September 2013

Research highlights of the Consumer Expenditure Survey redesign

Research is underway to help determine the best ways to improve the expenditure data generated by the Consumer Expenditure (CE) Survey, an ongoing survey that collects information on spending, income, and household characteristics. To determine how to optimally redesign the CE Survey, the Gemini Project was begun in 2009 with the goal of reducing measurement error, particularly error generally associated with underreporting, and with a secondary goal of halting or reversing the decline in response rates while also managing operational costs. The motivation, challenges, and independent expert recommendations for the redesign initiative are discussed in the article, along with data quality, respondent burden, and cost considerations associated with various potential CE Survey redesign features. The paper also discusses that an evaluation of the effectiveness of a survey redesign requires that a monitoring system identify the impact of each survey stage on measurement error and that it measure respondents’ perceived burden. The article concludes by pointing out how current research results inform and align with the next steps planned for the CE Survey redesign process.

This article highlights recent research conducted in support of the ongoing, multiyear redesign of the Consumer Expenditure (CE) Survey. In the first section, the CE research program is introduced. In the second section, the motivation, challenges, and accomplishments of the redesign initiative are discussed, along with next steps. Major research findings and implications are described in the third section. The article concludes with a discussion of the next steps in the CE survey redesign.

CE program overview

The Consumer Expenditure (CE) Survey is a federal government survey that collects information on a broad range of expenditures, income, and household characteristics. This information, which presents a statistical picture of consumer spending, is used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in computing the Consumer Price Index, as well as by economic policymakers, business, academia, and various federal agencies. Because of the important role of the CE Survey as the provider of this unique information, BLS continuously undertakes research into how best to collect high quality data.

The current survey consists of two component household surveys—the Consumer Expenditure Quarterly Interview (CEQ) and the Consumer Expenditure Diary (CED). The CEQ is carried out through five quarterly interviews, with data from the last four being used to produce official survey estimates. The CEQ data are collected primarily through face-to-face interviews, with each interview lasting approximately 1 hour. Respondents are asked to provide expenditure information for the prior 3 months. The overall response rate for the CEQ was 71 percent in 2011.

The CED component is composed of two independent diaries that each are used to collect 1 week of household expenditures. On consecutive weeks, interviewers provide diaries to the households and return one or two times to monitor data entry and retrieve completed forms. Respondents are instructed to record all household expenditures. The response rate for the CED also was 71 percent in 2011.

Over the past several years, the Branch of Research and Program Development (BRPD) of the Bureau of Labor Statistics has overseen research to assist in the revision of the CE Survey.1 Past improvements in the design of the CE survey have included the introduction of computer-assisted personal interviewing in 2003 and, in 2005, a revised diary form and an instrument to track interviewer contacts. Also, to keep pace with changes in both society and consumer products, the CEQ undergoes biennial updates. The BRPD is currently investigating ways to improve the quality of expenditure data while considering the possible impacts of these changes on survey budgets and respondent burden; the CE program defines respondent burden as encompassing not only the time needed to complete the survey but also the cognitive effort that the response process entails. Research projects have focused on ways to reduce the survey length and burden, improve respondent reporting behavior, and minimize or manage current survey costs. This research supports the Gemini Project, a multiyear initiative to redesign the CE Survey.


1 Karen Goldenberg and Jay Ryan, “Evolution and change in the Consumer Expenditure Surveys: adapting methodologies to meet changing needs,” paper presented at the National Bureau of Economic Research, Summer Institute 2009, Conference on Research on Income and Wealth, July 13, 2009.

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About the Author

Jennifer Edgar

Jennifer Edgar is a research statistician in the Office of Survey Methods Research of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Brett McBride

Brett McBride is an economist in the Office of Prices and Living Conditions of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Adam Safir

Adam Safir is a statistician in the Office of Prices and Living Conditions of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.