from an average of $171.15 to $142.12 between February 2020 and 2021 — a decrease of 17% and largest among the tracked categories.

Consumer spending down 1.6% from pre-pandemic — with only 11 of 51 major metros seeing an increase during same period

On a national level, consumer spending decreased by 1.6% at the end of February 2021 compared to prior to the COVID-19 crisis in mid-January 2020.

“It’s no surprise that spending is down since the pandemic began,” said Matt Schulz, LendingTree’s chief credit analyst. “There are plenty of reasons for it, but the biggest one is that people simply haven’t been able to spend on many of the pricier things they love to do. Not being able to do all of these things has really kept people’s spending down. That is slowly starting to change, but we’ve still got a long way to go before we’re back to normal.”

Baltimore, Honolulu and Fresno, Calif., have seen the biggest consumer spending increases since early 2020

In addition to tracking consumer spending nationally, LendingTree reviewed consumer spending across 51 major metros between mid-January 2020 and February 2021 to analyze what’s happening across the U.S. Here’s how these metros shake out:

Half of the top 10 metros for consumer spending increases are in the South:

  • Baltimore (No. 1)
  • Memphis, Tenn. (No. 5)
  • Virginia Beach, Va. (No. 7)
  • Austin, Texas (No. 8)
  • El Paso, Texas (No. 9)

Of those areas, only Virginia Beach ($76,610) and Austin ($71,576) have median household incomes above the national average of $62,843.

In Baltimore — which had a consumer spending increase of more than double that of any other area — the average median household income is $50,379, more than $12,000 less than the national average. The second round of economic impact payments — also known as stimulus checks — started arriving in bank accounts on Dec. 29, 2020, which coincided with a consumer spending spike in Baltimore.

LendingTree first examined consumer spending in September 2020, finding that Hawaii had seen the biggest increase between January and July. That means the state’s metros, including Honolulu, may have been on the right track for a while.

Interestingly, California was second to last (only the District of Columbia finished worst) in our initial report. But Fresno saw a big climb in consumer spending in late January, after California lifted its regional stay-at-home order on Jan. 25.

Kansas City, Mo., Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Okla., have seen the biggest consumer spending decrease since early 2020

Following the lead of the top metros, five of the bottom 10 are also in the South:

  • Oklahoma City (No. 50)
  • Tulsa, Okla. (No. 49)
  • Nashville, Tenn. (No. 48)
  • Louisville, Ky. (No. 45)
  • Atlanta (No. 43)

All these areas have a median household income that’s less than the national average.

Also, the poverty rate in each area is lower than across the U.S.:

  • Atlanta: 20.8%
  • Tulsa, Okla.: 19.4%
  • Oklahoma City: 16.1%
  • Louisville, Ky.: 15.9%
  • Nashville, Tenn.: 15.1%
  • U.S.: 10.5%

Despite the heavy Southern presence at the bottom, a Midwestern metro — Kansas City, Mo. — saw the biggest decrease at 25.3%. A recent LendingTree study found Missouri residents are third most likely to rely on credit cards or loans to meet spending needs after being denied unemployment.

A persistent threat of income loss during the pandemic meant that many residents looked to cut back and save as much as possible.

Does the unemployment rate impact consumer spending? Yes, but perhaps not in the way you think

All the metros LendingTree studied saw increases in unemployment rates from January 2020 to January 2021 (the latest available at the time of analysis) — and there seems to be a correlation between higher unemployment rates and consumer spending increases.

For example, the top seven metros for consumer spending all had 2021 unemployment rates of at least 6%, while the bottom four had unemployment rates ranging from 4.4% to 5.3%.

Here’s what the other metros saw on the unemployment front (along with what consumer spending looked like):

One of the reasons that high unemployment may increase consumer spending is that supplemental uninsurance benefits have been available at times, making certain goods and services accessible. And the necessity for higher-priced, contactless services, like grocery delivery, could also contribute to this trend.

Another interesting point comes when you look at the range of unemployment rates themselves. For example, Honolulu (which ranked second-highest for consumer spending) in January 2020 had the lowest unemployment rate of all the metros (2.0%). But by January 2021, the rate had risen to 8.8%.

It still wasn’t the highest rate compared to other metros in January 2021 — Los Angeles secured that spot with an 11.5% unemployment rate — but the percentage-point increase in Honolulu over this period was almost as high as the one in Los Angeles.

Average dining transaction up 85.2% the in past year, while professional service transactions see the biggest drop

Let’s break down consumer spending. Researchers looked at more than 61,000 anonymized LendingTree users in February 2020 and February 2021 to look for any transactional patterns. (This data includes categories where at least 1% of LendingTree users made a purchase.)

