america's grocery spending habits since the 1950s

Last week, I came across a chart showing the US Department of Labor's statistics on American household food expenditure and how it's changed in relation to our income since the 1950s, and I can't stop thinking about it. Here, I'll show you:

Though of course the chart necessarily leaves off a lot of information, there is one thing it makes very clear: Americans spend less than they have before on food. Whereas in the 1950s, the average food budget expenditure was 29.7%, it is now 13.1%.

Does this surprise any of you? It really shocked me. First of all, I think over time, fewer and fewer of us Amercans grow our own food, which means that more and more of us are buying food. It didn't make sense to me at first how it could be possible, then, that we spend less money on it. But then I remembered all the cost-cutting articles and how-to guides that started popping up in 2008, when the economy staggered and fell: a large majority of the tips for saving money featured how to save money at the grocery store.

Now, I am all for fiscal responsibility. I am all for comparison shopping and educated buying decisions. What I am not for is buying the cheapest food available to me. My great grandmother used to say "What you save at the grocery store, you spend at the doctor's," and my family still goes by that rule. I don't think you have to spend a fortune on food; it is easy to eat well cheaply if you stick to whole foods and do a fair amount of cooking at home rather than buying pre-prepared packaged items. But I don't think the reason we're spending less on food now than in the 1950s is because we're buying more bulk grains and beans than our grandparents. I think it's because people are buying lower-quality groceries just to save, say, ten cents on a can of tomato sauce, and that doesn't make sense to me. That dumb "you are what you eat" cliche is scientifically true--your body uses the food you eat to build and repair cells, to maintain systems, to ensure that you function--why wouldn't you want the best fuel you can afford?

This is a bit of a rant, and I'll stop myself from expanding on it, but it shocks me that at a time when we have more expendable income than ever, we spend so much less of it on what I consider to be one of the most important parts of our lives. I know it's a matter or priorities, and I can't expect everyone to have the same priorities as me. I would rather not get new clothes than not have cashews for a month. But it's not like I drop mad cash in the grocery store; I buy dried beans instead of canned and many more bulk than packaged items to keep costs down while shopping. It's just that I consider groceries to be one of the most important expenditures in my budget. Not only for the nutrition aspect, but because I enjoy food, and I want to continue to enjoy the way I cook and eat.

What about you guys? Did this chart surprise you? How do you try to cut costs at the grocery store? Do you cut costs in other parts of your budget, like I do, to ensure you get the food you like/want/need, or is food one of the first things to slash when it comes time to tighten your belts?


jd said... Best Blogger Tips

First: You're back?!? How the hell could I not have know this! Yay!

Second: Sing it sister! Seriously... I've heard rumors about the crazy decrease in spending that Americans have made when it comes to food during the past few years, but seeing it laid out like this is downright frightening. I have no doubt that the rates of obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes in this country are inversely proportionate to the percentage of our income that goes towards food.

I love what your great grandma used to say about it - she was a smart woman :)

Vegan Aide said... Best Blogger Tips

I love this post..it makes a lot of sense on so many levels. It did surprise me seeing that we are spending so much less on groceries, although i've seen the trends around us: $1 dollr meals at fast food places, broccoli costing more than ground beef, etc.

Richa Agarwal said... Best Blogger Tips

I can believe it. Don't people dine out significantly more than in the past? I don't think it's necessarily that people are skimping on high quality meals, but are too lazy to create them for themselves. Obviously fast food etc. is a problem, but for those with the expendable income and can afford it, I think they're eating pretty good stuff at local restaurants...

MeloMeals said... Best Blogger Tips

My food budget is definitely one of the the things I cut.. but I cut a lot when I need to. Two year ago when I cut cable/internet and barely even used my heat during the winter.. but that was out of necessity.

panda with cookie said... Best Blogger Tips

I want to look into this more. Does food costs much less now than then? We have so many subsidies for certain things and so many more cheap processed foods available. And people used to cook full meals back in the day. Now it's a hot pocket on the go.
Thanks for posting it!

Sarah P said... Best Blogger Tips

JD-Ha, I felt the same way then I saw that you were posting again!

Richa-Good point. I had actually assumed that "food budget" included meals out since it wasn't just "grocery budget," but now I have no idea. Still, if it didn't take that into account, wouldn't the decrease in grocery spending by more than half mean people eat out more often than they cook? Could that be true?!

pandawithcookie-I always think of processed foods as being more expensive than their components, but you raise an interestin point: hot pockets.

Monique a.k.a. Mo said... Best Blogger Tips

Wow. This is really interesting!

Végébon said... Best Blogger Tips

Thanks for sharing such a striking fact.
I hope people will start to connect food and health (again) and the trend will flip backward in the following years.

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