American consumers have been feeling fairly comfortable in general about what they pay for energy over the past year and a half. Gasoline prices averaged $2.50 per gallon until a recent uptick to $2.62 per gallon during October, the month of our most recent energy survey. Nevertheless, consumers’ feelings about their fuel costs held steady, with the latest gasoline affordability index of 100 statistically unchanged from the previous quarter. That means that the price would have to double before the average American felt serious pain at the pump. For home energy bills, the most recent affordability index of 151 differs little from the prior two quarters, remaining up by roughly 30 points compared to last fall and winter. Americans therefore report a ongoing high level of comfort with their recent household energy costs even though the national average Consumer Price Index (CPI) for Energy was up by 9% compared to its summer level.
As we’ve reported in the past, feelings about energy affordability vary predictably with household income. At any point in time, lower income respondents say that costs are closer to their household energy expense “stress points” — the levels they say would cause them to make changes in their daily lives — than the costs are for higher income households. The affordability index can be viewed as a measure of how far away consumers feel their current energy costs are from their energy cost stress points.
Another variable that turns out to have an influence on perceptions of affordability is gender. Since the beginning of the energy survey in October 2013, there has not been a single quarter in which men, on average, gave responses indicating that they felt more stressed by energy costs than women felt. Thus, as the chart below shows, the average affordability index for women has been consistently lower than it has been for men when considering both gasoline prices and home energy bills.
We investigated this trend further by statistically modeling the relationships between gender and views on energy affordability. The results are remarkably similar for the two types of energy, with average responses indicating that men feel that they can pay significantly more than women feel they can. To quantify the difference in views, we statistically modeled the views on home energy and gasoline costs in terms of the percentage differences, so that they could be compared on a common scale. We found that, on average, women believe that home energy and gasoline are 8.7% (±1.0%) and 8.3% (±0.8%) less affordable than men believe it is, respectively.
Looking at the charts above, we next wondered whether the gap between women’s and men’s feelings about affordability gets wider when the overall perception of energy affordability higher. That is to say, do men become even more optimistic than women when times are good? Our analysis indicates that this is not the case; we found no significant relationship between the overall average affordability level and the magnitude of the gap in perceptions of energy affordability.
We did, however, find significant differences in perspective in response to our questions about what consumers expect energy costs to be five years into the future. These results are shown in the next chart.
In this case, women anticipate a smaller increase in gasoline prices than men do, but the reverse it true when it comes to home energy bills. Men expect the price of motor fuel to rise by 24% on average over the next five years, while women expect a somewhat but statistically lower 21% increase in the pump price. When comes to home energy, however, women expect a 35% increase while men expect a 28% increase.
Other variables that could impact the differences between men’s and women’s perceptions of affordability are geographic region and household income. We controlled for geography by examining the gap between men’s and women’s views in each of the four regions of the country (West, Midwest, South and Northeast). We found that women consistently felt that energy was less affordable than men thought it was in all regions. Controlling for income by examining the gap in views separately for the lower, middle, and upper income terciles, we again found that men consistently had more positive views than women when it came to the affordability of energy.
What makes women more wary of energy costs than men? Our data can’t uncover the answer to that question, but these results on gender and the perceived affordability of energy are consistent with our data showing that women are more concerned than men about the impact of energy use on the environment and about energy reliability.