On Saturday, The New York Times published a brilliant chart illustrating the spending of the average American:

“Each month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics gathers 84,000 prices in about 200 categories,” the paper writes, “like gasoline, bananas, dresses and garbage collection.” These numbers form the Consumer Price Index, one common measure of inflation. And this graphic makes that information accessible.

This chart is neat for several reasons:

  • The circle itself represents 100% of the average consumer’s spending. The circle is divided into eight large shapes, each of which is divided further into a number of smaller shapes. The size of each shape represents an estimate of what the average American spends on the category it represents. For example, gasoline is the largest shape in the transportation category.
  • Each shape is color-coded by the change in prices for that category between March 2007 and March 2008. The three dark red shapes (representing price increases of more than 40%) are all petroleum products. But eggs — with a 29.9% price increase — are close behind.
  • Hovering over any shape will reveal the category name, the share of spending from the average budget, and the amount by which prices have changed in the past year.
  • You can use the “zoom in” tool to get a better view of the action, and then drag the chart around to look at different categories. It’s only by doing this that you can see lettuce has its own category, and that the green, leafy stuff has declined in price by 3.2% over the past twelve months.

I’ll confess to feeling like a total geek because I spent twenty minutes exploring the different numbers. I even started taking notes and making extrapolations and comparisons.

For example, Americans, as a whole, spend three times as much money on cigarettes as they do on financial services. Actually, because we know that 0.7% of expenditures are made to cigarettes, and because we know that 21% of Americans smoke, then (if my math is right) about 3.5% of a smoker’s expenses go to cigarettes. (Note that I’m not criticizing. At one time, comic books accounted for 7% of my own expenses.)

I would love to find more charts and graphs like this one. (The New York Times has a history of producing great charts and graphs, such as their graph of home values from 2006 and their rent vs. buy calculator.)

[The New York Times: All of inflation’s little parts]