Maryland might be a relatively pricey place to live, but the average resident can afford it — and then some.
That's what a first-ever breakdown of consumer spending by state suggests. Per-person spending on goods and services for Maryland households is among the highest in the country but eats up a smaller share of personal income than in nearly any other state, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis of federal data.
On average, Marylanders spent three-quarters of the money flowing in during 2012 on housing, gas, food and other consumer expenses, U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates show. Only two states had lower levels.
"We're wealthy — that's what it comes down to," said Anirban Basu, a Baltimore economist who runs the consulting firm Sage Policy Group. "It may be that one of the aspects of being 'the land of pleasant living' is we can afford to live pleasantly, or at least a lot of people can."
It's a mileage-may-vary situation, he's quick to note, because consumer spending and income figures are statewide averages.
Maryland's per capita personal income was $54,000 in 2012, sixth-highest in the country. Wealthy places such as Guilford and Potomac more than counterbalance neighborhoods where people can't scrape enough together to pay basic expenses — let alone treat themselves and save for later.
A sizable number of local workers, meanwhile, trade lower housing costs for longer commutes by living in the Baltimore area while working in higher-paying Washington.
Marylanders shelled out $41,000 apiece on consumer spending in 2012, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates. That's ninth-highest in the country, driven by high housing costs.
The data intrigued Dru Schmidt-Perkins, in part because where people choose to spend their housing dollars plays into her work as head of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a smart-growth advocacy group. But she's also a self-described tightwad.
"We live in Baltimore City, we live close to where we work, we grow a lot of food — all that kind of stuff that we did to keep our costs down so the kids could go to college," said Schmidt-Perkins, whose three children are now finished with higher education. "And I guess we should probably just continue this very lean lifestyle so we can someday retire."
The Bureau of Economic Analysis released state-by-state consumer spending estimates Thursday for the first time. Such spending had been tracked only at a national level before.
"Having a state-level breakdown could be really useful in a lot of contexts, everything from state tax planners to businesses trying to get a better handle on retail markets to consumers who want to get a better idea of how their state compares with others," said Thomas Dail, a spokesman for the bureau.
The Sun's analysis compared the new figures with the bureau's separate estimates for personal income, which includes wages and other sources of money, such as interest and rent.
The difference between the two figures — what comes in and what goes out in the form of consumer spending — isn't all savings. The agency does not include non-mortgage interest payments in consumer spending, for instance, or income taxes and property taxes.
What does show up in consumer spending are households' big expenses: food, gas, housing, utilities, health care, travel, clothing and a variety of other items, from car purchases to insurance.
The District of Columbia had the highest consumer spending in the country — by a lot. The Bureau of Economic Analysis concluded that spending there was $59,400 per person in 2012, compared with $47,300 in No. 2 Massachusetts.
The lowest levels were in Mississippi, Arkansas, Nevada and Alabama. Per-person consumer spending in those states was under $30,000 in 2012.
For Maryland, along with D.C. and No. 14 Virginia, luck of the geographic draw is key. Plentiful jobs in the federal government and attendant contractors have long boosted income and spending — not to mention the cost of living.
But efforts to cut the ballooning federal budget reined in the region's economic growth last year. Maryland saw one of the smallest personal income increases in the country, and the state's gross domestic product did not expand. (Virginia's GDP bumped up fractionally; D.C.'s shrank.)
The bureau's consumer-spending snapshot focused on the year before that.
"Job growth has slowed relative to the nation in Maryland," Basu said. "Our unemployment rate ... is now quite close to the national average. And so, will Marylanders of the future be associated with greater disposable income than their counterparts nationally? I think that's the big question."
Maryland was one of just a few states to get through the recession without a drop in consumer spending, according to the bureau's figures, which are not adjusted for inflation. It was a close thing in 2009, but the state's tiny increase that year compared with a 1.6 percent drop nationwide.
After that, consumer spending rose more slowly in Maryland than it did nationwide, a shift after largely faster-than-average increases the previous decade.
But it's still a lot of money, with a grand total in 2012 of nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars.