7 Surprising Facts about Food Prices

Cash-back credit cards can help earn money back when you spend at the grocery store.

Many people believe that Americans waste a bunch of money eating out — that avocado toast and lattes are budget wreckers, for example — and that’s sort of true. In 2014, an important line was crossed — for the first time since the government tracked this sort of thing, families spent more eating out than eating at home.  But when you really look into the numbers about the way Americans spend money on food, a far more complex picture emerges.  Like many other typical household purchases — such as refrigerators or clothes — many food items are actually much cheaper than they were a generation ago. And overall, food isn’t nearly the budget-busting line item it used to be.  In fact, according to government statistics, U.S. families are spending much LESS overall on food than they did a generation or two ago. Food now eats up about half as much of the family budget than it once did.

Even that fact is a good news/bad news story, however, according to Annemarie Kuhns, a food economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Part of the reason food consumers less of household spending is because housing costs and health care consumes so much more.

“It really depends on the food you are purchasing,” Kuhns said. “Processed food is less expensive, but fresh fruits and vegetables are much more expensive.”

To get a better picture of what’s really going on with your budget, here are 9 surprising facts about food spending. As you read them, remember, it’s always easy to find an anecdote or two that confirms a belief you might have — most of us have a friend who complains about not being able to afford a home, but does indeed indulge in avocado toast regularly. That’s just an anecdote, however, a narrow view of things.  To really understand the issue, you have to look at the broader picture.  Most of the data below comes from the Consumer Price Index maintained by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which follows food prices by pricing a representative market basket of goods periodically.

1.) Yes, food is generally getting more expensive

First off, you aren’t crazy. Your grocery bill keeps getting bigger — and the cost of food is rising faster than most things. From 2012-2016, food prices rose 6.1%, but the overall consumer price index rose only 4.5%.  NOTE:  That’s bad, but it’s less than the 9.5 percent rise in housing costs and 11.7 percent increase in medical care costs.   This is a long-term trend, too. The USDA says grocery store prices are up 4.5% faster than economy-wide prices during the past 30 years.

2.) Food is cheaper this year, though (Eggs are a HUGE bargain)

Last year, for the first time in nearly 50 years, so-called “food-at-home” prices dropped. The USDA says retail food fell 1.3 percent. Some items fell far more. The price of eggs, for example, dropped almost 20 percent in a year, thanks to lingering impacts of the avian flu. That’s good news for you, but bad news for grocery stores, and we’ve seen plenty of them punished on Wall Street as a result. Kroger, the nation’s largest supermarket chain, said in March that its same-store sales had fallen 0.7% during the end of 2016.

3.) Yes, we are eating out a lot more

Economists call eating out “food away from home” — as opposed to food-at-home — and it’s true that Americans are spending more while eating out than ever.  This has something to do with the state of the economy: During the 2007-2009 recession, food away from home share fell, for example.

Don’t be so quick to judge this consumer behavior, however. It’s true that many Americans don’t take the time to cook any more, but rising restaurant prices are partly to blame, also. Higher food-away-from-home prices mean more overall spending, whether or not people spend more nights at restaurants. And there’s some indication American’s love affair with certain kinds of restaurants has ended.  Back in 2014 — the same year Americans eating at home fell into second place in the BLS data – NPD Group said the average American dined at a restaurant 74 times annually, the lowest reading in more than 30 years.

Continued trouble at fast-casual chains seems to confirm that finding. Restaurant analyst TDn2K says that overall, restaurant same-store sales have now fallen for five straight quarters, and traffic fell more than 3% in the first quarter of this year, compared to the prior year.

4.) No, food isn’t the budget killer you might think

Overall, food consumes a lot less of a family’s earnings than it did back in the 1960s, or even the 1980s. Between 1960 and 2007, the share of disposable personal income spent on total food by Americans, on average, fell from 17.5 to 9.6 percent, driven by a declining share of income spent on food at home.

This seems hard to believe, but it’s true, says Kuhns.

“You have to think of it in terms of relative vs nominal terms,” she said.  “It’s one of those things were prices go up each year, but so does income.”

The share of income spent on total food began to flatten in 2000, however — partly because food prices began to rise, and partly because incomes have stagnated.

