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The Effect of Income on Appliances in U.S. Households

Looking across the country at how people live, the factors that cause the most differences in home lifestyle, including energy use, are:

  1. Geographic Location
  2. Socioeconomics
  3. Household Income

Geographic location determines what climate people live in, what appliances they have, and what types of energy they use in their home.  Socioeconomic differences may show how differences vary based on race, gender, or the number and relationships of the persons in a household.  Household income can affect the number and cost-related attributes and types of appliances, like televisions, that most households have.  This document looks at the relationships of these factors to home appliance ownership, based on information from the 2001 Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS), conducted by the Energy Information Administration.

National Household Income

The overall picture of household income on a national scale (Figure 1) follows a classic "bell-shaped" curve.  The highest percentage of households is in the $30,000 to $49,999 range.

Figure 1: Percent of Housing Units by Household Income

Common Household Appliances

There are some appliances that are commonplace in the home regardless of income level.  These  appliances are refrigerators, cooking appliances (which includes the standard oven with stove-top burners, separate stove and ovens, and toaster ovens), and color televisions.  The percent of households that have them are as follows:

  • Refrigerator 99.9%
  • Cooking appliance 99.7%
  • Color television 98.9%

Source: Energy Information Administration; 2001 Residential Energy Consumption Survey.

For many other home appliances, presence vary by income level.  Having more income in a household usually equates with more spending power.  As a result, households with more income will usually have appliances that some may consider a luxury or unnecessary item that they can do without.  For some appliances that appear in the majority of households, the economic differences are apparent in quality, size, quantity, or high-tech features that come with the appliance. 

Home Entertainment

Having home entertainment is important to many households.  As mentioned previously, about 99 percent of the households have a color television.  Even in the lowest income bracket, more than half the households have cable or satellite television, a stereo system, or a VCR. Large screen televisions are the only item that does not exceed 50 percent for the lowest income level. One possible factor is that in the 2001 RECS survey, the question about having a large screen television is a qualitative yes or no question based on the opinion of the respondent and not a quantitative question that asked for a measurement of the television screen size. 

Large Screen Televisions

In Figure 2, the percent of households with a large screen television increased from about 25 percent for the lowest income bracket to 43 percent for the highest income bracket.

Figure 2: Percent of Housing Units Having Large Screen Televisions by Household Income 

Cable or Satellite System

The 2001 RECS survey also shows an increase by income in whether the televisions are connected to a cable or satellite system (Figure 3).  Even for the lowest income bracket, the percent of households with cable or satellite television is 64 percent. This increases to 87 percent for the highest income level.

Figure 3: Percent of Housing Units Connected to Cable or Satellite Television Systems by Household Income

Video Cassette Recorders (VCR)

Figure 4 illustrates that when a household's income is in the lowest bracket, 26 percent of the households do not have a VCR, and an almost equal percentage of households (21 percent) have two VCR's.  As household income increases, the number of households with more than one VCR increases from 21 percent to 62 percent.  At the same time, the percent of households without a VCR decreases from 26 percent down to 4 percent.

Figure 4: Percent of Housing Units Having VCRs by Household Income

Stereo Systems

Another part of a household's home entertainment area is a stereo system.  In the RECS, stereo systems include portable stereo systems (commonly referred to as boom boxes), component stereo systems, and compact stereo systems, but not headset radios or kitchen/clock radios. In the lowest income level, 54 percent of the housing units have a stereo. The percentage increases to 90 percent in the highest income category (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Percent of Housing Units Having Stereo Systems by Household Income

Cell Phones and Answering Machines

Being able to communicate with others at any time and place is becoming more important in our society.  Ways to accomplish this are through pagers, email, cell phones, and answering machines.  Cell phones and answering machines are more commonplace as household income increases.

In Figure 6, as income increases, percent of households with cell phones increases from 23 percent to 82 percent.  In Figure 7, answering machines in the home increase from 37 percent for the lowest income levels up to 76 percent at the highest income level.  At the higher income levels, the percentage appears to flatten off.  Excluded from the answering machine statistic is the percent of households that use a voice mail service on either the regular phone line or on a cell phone instead of having an answering machine.  If a household has a cell phone and an answering machine (Figure 8), an interesting pattern in the data occurs.  Having both increases with income, and having neither item decreases with income.  Above an income level of $75,000, only 5 percent of the households do not have either a cell phone or an answering machine.


