Household Income Question for Surveys

When it comes to sensitive survey questions, those which ask people to reveal their household income are among some of the most delicate you can ask.

Yet, being able to collect this and other background information through the family of demographic questions, is extremely important in terms of the insight you can gain and the actions you’ll be able to take as a result.

What are demographics?

In its purest form, when we refer to demographics, we are essentially talking about the characteristics and identifiers of a human population, based on factors ranging from age, ethnicity and gender, to education, marital status, employment, income and location.

By helping us to collect background information in these areas demographic questions allow researchers to categorise the answers of different individuals, see which groups they fit into and examine whether any of these factors may be influencing a respondent’s views, interests and opinions.

Income options for a survey

From financial institutions trying to determine the income status of an individual before lending them money, to a retailer trying to better assess the price range for a new product line based on the disposable income available to their target audience. While questions on household income can be as similarly sensitive as many other demographic questions, it’s important to consider how valuable the collection of this data is to many organisations such as these. And like many other survey questions, if you’re to meet your overall survey goals, it’s also important to consider the options available for presenting income questions and how they will best resonate with your audience.

Best practices

From the difference between personal and household income, to whether you will ask respondents directly how much they earn or present them with a banded range of income thresholds to select from, when it comes to addressing the income question, there’s a number of things you need to consider before you get started.

Know your audience

Given the many types of businesses that might be asking the income question and the wide range of audiences they could be reaching out to, it’s important that the question is written in a way that the respondent can relate to.

Fully explain any terms

To avoid any potential confusion and the respondent avoiding the income question altogether, it’s best to fully explain any terms you use, such as personal income and household income.

Carefully word your questions

While giving them a range of incomes to choose from rather than directly asking them how much they earn will encourage more respondents to answer your income question, you still need to carefully word your question to avoid potentially offending anyone.

Clarify why you need the data and how you’ll use it

Whenever you’re asking a sensitive question, the more honest you’re about why you’re asking for it and how you plan to use the data that you collect, the more likely people will be to answer your question.

For example, if you were a local council thinking about how to spend your budget in the coming year, you might ask the household income survey question to assess areas where there was greatest need for particular services in your community.

It would also be prudent to communicate that any response would be handled with the utmost confidentiality.

How to ask the income question

When it comes to asking the income question, the way you structure your questions will go a long way to determining the level of response you get back.

Some key things to think about include:

Use clearly defined income band ranges

When presenting the income question, it’s simplest to let respondents to choose from a range of income bandings. Try to keep the list short in order to avoid respondent fatigue and make sure the numbers don’t overlap, as this might could lead to confusion.

Here’s a good example, based on a question that asks about personal income.

Which of the following best describes your personal income last year?

  • £0
  • £1 to £9, 999
  • £10, 000 to £24, 999
  • £25, 000 to £49, 999
  • £50, 000 to £74, 999
  • £75, 000 to £99, 999
  • £100, 000 or more
  • Prefer not to answer

Keep upper and lower income limits appropriate

When it comes setting the income banding limits for respondents to choose from, make sure they are appropriate to the audience you’re are targeting, as you don’t want to set it too high if you’re targeting a poorer area or too low if you are targeting a more affluent area.

More generally a household income survey question could look like the following.

Please tell us about the total annual income of your household (before tax and deductions, but including any benefits/allowances)

  • Below £10, 000
  • £10, 001 to £20, 000
  • £20, 001 to £30, 000
  • £30, 001 to £40, 000
  • £40, 001 to £50, 000
  • Above £50, 001
  • Prefer not to answer

Include ‘prefer not to answer’

Similar to many other demographic questions, those that ask a respondent to reveal their household income can also be sensitive. So, you should always offer respondents the option not to answer anything they feel uncomfortable about.

Think about making your survey anonymous

Depending on your survey’s needs, if you’re just looking to reveal certain broad trends or patterns about your consumer’s behaviour as opposed to using your survey to generate leads, you may consider making your survey anonymous. Given that many people are cautious about revealing information they consider private, revealing that your survey is anonymous could boost your response rate to the income question.

Pros and cons of the income question

As is the case with many other demographic questions, there can be some benefits and drawbacks to asking about household income, so it’s prudent to be aware of these before you get started, so you can use them in the best way.

The Benefits

Segment and draw conclusions from your data

Along with other household questions in the area of employment and wealth, once segmented, the answers to this question can provide useful pointers for researchers trying to better understand how factors such as income can impact the health, well-being and behaviour of adults and children.

Help shape future social policies

For governments and other public sector bodies, the insight that the income question provides can be hugely beneficial in monitoring different groups in society and ensuing they are getting the support they need. This in turn can enable future social policies such in the area of support and benefits to be adjusted dependant on needs.

Better target products and services

Whether you’re looking to sell luxury or budget goods. Whatever end of the market you’re targeting, having a better understanding about the income situation of your audience can help you to narrow down your ideal audience. Depending on their needs you can then adjust the price of your products or services accordingly and increase your overall success.

The Limitations

While there are some definite advantages to asking the income question, there can be some drawbacks. However, you’ll be less likely to experience these if you’ve taken prior care over the construction and wording of your questions.

People may not answer truthfully

Given that some people may feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about what they are earning, it may lead some of them to be untruthful about what they are earning. However, if you’ve set your range and the upper and lower limits of your incomes more closely in line with the experiences of your target audience, this is less likely to happen, as they are more likely to feel encouraged about what they see and respond as a result.

It could be too complicated

Depending on how you’ve framed up your question, some individuals could simply find it too much of a challenge to answer the income question, especially if you’ve asked them to reveal all their sources of income.

Some individuals link income and self-worth

Some people may wrongly feel their income is an expression of their personal self-worth and therefore no matter how carefully you set up and word your question, these people will not answer it.

Some people may simply object

Whether for tax or any other reasons, some participants may simply feel the income question is too intrusive and so object to divulging how much they earn.

Further reading

Gender questions: A person’s gender can be a complex and very individual matter, so mix best practices with consideration and sensitivity when including this survey question.

Asking ethnicity: Questions around ethnicity can be quite sensitive, with various ways of measuring ethnic groups and important distinctions between race, ethnicity and nationality.

Age groups for surveys: Ask your respondents their age in the right way, to capture accurate and appropriate data.

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