CARS.COM — In the past couple of years, motorists haven’t had to choose between a full wallet or full gas tank. Despite recent increases, gas prices continue to hover at record lows for the decade. The National Association of Convenience Stores, a coalition of thousands of retail and supply-side members worldwide, estimates that the average household in 2015 enjoyed $550 in fuel-cost savings. So what are consumers burning their incremental savings on while they’re not burning it on fuel?
According to a new survey by the NACS, drivers aren’t burning it at all. More than half of respondents said they’re saving more or paying off debts while 38 percent are spending it on day-to-day essentials. Just 6 percent are spending the extra cash on things they wouldn’t have otherwise bought, the NACS reported.
Despite Americans’ collective exercise in frugality, there is evidence that some of the windfall is being applied to travel. In addition to surges in auto sales, air travel and the hospitality industry, 2015’s Memorial Day travel period was the second busiest on record as 700,000 more holiday revelers hit the road for the weekend compared with 2014.
Don’t think a few bucks here and there can add up in terms of purchasing power? You’re in a small minority. Ninety-two percent of those surveyed agreed that lower gas prices give consumers more money to spend, while 85 percent say low gas prices are a boon to the economy. Ninety-four percent agreed that lower prices make it easier to travel and take vacations; that percentage jumps to 99 among people aged 65 or older.
What are you spending your gas savings on? The Cars.com staff weighed in on how they are spending theirs:
- Bill Jackson, assistant managing editor, data: “I’d save that $550 for future repairs to my car … or I’d buy roller skis. So, yeah, totally would buy roller skis.”
- Jennifer Geiger, assistant managing editor, news: “I would put the savings toward a new, stain-proof (read: toddler-proof) couch.”
- Kelsey Mays, senior consumer affairs editor: “I’d probably spend it on Illinois’ outrageous property taxes.” (Cars.com is headquartered in Chicago.)
- Jen Burklow, copy editor: “If I received it as a lump sum, my family would put it toward fun things such as posh dinners in restaurants (not carryout), theater tickets or a fun activity during a vacation (a day of rafting or kayaking, perhaps).”
- Matt Avery, multimedia editor: “Splurge on summer vacation!”
- Leslie Cunningham, multimedia coordinator: “Concerts.”
- Brian McTague, data integrity analyst: “Reinvest in home/property.”
- Brian Wong, Los Angeles bureau chief: “Lego. All the Lego.”
- Matt Schmitz, news editor: “I would bump up my charitable donations for the year, or perhaps try to help a friend or family member in need.”
Not everyone, however, sees the ongoing trend of lower-cost gas as a positive one – particularly for the environment. Fifty-six percent of those surveyed feared lower petroleum prices would reduce car shoppers’ motivation to buy fuel-efficient vehicles, while 78 percent expressed concern that a decrease in fuel-efficient vehicles could negatively impact the economy.
Concerns about consumers’ motivation to buy fuel-efficient vehicles are supported by data. According to the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, which tracks changes in the average “window sticker” fuel economy of all new cars sold in the U.S. each month, persistently low gas prices have fueled the sale of less-efficient vehicles in recent years.
After peaking at 25.8 mpg in August 2014, the monthly fuel-economy figure dipped as low as 25.0 mpg and hasn’t risen above 25.5 mpg despite a well-established upward trend since tracking began in October 2007. The 0.2-mpg increase in May was the first time the figure had edged up that much since January.
“This improvement likely reflects the increased price of gasoline in May, and the consequent increased interest in more fuel-efficient vehicles by buyers of all vehicle classes,” researchers Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle stated in their report.