Sunday, July 27, 2008

Still Talking About Grocery Prices

I'm still thinking about the cost of food after my last post about things that were cheaper at Superstore. And, as often happens when something is on my mind, I came across a couple of related articles (in this case, on MSN Money about buying groceries for less). Some of the information in the articles shocked me.

First of all, I do always take American data with a grain of salt when I compare it to Canadian costs. Even when the dollar is roughly at par and even when we live about 40 miles from the border, costs are never the same. Some things are cheaper, some pricier, some the same. But it was still an eye opener.

The first article Can A Family Eat on $100 A Week? was a one week trial for a family of 4 to eat on $100 per week. The author, Melinda Fulmer, said she knew it wouldn't be easy because the food stamp allowance for a family of that size is $117! She admitted to regularly spending close to $250 per week, somewhat above the $182 Uncle Sam considers "moderate" for a family of 4. I've been trying to reduce my spending after I realized we were regularly exceeding my budgeted $150/week, totalling about $800 per month. So, I'm actually close to the "moderate" category and spend less than the Fulmer's usual budget even though I buy exclusively kosher foods and a fair bit of junk.

What were the ground rules for the experiment? Well, there were a few. The food all had to come from major chain stores, not Costco or ethnic markets. She couldn't use coupons and the food had to be relatively healthful. Plus, non food items like paper towels didn't count.

What sorts of things did Fulmer buy and which purchases seemed questionable to me? The article made a big deal out of the fact that all the meals had to be carefully planned, with allowance for snacks and it had to appeal to everyone. Some of her "healthful" food items caused me to raise my eyebrows: pretzels and luncheon meat in particular. And some things weren't things I would consider inexpensive, like cheese (I pay about $7 for 8 oz, but I do know that cheese in general is cheaper in the US than in Canada and that kosher cheese probably costs twice what non-kosher costs) or meat. She bought boneless pork shoulder, chicken breasts and round steak on sale (though she didn't say what the price was or how much she bought). Other than possibly the round steak, are any of those really economical cuts of meat?

I obviously know less than nothing about buying pork, but boneless anything always costs more. And chicken breasts are the most expensive part of the bird. I was looking at chicken for Friday night dinner last week and almost bought a pack of 4 thighs because they're the cheapest cut (other than the packs of necks, which I don't think are safe with a small child and all those little bones). All the packs of thighs were in the $8 to $9 range but they were much cheaper than the breasts. I ultimately bought B fry, which is beef sliced like bacon, cut it up into little pieces and fried it up with purple onion, garlic and mushrooms and served it over seasoned couscous. I think it was about $4/lb (I'm not hunting for the receipt right now). For our other meat meal I bought 2 turkey legs for under $9 and cooked one in the crockpot with potatoes and carrots. That means I have another meal left from that pack so I spent under $10 this week on meat (less than my usual $15 to $20).

Did they manage to stay within the $100 limit for the week? No, but they came close. She only spent $105.03 and was only over because of 2 splurges. However, she didn't feel they could replicate this week in and week out. I agree. For one thing, she was able to use food already in her pantry, such as flour, oil and spices. Eventually, the food you already have on hand runs out and you have to buy something that takes a disproportionately large bite out of the budget. Besides that, it was too drastic a change from what the family was accustomed to. Fulmer herself said she overspent (over the $250/week mark) the following week but that a regular budget of $175/week might be fairly realistic and doable. Making that change alone could save her $3,600 per year (or $108,000 in 30 years)!

The second article featured MP Dunleavy's attempt to cut their $400/month grocery bill (for 2 adults and a 1 year old) in half! Now, Mia is sometimes discussed in fairly dismissive terms by financial bloggers and commenters because of her sometimes imprudent spending (given her position as a paid financial columnist), so it was pretty surprising to see just how little she spends on food. Cutting that amount in half successfully seemed unlikely.

How did it go? Right from the start it seemed clear that Mia and her hubby were not on the same page regarding this experiment. He went out on the very first day and spent $48.85, but not on the things they'd discussed! About a week later he went to the store with strict instructions to spend no more than $40 and spent $73! He also seemed to have a bit of an attitude (expressed as, "I'm not going to eat Kraft Dinner"). Well, lah di dah. If you run out of money before you run out of month what are you going to do?

Then there's the small matter of cheating. They "found" $26 in her hubby's pants and used that for beer, lime Tostitos, expensive cheddar and breakfast out but didn't count it towards their total. Why? They spent it on food. The "windfall" aspect of it shouldn't matter. Presumably they weren't cutting back to $200 because they were short $200 that month. It was an experiment in trying to cut back.

Their final total was $300.77, including about $80 over Thanksgiving. Plus the $26, of course. But they didn't feel like they'd failed. Really? You normally spend $400, but want to spend $200. In the end you spend just under $327, only a $73 saving for the month instead of a $200 saving. But you haven't failed? Their rationalization was that they'd saved $100 (instead of the $73 they'd actually saved) and that would add up to $36,000 in 30 years. Her hubby, Matthew Perry, actually said "That's a chunk of our son's education money." Umm, your son is already a year old. Won't he be going on to university some time before his 31st birthday?

So where does all this leave me? I'm not sure. I mean, maybe I should feel better about the amount I spend since people on food stamps get $117 per week and they're sure not buying kosher meat and cheese! But, really, what does that have to do with my bottom line? If I can't afford to spend $700 to $800 per month on food then I need to cut back because I'm tired of my outgo exceeding my income! It doesn't matter what someone else pays. I should do the best I can, not base my spending on any kind of average.

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