Friday, February 23, 2007

The USDA's Cost of Food - How we measure up

The cost of feeding ourselves is one area where I've been focusing a lot of my efforts in saving money lately. Eating out is a thing of the past for us. Our grocery bill therefore represents our total expenditures on food. I wanted some objective indication of how well we were doing at saving ourselves money in this area. A link found on a frugal discussion forum sent me to the USDA's Cost of Food page. Here the US government breaks down the average price of food at home across the country on a month by month basis. There are four different budgetary plans, ranging from "thrifty" at the low end to "liberal" at the high end. The chart makes it easy to look at average food costs for families of different sizes, and as of this writing the data is complete through December of 2006.

Although I have shopped carefully with my price comparison book, baked our own bread, prepared home-made breakfast items, and relied on cheap staples for dinners, I had never actually tracked our grocery expenses to the dollar. I decided that this month - February, 2007 - would be the month to start. With my husband's cooperation, the receipts started piling up. And yesterday, with a well stocked refrigerator and no need to shop before the end of the month, I toted up the grocery bills and checked in against the government website.

Since no data is available yet for this month or even last month, I looked at both the December, 2006 and the February, 2006 figures for a family of two adults. Extrapolating from these figures, I estimated that under the thrifty plan, the figure for this month would be only about $315-$320 dollars. I'll check this against the actual posted figure when the government catches up on its data.

At first I thought we were doing just fine, with almost $29 to spare until the end of the month. But then of course I remembered a receipt I'd set aside for an item that needed to be returned. That receipt put us over the USDA's thrifty plan figure by $6-11, even when we eliminated the vitamin pills we purchased, moving them out of the grocery budget and into the health care budget. The good news turned to not-so-good news.

My husband and I spent a little while going over our collected receipts. We'd done some stocking up this month, buying a couple cases of "three-buck Chuck" wine for less than $75. I noted that there were quite a few snack items and beer listed on my husband's receipts. He keeps a small apartment in another city that he travels to regularly for work, and the urge to splurge just a little is irresistible for him, I think. He suggested that we not count the beer he bought because he hadn't yet drunk all of it. I demurred, pointing out that we've been eating foods throughout the month that were purchased earlier and stored in the pantry and freezer. Besides, stocking up during sales and once-a-month runs to specialty stores is our usual practice. So it's not our consumption costs, per se, but our food expenditures that we're tracking. In the long run, it should all even out.

The exercise of tracking all our grocery expenses has been a good one - one that we will undoubtedly repeat in the coming months. I'm a little bit disappointed that we didn't meet our goal of living within the thrifty plan as defined by the USDA. But I'm glad that we definitely come in at the low end of their "low-cost" plan, even when purchasing organic products whenever we can. The snack foods and beer that my husband buys have been noted, but that's as far as I'm willing to go in addressing the issue. He's the bread winner, and I'd much rather have a contented spouse than see him feeling deprived and unhappy for the sake of another $20 per month.

We learned that even under the thrifty plan, we could buy organic products and a fair amount of meat, or buy a small amount of snack foods and alcohol - but not both. This is very useful information for me as the primary grocery shopper for the household. I'm not sure yet how it will change our spending habits, if it does at all. But having the knowledge is always a good thing.

1 comment:

marci357 said...

I'm afraid I'm not buying my fair share here - at about 1/2 the thrifty rate.

I can't believe their family rates are so high!