By: Janet Harrah
"We just bought those shoes two weeks ago! How can they be too small already?" Sound familiar? Anyone who has ever tried to keep a growing child clothed knows it can be an expensive endeavor. Children grow quickly, usually in fits and starts that are nearly impossible to predict. Often they stain, rip or otherwise wear out their clothing in a matter of months or sometimes, just weeks. In other words, it can seem to be a never ending battle to keep a child clothed.
Everyone needs food, clothing and shelter. In last month’s blog we discussed the cost of feeding a family of four. This month’s blog looks at what it costs to clothe a family.
According to the latest Consumer Expenditure Survey data, most Americans spend about 3.5% of their total annual expenditures on apparel and services. In looking at these data, several things stood out.
- This is a considerably smaller percentage than that spent for most necessities.
- The percentage spent on apparel is nearly identical across income groups.
- Compared to historical norms, Americans today spend a relatively small amount on apparel.
Clothing accounts for a small share of total household expenditures. The percentage of expenditures allocated for food, clothing and housing in 2011 totaled 50.3%. Clothing accounted for just 3.5% of total expenditures, compared to 13% for food and 33.8% for housing including utilities.The average household spends $1,740 per year on clothing and apparel. It is probably not a great surprise to most readers that, on average, women spend more than men on clothing. Expenditures for women average $604 per year or nearly double the $324 spent by men. Footwear accounts for more than 18% of total apparel expenditures (both genders).
The share of income spent on apparel and services is nearly identical across income groups. For most other necessities, the poor spend a larger portion of their total expenditures than do higher income households (for example, nearly 9% more on housing and utilities and 4.5% more on food).
As household income rises, the dollar amount which is spent rises, but the percentage of total expenditures on apparel is nearly identical across all income groups. The highest income households spend about $3,266 per year on clothing, or about 3.5% of total annual expenditures. The lowest income households spend about $850 per year on clothing, or about 3.9% of total annual expenditures. Likewise, the amount spent on clothing and apparel does not differ much for married couples with children (3.6%) compared to single-adult households (3.5%). The one family type that does spend more on clothing as a percentage of total annual expenditures is single-parent households with at least one child under 18 years (4.9% on average).
Historical Perspective: The material well-being of families in the United States has improved dramatically, as demonstrated by the change over time in the percentage of expenditures allocated for food, clothing, and housing. In 1901, the average U.S. family devoted 79.8% of its spending to these necessities. By 2011, allocations on necessities had been reduced substantially, for U.S. families to 50.3% of spending. In 1901, the average U.S. household allocated 14% of total spending for apparel. By 2002–03, spending shares for clothing had decreased to 3.5%.
Why have clothing and footwear as a share of expenditures fallen? Since 1982, apparel prices have climbed 26% while prices in general have risen 130%. With apparel prices falling in real terms, clothing requires a smaller share of overall expenditures. In other words, after adjusting for inflation, clothing and footwear is cheaper today and therefore, it takes a smaller share of income.
Despite relatively lower prices, clothing is still a tight fit for families in poverty. The 2012 Federal poverty threshold for a family of four is $23,283. If that same family spends 3.5% of its income on clothing, it can expect to spend just $815 per year. That comes out to $203.75 per person per year or approximately $17 per person per month. What can you buy for $17? According to the latest Cost of Living Index for the Cincinnati metro area, the average price for a pair of boy’s blue jeans is $20.10 and the average price for a pair of women’s slacks is $24.91. Those two items alone would account for nearly 3 months of clothing allowance for one family member. At average retail prices, low income families likely cannot afford to purchase all new clothing.So where do families go for help? Some states such as West Virginia have school clothing vouchers for eligible children enrolled in West Virginia schools. Each eligible child receives a $200 voucher that may be used toward the purchase of appropriate school clothing or piece goods for families who sew clothing for their children. Other states such as Missouri have back to school sales tax holidays, where for a day or two select back-to-school purchases, such as clothing, school supplies, computers, and other items as defined by statute, are exempt from sales tax for this time period only. However, for most families living in poverty, unlike food and housing, there are relatively few government programs to help with clothing expenses. The costs of clothing coupled with few government assistance programs help explain the large number of thrift stores. According to NARTS, The Association of Resale Professionals, the resale industry in the U.S. has annual revenues of approximately $13 billion. Goodwill Industries alone generated $2.69 billion in retail sales from more than 2,500 not-for-profit resale stores across America in 2010. Additionally, the lack of government programs highlights the importance of private charity efforts such as the annual coat drives so common in cities across the country. If you are fortunate enough to not live in poverty do not just toss your old clothes. Take the time to drop off gently used clothes at the nearest donation center. The United Way of Greater Cincinnati has a list of donation locations throughout the region on its website.
 Apparel services include material for making clothes, shoe repair, alterations and repairs, sewing patterns and notions, clothing rental, clothing storage, dry cleaning and sent-out laundry, watches, jewelry, and repairs to watches and jewelry.
 100 Years of U.S. Consumer Spending Data for the Nation, New York City, and Boston, U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2006 (minor revisions were made to the online version of this report on June 2 and August 3, 2006), Report 991.
 ACCRA Cost of Living Index, C2ER, Average Prices, 2011.