How much do families spend on food? How much has the average person saved for retirement? Do others balance their checkbooks every month? Every week? Every day? When shopping for homes, how much time do people take?

I recently spent $4 on a book that answers these questions and others like them. Are You Normal About Money? by Bernice Kanner purports to offer a statistical representation of the financial lives of normal Americans. While I question the methodology — it mostly comprises the results of surveys at bloomberg.com, hardly a scientific sample — the results are interesting.

Here are some typical questions and responses:

If the service isn’t what it should be, do you tip less? More than half of us — 54 percent — scale back when the service doesn’t meet our expectations. Twenty-three percent still tip the usual amount. Nine percent leave nothing or pennies. Two percent say they speak with the manager.

Would you keep a job you hated for big bucks? Twenty-three percent said they would … collect the cash for a short time at least. Ten percent wouldn’t take this Faustian bargain for a minute. Seven percent confess they are already doing it.

Do you consider the moral, social, or environmental implications of your investments? Two out of five investors (38 percent) avoid involvement with socially irresponsible companies. Almost as many (35 percent) only care about the return.

How much time do you spend in the supermarket? The average shopper spends only 21 minutes buying groceries and covers only 23 percent of the store during each [trip], according to a study by Frito-Lay.

How often do you switch car insurers to save on the premiums? Seventy-one percent of us say that we switch at least once a year to trim costs. But for most of us there’s got to be at least a 20 percent savings on what we’re currently paying before we’ll switch.

The math on that last answer makes my head spin. It seems to imply that most people are getting rate reductions on their car insurance every year. Is this true? I’ve had the same insurance carrier my entire life — he’s a small-town agent who plays an active role in the community, and I have a friend who works for him. In this instance, I value social capital more than money. But 20% a year?

I can’t recommend buying Are You Normal About Money?. I distrust the validity of the numbers because they come mostly from online surveys. But there are some gems here. I’ll share some in the coming months. (If you’re really curious, borrow this book from your public library.)

There are better ways to compare yourself with your peers. Throughout the year, government agencies and research groups release surveys and findings on a variety of financial topics. For example, earlier this year the Employee Benefit Research Institute released its annual Retirement Confidence Survey. This survey measures retirement savings and investments, and then analyzes the data. The report is 28 pages long. Here’s one table, which demonstrates how much people have saved for retirement based on age. How do you compare to the average?

Retirement Savings All Workers Ages 25-34 Ages 35-44 Ages 45-54 Ages 55+ All Retirees
Less than $10,000 39% 54% 34% 31% 36% 30%
$10,000-$24,999 14% 19% 15% 13% 6% 12%
$25,000-$49,999 12% 11% 14% 14% 8% 14%
$50,000-$99,999 12% 7% 16% 12% 12% 11%
$100,000-$149,999 5% 1% 7% 5% 7% 7%
$150,000-$199,999 6% 3% 5% 10% 5% 6%
$250,000-$499,999 6% 1% 5% 8% 13% 12%
$500,000 or more 6% 4% 4% 8% 13% 10%

I’m 37 and have $63,840.40 saved for retirement. This puts me in the top 25-30% of my age group. I’d like to be higher. When I’ve eliminated my final debt (in March of 2008), I’ll attack retirement savings.

You can download a PDF analyzing these survey results at the Employee Benefit Research Institute web site. Or you can view a summary of the report. Vincent forwarded an article that analyzes the RCS numbers from 2005 and concludes that they’re not pretty. (Motely Fool: Prepare for a gruesome retirement)

Most of us are curious about how others handle money. How do people cope with debt? How much do they save? How do they handle the unique crises that make up life? During the coming months, I hope to conduct a series of interviews through which I will profile average families and how they handle their finances. My guess is that there’s no such thing as “normal”.

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