The consumer price index (CPI) is a metric that indicates the average change in price over a period of
time for household goods and services. CPI is calculated and reported monthly by the U.S. Bureau of
Labor Statistics. The bureau reports more than one CPI based on different population groups.
First, the CPI for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) which includes households of
wage earners and clerical workers who’ve been employed for a minimum of 37 weeks during the past
Second, is the CPI for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U). This includes wage earners, clerical workers,
professional workers, self-employed workers, unemployed, retirees, and others who are not working.
The CPI-U is more indicative of the way prices are moving because it represents 87% of the population
versus the 32% represented by the CPI-W. The Chained CPI for All Urban Consumers (C-CPI-U) is
calculated similar to CPI-U, except that it substitutes items in different categories, which could
CPI doesn’t include the spending habits of certain populations of people. This includes: people living in
rural metropolitan areas, those in the Armed Forces, those in prison and and mental hospitals, and farm
What’s Included in CPI
CPI is based on a basket of 80,000 goods and services that fall into 8
- Food and beverages
- Medical care
- Education and communication
- Other goods and services
CPI doesn’t include investments like stocks, bonds, real estate, and life
insurance. Income and social security tax is not included.
Certain taxes are included in CPI including sales taxes on the purchase of
goods and services. Property taxes are included in the housing portion of
The BLS determines the market basket based on what families and
individuals actually buy. The Consumer Expenditure Surveys for 2005 and
2006 serves as the basis for the current CPI.
CPI is calculated based on prices in 26 metropolitan areas based on
spending in retail establishments like hospitals, gas stations,
supermarkets, and department stores. Bureau employees either visits the
stores or makes phone calls to collect prices.
Each item included in the CPI has a different weight based on its
importance in a specific population’s spending. The prices are then averaged based on weight. Prince
increases for heavily weighted goods lead to a sharper increase in CPI than increases in prices with
CPI Reference Years
CPI is calculated using a base year or set of years in which CPI is 100. Setting a reference year makes
it easier to measure the change in prices over time by comparing to that base year. The current CPI
base year is the period between 1982-1984. For that year, CPI is equal to 100. The CPI for April 2009
(the most recent date) was 213.240. This means that prices have increased by more than 113% since
1982-1984. Some price indexes may have a different base year because price data may not be
available for 1982-1984.
A sharp increase in CPI over a short period of time indicates a period of inflation - a time when prices
continually increase or the value of money decreases. On the other hand, a sharp decrease in CPI in a
short period of time shows deflation - a time when prices decrease or the value of money increases.
Your CPI Might “Feel” Different
It’s important to remember that CPI is an average, so it might not accurately reflect any single consumer’
s experience with rising or falling prices. This is especially true if your spending habits vary dramatically
from that of the average consumer. Your inflation experience might not be reflected in CPI if you
purchase goods outside the market basket that’s used to calculate CPI. The categories used to
calculate CPI are weighted. For example, housing spending might outweigh medical spending.
However, if most of your spending goes toward medical expenses and the price of medical services
increases, your individual CPI would increase faster than overall CPI.
You can check the current and historical CPI through the Bureau of Labor Statistics website.
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Consumer Price Index (CPI)
The consumer price index (CPI) is commonly talked
about in the media as financial barometer. Here's a
look at this important metric.