How Writing This Column Helped Make Me Rethink My Grocery Spending
A couple of weeks ago, I opened a letter from my mom and found a $10 Trader Joes gift card nestled inside. I was touched, grateful, and excited about the possibilities—the same way that, in the past, I would have reacted to a gift card from Anthropologie or Sephora.
In my mom’s note, she wrote, “Buy something decadent.” I’d been good-naturedly complaining about the amount of oatmeal I’d been eating.
When I called to say thank you, she asked what I’d used it on.
“Carrots,” I answered. “A yellow onion… Some bananas… Greek yogurt…”
“But I thought you were going to splurge!” my mom said indignantly.
I had been planning on it—before pixiesuperhero (a Billfold commenter) called me out on my $232 grocery bill for the month of October. I didn’t think that was too shabby, but pixiesuperhero disagreed.
“You are going to a different store to save 31 cents on chicken broth. This is a very thrift-ninja thing to do, so I was blown away to see your monthly groceries total is $232???!?!!?!?!!????!!?! That’s more than $50 a week. It would literally be cheaper to eat every meal at McDonald’s,” pixiesuperhero said.
I was flattered to be compared to a thrift-ninja, but a little baffled that my budgeting efforts were apparently lacking.
“Mom, I think I spend too much on groceries,” I said.
“You don’t spend too much on groceries! How much was your October total?”
I told her. There was a pause.
“Well, that is kind of a lot.”
I didn’t get it! Unlike my roommates, who were loading their shopping carts with goodies like Trader Joe’s Cookies N’ Cream Spread and ready-to-go California rolls, I was beelining toward bananas and, of course, the famous chicken broth. I decided it was time for some research.
First: Would it really be cheaper to eat every meal at Mickie D’s? I usually put away three big meals and a ton of snacks. Here’s everything I ate on Monday, December 1st: oatmeal, a piece of fruit, a big bowl of soup, some veggies with salsa, Greek yogurt with granola, a sandwich, some popcorn, another piece of fruit, more veggies, and some cookies for dessert.
So translated into McDonalds food that would be:
Fruit and Maple Oatmeal: $2.49
Apple Slices: $1
Chicken McNuggets: $1
Side Salad: $1
Apple Slices: $1
Side Salad: $1
Total: $11.49. If I multiplied that by 31 days, it would be $356.19—way higher than my $232 bill.
Ha! I knew it wouldn’t be less expensive, even if I ordered almost entirely off of the Dollar Menu.
When I showed this to my roommate, she said, “I think I know the problem. You eat a ton.”
Hmm. My list did seem rather long—rather teen-guy-ish. I’m no hulking adolescent boy, however: I only have five feet, three inches and 105 pounds to my name. I guess I probably eat more than most people. Was that why, even though I was being a thrift-ninja about my chicken broth, I was spending more?
Then I took another look at my average day. It dawned on me the problem wasn’t the quantity as much as the quality. My favorite foods are all pretty healthy and unprocessed, and those are actually more expensive than junk food.
When University of Washington researchers looked at 370 foods in Seattle supermarkets, they found that not only did junk food cost less, calorie for calorie, than fruits and veggies, but its prices were more resistant to inflation as well.
Now that I think about it, I’m not too surprised. An apple costs $0.70 and keeps me full for 90 minutes; a box of sugary cereal is three bucks and (assuming I get 10 bowls) would keep me full for 900 minutes.
“The survey found that higher-calorie, energy-dense foods are the better bargain for cash-strapped shoppers,” the New York Times explained. “Energy-dense munchies cost on average $1.76 per 1,000 calories, compared with $18.16 per 1,000 calories for low-energy but nutritious foods.”
According to a meta-review of 27 studies in 10 countries, eating healthy costs about $550 extra per year.
I am totally, 100 percent okay with spending more money on food if that means it’s better for me. Even though I hunted on Google for ages, I couldn’t find a stat that said, “spending X more dollars on food now will save you X dollars on health care bills later,” so let’s just go with the highly scientific “I’ll save lots in the long run.”
Also, I read a very passionate piece by a woman named Ellen Gustafson, co-founder of The Food Think Tank. She pointed out a ton of “true costs of so-called cheap food”, from soil erosion, real water and irrigation costs to government food assistance for fast food worker families. (I’ll let you read the article to discover the rest.)
And one more thing, pixiesuperhero. The USDA does this thing where every month, it calculates the cost of a nutritious diet at four levels: thrifty, low-cost, moderate-cost, and liberal. For a female in the 19-50 age bracket, the low-cost plan is $211.80 per month. The moderate-cost is $260.50 per month. So I am solidly in between low-cost and moderate-cost.
If anyone wants to send me another Trader Joe’s gift card (cough, Mom), I would highly appreciate it. But I’m not gonna slash and burn my grocery list—sometimes, it’s better to spend than save.
This column is part of a multi-part series.
Aja Frost is a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo who loves writing… and dessert. Follow her on Twitter @ajavuu.
Photo: Jaro Larnos