In the end, if you are still convinced that Americans eating out too much is the cause of many personal finance problems, consider this: The Agriculture Department says that in 2014, Americans spent 4.3 percent of their disposable personal incomes on food away from home. That’s not a budget buster.

5.) Food is a budget killer for the poor, however

The richer you are, the less you care about the price of food, for obvious reasons — but more critically, the less your monthly budget is subject to shocks from rising food prices.

In 2015, middle-income households spent 12.4 percent of their income on food, while families in the lowest one-fifth of income spent fully one-third of their money on food. That’s a stunning gap, and makes poorer families very sensitive to sudden increases in the price of essentials like milk or bread.

6.) We sound a bit like whiners

One might conclude that those who complain about rising food prices in the past decade or so have forgotten history. Even in a bad, recent year (2008), food rose about 6%. Back in the 1970s, double-digit increases were typical.  In 1973, food prices rose 16.4%, and then in 1974, another 14.9 percent. Those increases were blamed on food commodity and energy price shocks, and the larger economy saw shocking inflation, too.

7.) Historically, eggs are now the best bargain — Butter is cheaper, too

It can be hard to compare the price of items across the decades, but there are ways. For example, a look at a 1971 Sears catalog shows a basic refrigerator cost $399, or about $2,450 in today’s dollars. That would buy you a heck of a refrigerator today.

Another useful method is to compare the increase in costs over time, which the BLS does.  A fascinating chart compares the cost of items back in 1913 vs 2013.  Butter was once the most expensive item in a consumer’s grocery sack. Now, coffee, steak, and many other items are more expensive.  The price of potatoes has climbed 39-fold since 1913, but the price of eggs is up only 5-fold during the same span. Bread costs 25 times more; sugar costs 12 times more; coffee 20 times more, but rice only 8 times more.

If you’re looking for a more recent comparison, NPR crunched other BLS data comparing 1982 and 2012 (all in 2012 dollar) and found that most meats are much cheaper than they used to be (steak is down 30%!); but some vegetables are more expensive (peppers up 34%!).

How much do Americans spend on food anyway?

That’s not an easy question to answer, as circumstances vary so widely, but the USDA tries. A family of four with two children under 5 spent between $571 and $1,116 on food-at-home each month during 2015, the agency says. That same family with older kids spends between $657 and $1,305, proving it’s best to keep your kids from growing up.

On the other hand, a single male between 19-50 spends between $172 and $346 monthly.  That doesn’t include eating out, of course.

Don’t be so hard on food.

Finally, Kuhns stresses that inflation data on food is a very tricky calculation and government statistics can’t capture all the factors that really make up “price.”  When calculating inflation for items like computers, economists factor in that buyers get more for their money today than they did in the past — today’s PCs are far more powerful.  Those adjustments aren’t made for food, she noted, even though today’s supermarket shoppers get a lot more than they used to.

“When you go into a grocery store aisle, it’s nothing like 1985,” she said. “We have bagged lettuce. Imported vegetables.  We have access to a lot more fruits and vegetables,” she said. “In the 80s, most stuff was local and you could only get what was in season. Now you can get whatever you want any time of the year.”

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6 Ways to Stop Blowing Your Grocery Budget

Saving money on groceries doesn't need to be difficult and it doesn't always mean cutting back.

If you’re like many Americans, a large chunk of your budget is spent on food — maybe 10% or more. Percentagewise, we spend less on food than we did in the ‘60s, but 10% is not an insignificant portion of your income.That’s why so many money-saving articles focus on groceries as a great place to cut back on spending.

And the truth is that grocery spending is so variable. You could spend $200 per month to feed your family of four, or you could easily spend more than $1,000. With all that variability, it can be easy to blow your budget for groceries. If you find that you’re consistently spending more than you’ve budgeted for groceries, following these tips can help with saving money:

1. Figure out If Your Budget Is Even Reasonable

One issue might be that you have an unreasonably small grocery budget. Maybe your budget is inspired by a few articles from Pinterest about feeding a family of seven for a mere $250 per month. Let’s get real, though. Those families (often the moms!) spend hours meal planning, cooking from scratch, clipping coupons and driving to various grocery stores to snag the best deal.

Their results are amazing but that amount of effort isn’t feasible for everyone. As a working mom in a two-income family, there’s no way I can spend that much time saving money on food.

