Trade

Americans Spent $381.6 Billion On Stuff

Grocery store
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Americans spent $45 billion at the grocery store last month. We spent $69 billion on cars and auto parts, $39 billion on gas, and $18 billion on clothes.

In all, Americans spent $381.6 billion on retail goods in January, according to numbers out this morning. Retail sales rose 8 percent over the past year and 0.3 percent between December and January.

The monthly rise was a bit less than economists were expecting, but still a sign that the economy is doing pretty well. Retail sales Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of the U.S. economy, so a rise in retail sales suggests growth in the economy overall.

But is it really a good thing that Americans are buying more stuff? Didn't we get into trouble in the financial crisis in part because we borrowed too much money and bought too much stuff?

To answer this, it's worth looking at yesterday's report on household debt. The report, from the New York Fed, showed that household debt is falling.

That was largely due to a decline in mortgage debt. But the report also showed that credit card debt fell last year (see the chart on p. 7 for details).

The fall in household debt suggests that rising retail sales aren't coming on borrowed money. Instead, rising retail sales look like a sign that the economy is continuing to recover.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said retail sales account for 70 percent of the economy. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of the economy. Retail sales account for part — but not all — of consumer spending.

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