Hey, Big Spender!
I love food!
I know, that comes as no surprise to any of my Dear Readers. How could it? But because I love food so much and am committed to eating the best food I can (for the most part; I have my cheap and easy indulgences from time to time, I admit), I'm willing to spend what I need to spend to keep myself well fed.
I know all too well that that attitude and ability automatically puts me into an elite category. I may not make a huge salary, but I have the luxury of being able to feed myself without worrying too much about the cost, and there are many, many people who can't say that.
But having read recently that the average American family spends only 10% of their disposable income on food, I determined to see what my situation really was in comparison.
I've kept detailed account pages for a few years now, so I was able to total my monthly grocery expenditures and monthly expenses for eating out and then figure them as percentages of my income. And here are the totals for 2007:
Looks pretty extravagant, doesn't it? I don't claim to be a statistical analyst, but let me break it down a little bit for you.
First of all, I don't eat meat. You might think that could account for higher expenditures, but it doesn't. And I don't eat much in the way of highly processed food, especially snack foods and sodas, which are cheap to begin with but add up quickly. No, the reasons go deeper.
Take the "Eating Out" column, for example. My expenditures in that column generally fall into two categories: going out for a coffee or something like it when I write, and going out with friends as a social occasion. The biggest months for that category are August, when I took my family out to the Bistro for a celebration dinner, and October, when I was traveling for vacation and a conference (the conference meals were reimbursed, but I didn't fully include that in my calculations). And while I'm learning to curb my coffee/tea breaks a little bit (note how the figures dropped toward the end of the year), I also don't want to give up eating or drinking out completely because of the social aspect –- a very important part of why we eat anyway!
As for the groceries, do you see the curve in the figures? The months when the farmers' market is open, my expenditures are consistently above 10% and even 15% of my income. It's not because the farmers' market is expensive: my research has regularly shown that my local farmers charge comparable and often lower prices than what I find at the grocery store. No, it's because summer is when I'm buying far more than I will use immediately with the intention of preserving as much of the harvest as possible. I can afford to see my grocery bills go up then because a large part of my free time is spent in food preservation, and thus little of my money is going toward entertainment or other non-essential expenses.
Okay, I know the daunting part of that is that I do spend so much of my free time in the summer canning, drying, freezing, and otherwise preserving the harvest. Yes, it's hard work, and yes, it does limit other possibilities for my time. That's my choice, and it may not be yours. That's fine.
But look at the winter grocery expenditures. They drop considerably -– because aside from perishable items (like dairy and added produce), I'm cooking and eating from the food I've preserved. So all that money and time invested in the summer and fall pays off come winter and into spring.
Yes, I spend a good fifth of my income on food, and that's more than twice the current U.S. average. But I can do that because I'm not spending money on things like automobile maintenance (and gasoline), television and movies, regular live entertainment of any sort (save through the college, and that's free), and a lot of consumer goods. I make do on a lot of other things that aren't as important to me because cooking, writing about food, and sharing food with others has become a vital, joyful part of my life.
I don't bring all this up to prove some simple-minded superiority -– to claim that by spending more on food, I eat better and therefore am better (so laughable!) –- but because I thought it was an interesting exercise for myself personally. I knew that I spent more than most people on food, but I had never really broken it down before or charted the cycle of spending over the year.
Could I spend less on food? Of course! I don't really need to, given how I've structured my life and expenditures aside from food, and I don't really want to, given the happiness I find in breaking bread with friends. I feel like after nearly forty years, I've finally understood what my proper relationship to food should be, and I feel neither deprived nor over-indulged... just grateful.
Maybe that's the real bottom line for our food expenses overall. Sure, we can get cheap food and spend so little of our incomes on our daily allowance of calories. But what does it mean to us overall? Do we actually feel nourished and healthy? Do we feel we can do any better? Or is truly good food out of our reach financially? Part of it depends on our personal choices and how we decide to prioritize our spending, but part of it also depends on how we've structured our food system in the U.S. to deliver cheap food but not as much nutrition as we truly need.
So what are our priorities going to be where food is concerned, both as individuals and as a country?
I guess we'll have to spend plenty more time thinking through that one.