Clothes Washers and Dryers

Two items most households eventually would like to own are clothes washers and dryers.  In Figure 9, the percent of housing units with clothes washers increases from 57 percent for the lowest income level to 94 percent for the highest income level.  For clothes dryers (Figure 10), the percent of households is 45 percent for the lowest income level and about doubles to 92 percent for the highest income level.

The percent of households that have a clothes washer and a clothes dryer increases from 45 percent for the lowest income level to 92 percent for the highest income level (Figure 11).  These percentages are identical to the percentages of households that have only a clothes dryer.  The reason for this is because the percentage of housing units that have a clothes dryer and not a clothes washer are less than one percent.  Also in Figure 11, there is a small percentage of housing units, which decreases with increasing income level, that have a clothes washer but do not have a clothes dryer.

Having both a washer and dryer is also related to the type of housing unit the respondent lives in.  In Figure 12, the highest percentage having both is in single-family, detached homes, with 91 percent.  The lowest percentage is in large apartment buildings (5 or more rental units) where only 19 percent have both a washer and a dryer.

Kitchen Appliances

Dishwashers and Refrigerators

One major home appliance that is not found in all households and traditionally occurs more frequently in higher income households is a dishwasher.  In Figure 13, the percent of households with dishwashers increases from 18 percent for the lowest income level to 83 percent for the highest income level.  While almost every household has a refrigerator, the differences are in the quantity, size, and if it has an ice/water dispenser.  In Figure 14, the percent of housing units with two or more refrigerators increases from 6 percent to 31 percent as income level increases. Between 85 and 90 percent of the housing units have either a medium size (15-18 cubic feet) or large size (19-22 cubic feet) refrigerator.  For household incomes above $15,000, almost an inverse relationship between medium and large sizes occur.  As income increases, the percent of households with large size refrigerators also increases.  At the same time, the percent of households with medium size refrigerators decreases Figure 15). The percent of households that have refrigerators with an ice/water dispenser increases from 6 percent to 40 percent as the household income increases Figure 16).





Separate Freezers

For households with separate freezers, the pattern does not follow income, but instead where the housing unit is located geographically by Census division and whether the housing unit is in a city, a town, a suburb, or in a rural area.  A Census map shows the nine Census divisions and four Census regions clearly.  In Figure 17, the percent of households that have a separate freezer is highest in the West North Central (48 percent) and in the East South Central Division (42 percent), and lowest in the New England and Pacific Divisions (23 percent).  Housing units located in rural parts of the country have, by far, the highest percentage of housing units with separate freezers at 54 percent (Figure 18).



Electric Coffee Makers

An appliance that one may intuitively think almost every household would have, or would have percentage equivalence across income levels would be the electric coffee maker.  But surprisingly, it is not.  Instead, the percentage increases with income level from 46 percent to 79 percent (Figure 19).  The percent of housing units that use the electric coffee maker between one time per day to a few times per week is roughly equal across household types(Figure 20).

Microwave Ovens

For microwave ovens (Figure 21), there are a high percentage of households (75 percent) that own a microwave in the lowest income level.  The percentages gradually increase from 75 percent to 93 percent for the highest income level.  In Figure 22, the percent that use a microwave for more than half of their cooking is highest in single-person households at 40 percent and lowest in couple only households at 23 percent.


The "couple" household has the highest percentage of types of households (76 percent) that use the conventional oven between once per day and once per week.  The percentages are between 68 and 76 percent for all types of households except for the "single-person" household, which has only 48 percent (Figure 23).  The single-person household also has the lowest percentage of housing units that has between one and two hot meals per day cooked in their home (Figure 24) at 55 percent.  Couples with others living with them have the highest at 73 percent.  But the single-person household has the highest percentage of housing units that have a few hot meals per week cooked in their home at 27 percent.  If both numbers in Figure 24 are summed together, the lowest is the single-person at 82 percent and the highest is the couple at 91 percent. The single-person household is making hot meals, but just not as often.  A possible explanation for this difference is the single-person household tends to go out to eat more often than other types of households.

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