The Cost of Giving Up Grocery Shopping
When my boyfriend and I first started to pretend to be grown-ups, grocery shopping was an adventure.
We were 19 years old, broke and in love. No matter how much being-in-love seemed like a full-time occupation, we still needed to eat something, and grocery shopping, as a hobby, had the rare advantage that the more time you spent on it—price-comparing and coupon-clipping and meal-planning—the more money you’d save, instead of spend.
Plus, the grocery stores were all air-conditioned, and we were living in Phoenix—in the summer. We passed many a blissful hour dawdling in the produce section.
I say this so you know: I hold no hostility towards grocery stores. Even as grocery shopping shifted from a shared pastime to a mostly-solo task, it stayed satisfying. I appreciate a well-ordered shopping list. I understand the pleasure of mapping out the best path through the aisles. If I were ranking chores in order of unpleasantness, grocery shopping would be low on the list.
But I don’t do it any more.
These days, our fridge is filled by a grocery delivery start-up. We stock up our pantry with the occasional ludicrously-large run to Costco, keep the beer shelf full by supporting the local corner shop and tool around at the farmer’s market when we can. But for everything else, I click a shopping cart icon on a screen.
And I love it. I love it with a passion that is unseemly.
What I’m buying:
Monday afternoon, as I was picking up my latest delivery at my local drop-off point (just a few blocks from my house), a woman came up and squinted at the truck.
“So, you just pick what you want and they bring it to you?” she asked.
“THEY PUT IT IN A BAG AND EVERYTHING,” I said, as the friendly delivery guy stifled a smile. “IT’S THE BEST.”
Frankly, that was an odd feature to highlight—cashiers do that at the brick-and-mortar stores, too, after all. Now that I’ve had all afternoon to think about it, here are some far better reasons why I love my non-grocery-shopping life:
• No-worry autopilot: Like Nicole, we have a few things we eat over and over again. Thanks to auto-refill, that part of our grocery shopping takes care of itself now. Even if I do absolutely nothing about groceries all week, when my phone reminder goes off, I’ll have yogurt, OJ and taco fillings waiting for me.
• Never needing takeout: As a corollary, that means we don’t find ourselves ordering pizza because our kitchen is barren. I mean, we still order pizza, but it’s by choice.
• 2 a.m. grocery shopping: I can sit in my pajamas and add cumin to the cart. I’ll never get over it. We live in the future.
• No lines: Once, picking up our delivery, I had to wait behind one person for a little while. That was about it.
• No lists: Anything we need goes directly in the cart—in about the time it used to take just to add things to our shopping list app.
• Fewer impulse purchases: It’s not that I don’t add random, utterly unnecessary snacks to the cart. I do! But now I have days at a time to think better of it, and take them out.
• No overloaded bike rides: Putting off grocery shopping because of bad weather, then having to stock up to make up for it, then miscalculating how much will fit in my panniers, then having to balance a bag off the handlebars while sweating beneath a backpack and swerving in the street—I don’t miss those days at all.
• Local, organic, all-natural, healthy options everywhere: this is a Silicon Valley meets crunchy granola kind of situation. I’m not vegan, and you can pry my gluten out of my cold dead hands, but hey—I do like local produce.
What it costs:
I didn’t manage to get any of that across during my bit of sidewalk evangelism. But I did convey my general enthusiasm, so the woman followed up: “How are the prices?”
The short answer is: They’re not bad, but they’re not bargains. There’s no delivery fee. Some things, like spices, are downright steals—but others, like pasta, are double what you’d pay in your average store. In general, if you’re comparing organic-to-organic, it’s competitive; if you’re comparing cheapest-to-cheapest, it’s not.
For a while, I even hoped that I was saving money by staying out of grocery stores—you know, because of the “no impulse purchase” thing. But Mint punched a hole in that illusion.
Here’s the truth of it: From May 2013 through April 2014, the two of us spent an average of $320/month on groceries (including alcohol and Costco sprees; not counting parties we hosted).
Since May 2014—the month of our first delivery—we’ve averaged $380/month.
So what does it cost us? In cold hard cash, an extra $60/month.
On the one hand, that’s less than I’d feared. We were fairly frugal to begin with, and we’re still in the average-Billfold-reader range. But that’s still $720 a year to get out of something that is, at most, an inconvenience.
And that’s not the only cost. When I talk about it, like right now, I feel like I’m making a faintly embarrassing confession—like I’m one of those millennials they write trend pieces about, the ones who never leave their houses. I mean, I’m outsourcing a pretty basic adult-human task. Someone else is filling a truck just so I don’t have to fill a grocery cart.
And it’s undeniably unfair. To access this service I love so much, you have to live near a drop-off spot, or in a city where front-door grocery delivery is available. Many online vendors don’t take EBT, so you can’t use food stamps. You have to have some budget wiggle room. You need all kinds of privilege to be able to give up grocery shopping.
Online-only delivery services also fail Kant’s categorical imperative. When I realize I desperately want ravioli, RIGHT NOW, I swing by the nearest grocery store. When it turns out my potatoes have gone green? Grocery store to the rescue. I deprive them of the bulk of my dollars, but rely on them in times of crisis. If we all did the same, our local grocers would fade away and we’d wind up ravioli-less and poisoned by our own potatoes.
I’m still fervently fond of living sans grocery carts—as I’ll tell any stranger on the street, apparently—but the full cost is hard to quantify. It’s something like $60/month, plus a sense of mild shame and guilt, with a touch of “failing to uphold the social contract.”
Plus, when you’re browsing the digital produce aisle, the misters don’t turn on with that tinned sound of thunder.
I do miss that.
This story is part of our food month series.
Camila Domonoske lives in Washington, D.C., where she works as a web producer. She likes poetry, baby animal videos and foods full of gluten. You can follow her at @camilareads.
Photo: John Robinson and Relay Foods