According to the findings, dining transactions saw the biggest jump in this period:

Average size of purchase transactions

Spending categoriesFeb-20Feb-21Change
All transactions$65.68 $74.93 14.10%
Bills and utilities$138.06 $132.83 -3.80%
Business$46.39 $64.10 38.20%
Dining$25.66 $47.53 85.20%
Education$125.37 $140.86 12.40%
Family$159.05 $145.51 -8.50%
Fees$24.50 $24.92 1.70%
Government$114.13 $122.34 7.20%
Groceries$44.42 $49.55 11.60%
Health$84.74 $99.66 17.60%
Housing$355.77 $371.45 4.40%
Miscellaneous$239.91 $225.63 -6.00%
Personal care$43.27 $49.38 14.10%
Pets$66.03 $72.34 9.60%
Professional services$171.15 $142.12 -17.00%
Shopping$39.08 $40.53 3.70%
Sports and entertainment$47.61 $61.93 30.10%
Taxes$519.83 $468.46 -9.90%
Travel and transportation$37.62 $45.34 20.50%

Source: Anonymized My LendingTree customer transactions data.

When it comes to dining — which can include both takeout and on-site eating — Americans increased their spending from an average of $25.66 in February 2020 to $47.53 in February 2021. That’s an increase of 85.2%, which was surprising to our chief credit analyst.

Perhaps, he said, this is because people are opting to treat themselves to things like dessert thanks to assistance from the economic impact payments, combined with lower spending in other areas, like travel.

“Much has been made about the struggles of restaurants during the pandemic,” he added. “It could be that Americans are choosing to spend a bit more to do their part to help. That would be good news.”

By contrast, professional services, like repair services, subscriptions and advertising, saw the biggest drop in this same period. This could be because these can be seen as “extras,” which makes it easier for people to cut them out of a budget in times of economic distress. Indeed, one thing is clear: Americans’ spending priorities have shifted significantly over the course of the pandemic.

In-store vs. online transactions: February 2021

To provide a different breakdown of consumer spending habits, researchers also looked at online and in-store transaction sizes for February 2021:

Average in-store and online purchase transaction size (February 2021)

Spending categoriesAverage online transaction sizeAverage in-store transaction size
All transactions$84.17 $74.93
Bills and utilities$125.15 $132.83
Business$34.76 $64.10
Dining$32.75 $47.53
Education$92.53 $140.86
Family$122.53 $145.51
Fees$30.52 $24.92
Government$76.25 $122.34
Groceries$61.24 $49.55
Health$115.72 $99.66
Housing$556.26 $371.45
Miscellaneous$51.94 $225.63
Personal care$53.18 $49.38
Pets$66.51 $72.34
Professional services$157.45 $142.12
Shopping$32.53 $40.53
Sports and entertainment$47.81 $61.93
Taxes$472.25 $468.46
Travel and transportation$65.87 $45.34

Source: Anonymized My LendingTree customer transactions data.

4 tips to help you spend better

Whether there’s a pandemic or not, it’s always a good idea to minimize spending and maximize rewards to save money. Here are four tips to help get you started.

  • Review your credit cards. “If you haven’t reviewed your credit cards to make sure they still fit your spending habits, you could be missing out on significant rewards,” Schulz said. “The best card is the one that fits your lifestyle best, and since so much has changed in the past year, your old card may no longer do the job. If it doesn’t, go shop for a new one.”
  • Ask for a lower APR. Credit cards are a form of high-interest debt, but you can always call your credit card issuer to ask for a lower APR to save money. This works best if you have a history of on-time payments. While it isn’t a sure thing, the potential savings make it worth the call.
  • Consider a budget refresh: Your budget is the heart of your finances, so reviewing it is always a good idea. Look for any opportunities to cut back or save. For example, you may have unused budget categories that you could set to transfer to a savings account every month, rather than collecting in your checking account where you’ll be more likely to spend it.
  • Always shop around: “Some of the oldest advice is still the best when it comes to shopping, and it is simple: Shop around,” Schulz said. “It is easy to just rely on one or two websites for all of your shopping, especially when you’re not going to brick-and-mortar stores as often. However, if you don’t take the time to shop around for deals, you’re probably costing yourself real money.”

Methodology

LendingTree researchers used tracktherecovery.org for estimates of changes in consumer spending in the 51 metros they provided between Jan. 15, 2021, and Feb. 28, 2021 (the latest available at the time of the analysis). We also used data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for estimates of unemployment rates in January 2020 and January 2021 (the latter was provisional at the time of the analysis, and it also was the latest available at the time).

We then used the account histories of more than 61,000 anonymized LendingTree users in February 2020 and February 2021 to determine transaction patterns and sizes across a variety of categories. We included categories where at least 1% of our users made a purchase.