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The real cost of eating and drinking

by Andy Millard

Andy Can Help

 

“That’ll be $326.12, please.” Such was the damage from my last trip to the supermarket.

But wait, there’s more! The next day I went to the Mill Spring Farm Store, where we buy our locally produced meats, veggies, jams and other sundries, along with fresh NC-caught seafood. Total bill there: $270.32.

Have you ever stopped to think how much you actually spend on food? I certainly hadn’t. Then I volunteered to take over the grocery-buying duties during the COVID-19 crisis. As I was putting up the last of the foodstuffs that day, it struck me that this would be the perfect time to assess how much we really spend on food and drink.

The total between those two trips was just shy of $600. $600 for groceries? For two people? That’s a lot, right? Let’s see.

During the pandemic, my wife and I have completely stopped consuming any food that is not prepared in our own kitchen. No dinners at Huckleberry’s or Harvest House or Lavender Bistro or the Rural Seed. No lunches from Nana’s or Waffle House or the fast food joints. No pizzas from Buck’s or Side Street or the Brick. For the time being, 100% of our food is bought at the store and prepared at home. We’ve decided that this is the most responsible course for us, for reasons of our own.

There are, of course, very real downsides to this approach — most significantly, downsides to the businesses that need and deserve customers. But there is at least one upside. Now we can really see how much it costs to eat.

I probably should have mentioned that we have a system whereby I buy groceries once — and only once — every three weeks. So, the food from those two trips will feed us for the next three weeks. That works out to $200 a week, or $100 per person per week.

Taken a step further, at three meals a day, we’re spending an average of $4.76 per meal per person. That doesn’t sound too far out of line, does it? And it covers everything we ingest: every morsel of food and every drop of liquid.

For comparison, a Quarter Pounder with cheese Extra Value Meal at McDonald’s costs $5.79 plus tax. (source: fastfoodmenuprices.com)

If you’re like most folks, your home-cooked dinner habits are probably nothing fancy: pork chops, chicken, burgers on the grill, spaghetti, an occasional sirloin. Our biggest extravagance is the seafood we get from the Farm Store.

Consider the national average. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average two-person household spends $151.25 per week on food. That’s a little less than my particular two-person household, but I suspect it’s an underestimate. What about alcoholic beverages consumed at home? Drinks at the local pub? Snacks at the convenience store? Quick trips to the ice cream shop? That stuff adds up quickly.

Then there’s the category commonly referred to as dining out. Those who do go out may spend less at grocery stores but more at restaurants — probably a lot more. That’s the budget killer that most people never fully understand.

According to MoneyUnder30.com, the average commercially prepared meal costs around $13. We all know how easy it is to spend more than that, especially when you add drinks, a tip and the cost of traveling to the restaurant and back.

So depending on your situation, $100 per person per week is not unreasonable. Is it any wonder, then, that so many among us struggle so hard just to put food on the table? Over 25% of children live in food-insecure homes, according to the Southeastern University Consortium on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition. To make matters worse, the less a family spends on food, the lower the nutritional quality of the food they’re likely to buy, increasing the chance of negative health consequences.

This may be a good time for you to examine your own food spending. If you’re locked down to the extent we are, it should be easy. If you’ve started going out, the task is more difficult but still doable. Don’t cheat — count everything. See where you stand and where you can improve. And don’t forget to count your blessings.

Andy Millard, CFP® is a retired financial planner and former principal of Millard & Company, an investment management firm. He does not offer financial planning services; this column is not intended as advice but rather education, commentary and opinion. Consult a professional advisor. If you have general questions about financial planning or investments, feel free to submit them to Andy at camillard@mac.com.