So if you’ve budgeted $150 per month to spend on groceries, maybe that’s not enough. Here’s how to find out:

a. Break Down Your Spending by Category

First, dig out your grocery store receipts from the past several weeks. If you don’t usually keep receipts, make a point to save them from your next few shopping trips. Shop as you normally would for those trips.

Then, break down your grocery spending by category. For instance, you might divide it into meat, dairy, breads and grains, premade items, veggies and fruits, etc. If you purchase items like cleaning products, cosmetics or toilet paper during your grocery shopping trips, divide those into a separate category as well. Remove everything that’s not actually grocery store spending from this category. Fast food and restaurant spending should be dealt with separately.

Once you’ve got your categories, add up what you spent in each category over the course of a month. This may not be a true average, but it’s a starting place.

b. Set a Reasonable Budget

Finally, you can see what you actually spend on food groceries. Now it’s time to see if that budget is reasonable. A good place to start is with the USDA Food Plans, which average the cost of cooking at home each month. In May 2017, the USDA thrifty plan for a family of four was $561 per month. The liberal plan for a family of four was $1,097 per month.

If your food spending is close to the thrifty end of things, maybe you’re actually not spending too much on food. Maybe you’re just setting your budget too low. But if you’re coming out on the high end of food spending — or if you want to outdo the USDA — use the following steps to trim your spending.

2. Look for Savings in Your Highest Spending Categories

Since you’ve got your spending categorized, you can easily find out where you spent the most money. For instance, if you’re consistently spending half your food budget on meat, it’s time to start cutting back there — perhaps by eating meatless meals a few times a week. Or maybe you’re spending a bunch of money on prepared meals that you could make much more cheaply at home.

Once you know where you spend the most, you can target that category for reducing spending. Some options include clipping coupons for items in that category, shopping manager’s specials, or simply cutting back on eating those types of foods.

3. Look Into Different Local Grocery Stores

There’s a reason Whole Foods is nicknamed “Whole Paycheck.” It’s a great place to find certain specialty items. But if you’re doing all your grocery shopping at high-end stores like these, you will spend more.

Our family saves a fortune just by shopping at Aldi, a discount grocery store that’s becoming more common across the nation. We used to do most of our shopping at a local chain but realized we saved a couple hundred bucks a month just by buying what we can at Aldi.

Chances are you’ve got some cheaper grocery options local to you. For instance, ethnic stores can be a fabulous place to pick up exotic spices and basics like rice and pasta on the cheap. Or you may find that a wholesale store membership saves your family a ton on food staples. Plus, you can use reward credit cards while shopping to earn even more deals. (Before applying, remember that most reward cards require a decent credit score — you can check two of yours for free with Credit.com.)

4. Create a Bank of Easy-Fix Meals

If your family is anything like mine, quick to prepare weeknight meals are a necessity. Without them, you fall back on going out to eat. Pinterest is a great place to find recipes for quick and easy meals that rely on whole, healthy ingredients.

Start trying out these types of meals. If you find a hit, keep the recipe close by. Try to find at least a few of these recipes that use ingredients you tend to keep around.

5. Do Some Freezer Cooking

When you find a great sale on expensive ingredients, pick up extra. Then, double up on your recipe, and put half in the freezer. This is a win-win. You get to save on groceries, and you have a meal ready to go for a busy evening!

For instance, if you find a great deal on ground beef, buy enough to make two lasagnas. Make them both at the same time, and pop one in the freezer. If you get into this habit, you could suddenly find yourself spending less on expensive ingredients, and you’ll have a freezer full of delicious meals to choose from.

6. Cut Back on Waste

How much of your grocery budget goes down the drain the form of wasted food? If you’re like most Americans, it’s a lot!

Start keeping a tally of the foods you throw away after they go bad. Keeping track for a month or two could reveal some interesting information. Maybe you’re over-ambitious when you buy fruits and veggies. You think your family will eat them, but you never get through them all. Or maybe you consistently throw away leftovers. It’s time to freeze those leftovers, pack them for lunch or make smaller servings of your recipes.

Cutting back on waste is an amazing way to save on groceries. Make a point to wait to grocery shop until the fridge is nearly empty. You’ll get more specific with your grocery shopping and more creative with your meal plans.

Even if you’re already saving on groceries, there’s usually room to save more. These tips will help you do just that.

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