Your Biggest Expense?
How much is too much to spend on food?
“Typically, after mortgage or rent, which are fixed costs, most of my clients’ highest monthly expense is food,” says Shannon McLay, author of Train Your Way to Financial Fitness and founder of Next-Gen Financial.
You could be overspending on organic or “healthy” groceries and not even realize it. I’m a student in nutrition science, so my studies touch on the economics behind these higher prices. (Higher-quality items often don’t get farm subsidies enjoyed by Big Food, so the price goes up.) Even so, when I look at my bank accounts, I wonder if it’s time to check my food worship.
Reining in food expenditures is one of the easiest ways to save. Here’s how to spend less on food.
Be More Choosy About What You Buy Organic
Label a food organic and people will pay almost twice as much for it. Thanks to the perception that organic items are healthier and not ridden with pesticides like conventionally grown fruits and veggies, we’ll fork over lots of cash.
Yet a recent Stanford University mega-study shows a lot of this extra spending isn’t worth it: There is little evidence that organic food is any more nutritious or safer against nasty bugs like E.coli, and only marginally cleaner of toxins than conventional foods.
What foods are worth buying organic? Apples and cherry tomatoes, to start. For a complete list, consult the Environmental Working Group.
Have a List Ready Before You Shop
Reality check: It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Safeway, Whole Foods, or the local mom-and-pop natural market — these stores are in business to get your dollars. And they get us to buy more items, and more expensive items, in myriad ways, from making shopping carts bigger to playing classical music.
To help you remain clear-headed at any supermarket, write down your shopping list before you enter the store. Then stick to your plan. That way, you’ll be less influenced by the subtle ploys that stores use to get you to spend more.
Just Because It’s Fancy Doesn’t Mean It’s Healthy
When you’re trying to eat healthier, seeking out more expensive, quality foods that are less processed or all-natural may seem like the best choice. Not necessarily. In one Cornell study, consumers believed cookies labeled organic contained 40 percent fewer calories. (They didn’t.)
In fact, sometimes processing can actually make foods safer. According to a recent Consumer Reports study, 80 percent more arsenic is found in “healthier” brown rice than stripped-down white rice because the naturally occurring poison gathers in the grain’s outer layers, which white rice lacks.
Stop Eating Out So Much
Americans generally spend about 10 percent of their income on food, but nearly 50 percent of this money is spent in restaurants. “We all work hard for every dollar that we earn and we need to work hard at preserving those dollars. Simple adjustments in how many times you eat out will add up to thousands of dollars in savings a year,” explains McLay.
Sure, in our Instagram foodie culture, it’s popular to capture unique dining experiences online to share digitally as some sort of badge of style and sophistication. So why not organize a cooking club among friends instead of those nights out? It’ll save money, still introduce you to new cuisine — and you get to spend face-to-face time with friends.
Consider the Environmental Costs
I know, I know, Big Food is bad. But before you reach for a spendy alternative grain like quinoa, or swap steak for seitan, know that often these healthy choices also tax our environment on epic scales.
The lucrative quinoa business? The small-time farmers of Peru and Bolivia can barely afford quinoa (now apparently more expensive than chicken) for themselves due to the export craze. The assumption that soy is always better than beef because of the harm ranches do to our environment? Soybean farming is one of the main causes of deforestation in Brazil.
In other words, when you’re shelling out big bucks for socially and environmentally conscious reasons, do some homework. Even the most thoughtful splurges aren’t without their downsides.
Expensive Food Doesn’t Always Taste Better
Think those organic apples are crisper? Splurging on highly rated pinot noir because you figure it’s finer quality? Science says we’re being duped.
Research shows that items labeled organic or branded in fancy was benefit from a “halo effect,” even when they don’t necessarily deserve the kudos. And then there’s the whole brouhaha lately about wine prices and quality after a bunch of wine experts couldn’t distinguish between wines, say, made in New Jersey from those from expensive French vineyards in a blind taste test.
I’ll drink to those savings.