Last week on the Blog, I shared about true cost accounting and some of the real costs of "cheap" food. I noted that sacrifices will likely have to be made, budgets may need revising, and priorities will have to shift in order to optimize our health, steward the environment well, and stand against exploitation with how we spend our grocery budget. Although it won't be cheap, there are some simple strategies to help keep expenses down while eating well. This week, I'll be sharing some of our family's practices for expanding and maximizing the impact of our grocery budget, while upholding our values.
From my observations, very few people actually use a budget to organize their household expenses. Even fewer appear to have a fixed food budget. Yet, I often hear people complaining about the cost of food, specifically how expensive it is to eat healthy on a tight budget. One of the very first things I did when we decided to move away from the Standard American Diet six years ago was analyze our family's spending. For an entire month, we tracked every single thing that we spent money on. We then compared those expenditures to our income and created a budget based on our findings. The categories we selected for our budget included: charitable giving, other gifts, housing (mortgage/rent/insurance/taxes), wellness/health & life insurance (supplements), utilities/cell phone(s), gas and vehicle maintenance, food, clothing/household, and leisure/recreation.
Our family's food budget includes everything we eat except supplements (they are in our health budget) and eating at restaurants (which we track as leisure/recreation expenses). A major problem that I consistently see regarding budgets is that people ignore many of their food purchases when they tally up their "grocery" expenses. This leads to very unrealistic ideas about what a grocery budget should be per month. For example, I pack lunches for my children so they do not eat school lunch. If you pay for school lunch, however, that monthly total needs to be included in your food budget. If you eat out for lunch during your work week, that needs to be included in your food budget. If you pick up any food items at the gas station throughout the week, those purchases need to be added in to your food budget. If you don't have a leisure/recreation portion of your budget, then ALL additional restaurant spending would also need to be included in your true food budget. Oftentimes when somebody tries to tell me that they only have a $200-$300/month grocery budget, I soon discover that they aren't including the $200-$300 they spend on food at restaurants, cafeterias and convenience stores each month. So, in reality, they have $400-$600/month to spend on food. They are just choosing to pay for convenience. As long as the total is accurately calculated and shared transparently, there is nothing wrong with choosing to pay for convenience. However, my frustration comes when someone is using half of their food spending on such things while complaining that they can't afford to eat well because their grocery budget won't allow for it. This skewed reality of food spending perpetuates the idea that individuals with limited budgets can't eat well and stick to their budgets.
So, what's a person to do?
In my opinion, the best way to truly maximize your food budget is to have a separate budget category (ie. leisure/recreation) for all restaurant eating so that 100% of your food budget is for your grocery shopping. It is even more helpful to have an additional separate category for clothing/household. This really is the only way to ensure that you get to use all of your food budget for groceries. In order to determine what your food spending should be, it's helpful to look at the USDA chart for "Cost of Food..." I did the calculations for our family of five. On a "thrifty" plan, our food spending should be about $778.20/month based on our ages. However, we typically fall just under the "moderate" plan, which is $1,282.50/month based on our ages. Obviously (because we own a grocery store) we don't actually spend $1200/month on food since we're able to get wholesale pricing. For those curious, I self-pay myself (by taking a draw from the business) $12,000/year as a salary to buy our family's groceries through Simply Nourished. $5.77/hour isn't a great salary, but it's worth it to me to be able to get the food I want for my family to eat. Take the time to do the math for your own family unit using the USDA chart. Many people have a completely unrealistic idea of what they should be spending on food. I've found that most families fall way under the "thrifty" budget total simply because they are not giving food a high enough percentage of their household budget. I understand that there are some non-negotiable items in budgets. Things like housing, utilities, insurance, debt, etc. However, many families spend a lot of money each month on unnecessary items and recreation at the expense of their grocery budget. I've always found it curious that many individuals who justify paying $5+ on multiple specialty beverages per week are often the same people who are having difficulties with their grocery budget. Do a check in. Do you know how your dollars are being spent?
That's your goal for the week. Have a meeting with all the decision makers in your household. Evaluate how you spend your money. Set a monthly budget based on your take home pay. After calculating what your food budget should be (based on the USDA chart averages), evaluate how that can fit into your household budget. Then, agree to give it a try for the month. Having a monthly budget, and sticking to it, is a top priority for maximizing your food budget dollars. Financial health is an important piece of holistic health.
If you're having trouble with any of the calculations, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'd love to help get you started. Next week, I'll be sharing additional tips to maximize your food spending.