How Much Should You Spend on Groceries? The High Cost of Cheap Food

Just how much money do you spend per week on groceries? Too much? Too little? What’s a good measure on our food bills anyway?

A recent poll found that the wealthiest Americans spend more on cheap fast food than likelier demographics—the low-income earners living in food deserts. Wealthy Americans can certainly afford to eat better, and likely many do, but it appears that they suffer from the same affliction most Americans grapple with: feeling comfortable with paying a lot for quality food.

According to the Atlantic Wire, “people in other countries in the world spend a much higher percentage of their budgets, per capita, on food than the less than seven percent we spend in the United States.”

Does America’s wealth come from spending the least amount of money on groceries? Or do we just need to eat less because we’re so sated by our delicious stacks of money? If we weren’t suffering from such severe cases of obesity and poverty, I’d say it was the latter. But, sadly, it’s the former that’s got our food bills all discombobulated, causing us serious health issues as a result of poor, cheap nutrition.

With the exception of the UK, most Europeans spend about ten percent of their income on food. Head over to Indonesia and it’s 43 percent. Granted, lower per capita income, like what you’ll find in Indonesia, often means a higher percentage of wages earned going to food, but there is a healthier balance in food spending, as EU countries demonstrate.

A food bill spending calculator featured on Mother Jones allows you to type in your income, your age, location and how much you spend on groceries. The calculator compares your food bills to the recommendations put out by the USDA, which, not surprisingly, seem a bit low. The data (from 2011) suggests a single woman in her 30s who considers herself a “liberal” food shopper, spend just $316.90 per month on food (not including dining out). That’s just under $80 a week, which is fairly reasonable, unless, you want to purchase organic options. You like high quality olive oil, or don’t blink at paying $8 for a loaf of artisan bread? I just spent $14 on a golf-ball sized nugget of artisan vegan cheese. (Worth. Every. Penny.) Not exactly budget-friendly on $80 per week. And if you’re considering yourself a more conservative shopper, according to the USDA, you should be spending half that—less than $40 per week on food. That’s not even $10 a day for three healthy meals, let alone being able to afford organic options.

The Industrial Food Complex has influenced most of us when it comes to food spending. Why pay $1.09 for something when you can get a similar product for $0.99? Even if you’ve never shopped there, just knowing that Costco exists sets a precedent. Somewhere, this food item is available for less money.

The government subsidizes Big-Ag so that it can keep making genetically modified, HFCS-laden Oreos and Twinkies on the cheap; and inexpensive food is often the yummiest, if not downright most addictive option. That small ball of vegan cheese may have cost me more than twice the price of Velveeta, but it’s something you can only eat a bit of at a time. (Unless you’re pregnant. And vegan. Don’t judge me). It invites savoring and appreciation—two concepts noticeably absent from the American appetite.

As hungry as we are for low food prices, we’re hungrier for instant gratification. We eat like deprived Marines. Like Cookie Monster (RIP). The way the French eat their food—slowly, over hours, with a good bottle of wine and lots of lively conversation—could easily double their financial investment in food. They’re barely done with one meal when most Americans have moved onto the next.

That’s not to say deals aren’t worthy of snapping up to keep your food bills low. But being frugal is not being cheap. When we’re willing to compromise on health, flavor and quality because we think we’re saving a few bucks, we’re falling right into the laps of the processed food industry. The jar of spaghetti sauce is cheaper than buying a pound of fresh tomatoes and a bunch of basil. At least, it appears that way at first glance.

The other caveat here is what propelled us into the age of processed foods in the first place: The notion that began in the 1950s that we’re somehow now too busy to properly nourish ourselves and our families without the help of Tang and Stouffer’s. That we would simply starve to death if it weren’t for the microwave. Being members of an advanced, upright civilization has its perks (looking at you, Google Glass), but a home-cooked meal from scratch just isn’t one of them. The future’s so bland and flavorless.

Except that it isn’t, of course. And allowing ourselves to spend generously on foods that will actually become part of our physical being seems like a moot point to make. In a nation where we have, quite literally, most any food ingredient available within just a few miles from our homes, shouldn’t we be paying more than the rest of the world for this luxury, not less?

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: Caden Crawford