With gas prices low, what are Americans spending on instead?

Gas prices tumbled to rarely seen lows in late 2014 and early 2015, leaving many Americans with a little more pocket money than usual – money that didn’t go to a new pair of designer shoes or paying down student debt. 

Don Ryan/AP/File
Attendant James Lewis pumps gas at a station in Portland, Ore. By and large, Americans are using savings from low gas prices to keep up with essential expenses, like groceries and rent.

Like 2014, 2015 has been a great year so far at the pump. Thanks to a plummeting oil market, consumers will save an average of $700 per year on gasoline, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). It’s the perfect excuse to spring for an Apple Watch or knock out a few student loan payments, right?

Not exactly. More frequently, Americans are using their gas savings to meet their everyday expenses, according to a study released Monday by Bankrate.com, a personal finance site. Forget the long-awaited cruise or extra retirement contribution; four in 10 of Bankrate’s survey respondents had to spend their gas windfalls on essentials like rent and groceries.

Additionally, 23 percent of respondents saved or invested the extra money. Discretionary spending, on things like dining out and travel, was the least common, at about 14 percent.

Millennials were more likely to save or invest – or buy something nonessential – than any other age group. High-income respondents – people making $75,000 or more – were about twice as likely to have saved their extra gas money than their lower-income counterparts.

“The percentage of Americans earmarking this money for everyday necessities outpaced those using it for discretionary purchases by nearly 3-to-1,” Bankrate chief financial analyst Greg McBride said in the report.  “You see why the economy is growing at such an anemic pace.”

The findings offer further evidence that as broad measures of the country’s financial picture improve, most Americans aren’t feeling it. Even as the stock market hits new highs, the billionaires’ club grows by hundreds annually, and revenues at the world’s biggest companies balloon, the consumer economy has yet to kick into high gear. Retail sales have barely budged since the beginning of this year, despite the arrival of warmer weather that would generally lure people into shops and restaurants. On a larger scale, the housing market has an affordability problem. Heavy demand at the lower end of the market is pushing up prices, making it hard for first-time buyers to break into the market, and, as a side effect, causing sizable rent increases across much of the country.

All of this means even economic trends that trickle down to the average consumer, like savings from cheap gas, are used to catch up rather than get ahead. That could change, eventually, as things improve further and American’s confidence in their financials firms up. In the same Bankrate survey, respondents reported higher levels of job security than they had a year ago, as well as more confidence about their debt levels and savings rates. The drop in gas prices has combined with a pickup in wages in the first part of 2015 to give average Americans more of a break than they’ve had in several years.

Still, for most Americans, those new Apple Watches are still a long way off.

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