Nine times out of ten, if I say I’m stressed, it has to do with money.
My husband knows to give me some space during that time of the month — you know, bill-paying/checkbook-balancing time. My tells: snippy comments, straightened hair (from tugging), and frequent sighing, culminating in a freak-out conversation about anything from how much money we spent on beer last month to our 20-year financial plan. It’s a fun time.
And, yeah. Money is a stressful topic for most people, rich and poor alike — everyone has bills to pay, and is trying to get the most they can out of their paycheck. No matter how much money you have, chances are you’ve got at least an idea of a grocery budget — one of the more flexible line-items in the spreadsheet. We’ve had one since our first year of marriage, and my. How it’s grown.
But so have my ideas of eating. And while I think it’s an admirable feat to be able to feed a family of five on a grocery budget of less than $50/week, I don’t think our family can do that and still follow the principles we’ve decided will guide our home-cooking decisions.
But the question remains: how much is a good amount, for our grocery budget? How do we stick with it? We started with a cash-only system, and then wandered into the abyss known as the debit card, only to find ourselves recently back to cash. But a cash system is very labor-intensive; I buy many items in bulk to save money, and put away each month for those occasional purchases — so I’m often pulling from a savings account to cover the $130 I just spent on chicken leg quarters from a local farm. It makes the cash system more difficult, since I’m left with a spreadsheet to update and a bank transfer to make.
Every month, at the end, when we’re over-budget or eating nothing but eggs for a week to avoid the red, I sigh. I know that the secret to saving money is in planning well; and as much energy as I spend in planning, I often feel maxed out with no reward. I’m out of ideas. But should this bother me? This gnawing question is making me rethink my goals for our budget.
Michael Pollan (my go-to source for quotes for the week) wrote that
“In 1960 Americans spent 17.5% of their income on food, and 5.2% of national income on health care. Since then, those numbers have flipped. Spending on food has fallen to 9.9% while spending on health care has climbed to 16% of national income. I have to think that by spending a little more on healthier food we could reduce the amount we have to spend on healthcare.” *
This begs the question: what are my expectations for our grocery budget? Is it in the best interest of my family for us to eat as cheaply as possible? It’s fair to say that we’ve already answered that question, and that answer is no. Our monthly food budget currently makes up 15% of our gross income, so we’re in between the averages of 1960 and today, leaning upward.
If I do see our grocery budget as an investment in our future health, why should this percentage bother me?
At the heart of the matter, it probably has something to do with the fact that I’m a thrifty person, always searching for a deal. But I think we also live in a culture that praises thriftiness above food quality. Spending more on food is labeled as gourmet, and that label is pejoratively thought to be elitist or excessive. It’s difficult to defend food purchasing decisions to skeptics; it’s a long-term investment with short-term benefits. And the ways it helps us stay healthier right now? Difficult to scientifically prove.
I’ll be writing an article next week for the newsletter of the Indy Winter Farmer’s Market. It’s about “How to Feed a Family on Local Food.” As I think about the information I’d like to present, I feel the need to start the article with the same disclaimer I use when talking to friends about the subject: “You’re probably gonna need to spend a little more on groceries,” followed by the sentence, “And you’re gonna need to make a few more things from scratch.”
Talk about unpopular demands. No, these costs aren’t tax-deductible, nor will they be reimbursed from a flex spending account. Which has brought me to the realization that eating locally (as much as possible) must be about much more than a trendy fetish. There are costs involved, both monetary and otherwise. The decision to source as much food as possible from a 100-mile radius must be predicated on a belief that it’s better for your body and your environment. That the quality of food that goes into your body is more important, in the long run, than your bottom line.
Now, if I could just remember this during bill-paying time.
What are your thoughts on grocery budgets? Feel free to disagree with my analysis.
*Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. pp. 187-188.