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Next to the decennial census, the Consumer Expenditure Survey (CEX) is perhaps the most important survey conducted by the government to help businesses understand consumer behavior in the marketplace. The CEX is conducted by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and captures both big-ticket and little-ticket items through a mix of diaries and interviews — all designed to provide a vivid portrait of which Americans buy what goods and services.

In this month's cover story (“Where the Money Goes� on page 30), Contributing Editor Michael J. Weiss tracked CEX data for the past decade in an attempt to reveal how demographics and lifestyles affect consumer spending. Writes Weiss: “The December release of 2000 survey results provides CEOs and researchers alike with a new and exhaustive statistical portrait of recent consumer spending and how it's changed in the past decade. But the numbers also serve as a preview of the hot products and in-demand industries for tomorrow's consumers.�

Weiss says he enjoyed writing about the CEX because he wanted a reality check on whether Americans are the “mindless consumers� they're so often portrayed as. Yes, the U.S. is home to more malls than high schools. And true, Americans spend more time shopping than reading. But the CEX actually shows that Americans are not the conspicuous consumers that economist Thorstein Veblen coined a century ago in his manifesto, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Between 1990 and 2000, we spent more of our budgets on such mundane necessities as housing, transportation and health care than on clothes, jewelry and booze. And unless you consider purchasing shoes and computers as a way to elicit the “envy of one's fellow men,� Veblen would be hard-pressed to find the abundance of material goods whose acquisition he criticized as a primitive form of snobbery and self-doubt. The last decade showed that more consumers were secure enough to buy more of their clothes at Wal-Mart than Macy's; that they felt less embarrassed clipping coupons for meals at white tablecloth restaurants. “I liked the fact that American consumers have become cheapskates,� says Weiss. “Jack Benny would feel right at home today.�

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