Month-long food expense tracking

I mentioned earlier in December that I was in the middle of a month-long food expense tracking experiment and had so far been able to see first-hand how much money you can save by cooking meals instead of eating out. I kept Very Detailed Spreadsheets of exactly what we were spending money on for food (including eating out and individual grocery items like “three onions”) and how much money each meal cost. The purpose of this experiment: To see how our grocery budget was impacted by purchasing mostly organic and/or locally-produced food.

The month is over, I’ve tallied up the numbers, and here are the results:

  • Grocery costs: $298.11
    • Includes at  least $235.55 spent on organic/locally-produced foods
    • Does not include items that were already in the pantry or freezer
    • Does not include food purchased for Christmas gifts (we made potstickers for friends, for example)
    • Includes money spent on food that was used to feed other people — potlucks, Christmas brunch, inviting friends over for dinner, etc.
    • January – November 2007 11-month average of monthly grocery costs: $322.12 – $24.01 less than average
  • Eating-out costs: $102.13
    • I don’t have an 11-month average of eating out costs because my budget tracking lumps all “fun” activities into one category, including eating out. However, I’d guess that this is a typical amount.

I was initially surprised that we spent less on groceries on average. Purchasing conventional, non-organic foods seems cheaper, after all:

  • Organic milk is more than twice as much as conventional milk, and we’ve been buying more milk than usual because I’ve been having to drink a certain amount for my glucose-intolerant diet.
  • The free-range eggs we buy at the Farmer’s Market are twice as much as normal eggs on sale, which is what we used to get.
  • Organic cheese is also significantly more expensive.

But performing some additional analysis helps to bring this into perspective so that it makes sense:

  • We purchased and ate less meat overall. Usually I buy meat in bulk and freeze it, and we usually would have meat for dinner every day. However, the sticker shock of free-range and/or organic meats meant that I ended up purchasing and cooking far less meat than we usually would eat. This in itself probably saved us a lot of money.
  • We obtained in-season produce at the Farmer’s Market. My old method of menu planning was to pick out recipes that sounded yummy, generate a shopping list, and pick everything up from the store. This month, I found myself making a loose menu plan but revising it as I saw what produce was available at the Farmer’s Market, sometimes even building a menu plan on the fly while walking the stalls. Some of the produce was very cheap — for example, I got 50-cent heads of cabbage several times which made Very Cheap Potluck side dishes and could be used in stir fry, fried rice, soup, and more. In contrast, my former method of menu planning involved purchasing lots of out-of-season foods, most of which were probably imported and/or processed and therefore more expensive.
  • We were more aware of our money. Tracking every penny spent on food helped to motivate me to really make the most of the produce I bought. I’m guilty of buying produce, using a tiny bit in a recipe, and letting the rest rot in the fridge. Because I was keeping track of the food I bought and how much was used in each recipe, I found myself becoming creative with leftover bits of produce and using every bit up. For example, a remaining half of a bell pepper got sliced up with some onions into an egg scramble for a few breakfasts, as did leftover cabbage. I think we only ended up with one moldy orange, one rotten apple, half a bunch of cilantro, and a few leaves of lettuce that had to be thrown out!

If you’re curious about the gory details of the food expense tracking and cost of meals, I’ve published the Google Doc workbook here: 12/1/2007 Food expense. Here are a few notes of explanation:

  • The first spreadsheet, “Expenses,” has the breakdown of all the money spent on food in December.
    • For simplicity, I tallied only foods purchased at the Farmer’s Market and our local food co-op as “organic/locally-produced.” The actual amount spent on organic foods is probably higher because I think some of the things we bought from Safeway and Costco were also organic.
    • I categorized items as “groceries” for general grocery items that we’d eat throughout the day that would be hard to keep track of, “meals” for grocery items that I could keep track of by meal, “fun” for eating out, and “gifts” for items that were used to make Christmas presents. “Gifts” were not included in my grocery total.
  • The second spreadsheet, “Food,” shows the food we ate each day and the cost per meal.
    • The actual cost column only includes the cost of groceries bought that month. I did make notes in the last column if I used food from the pantry or freezer and if I knew approximately how much it was.
    • I calculated the cost to make an actual dish, so if there were leftovers on subsequent days, I didn’t calculate the cost for those days. However, you can get a sense of how many servings each dish provided — and I started putting numbers to indicate how many servings were served that day.

So in conclusion, while I never want to keep such detailed track of food expenses ever again, I think this was a very valuable experiment. It’s one thing to read or hear from someone else about how eating out is more expensive and another thing to personally calculate the cost yourself and compare the numbers. It was also encouraging to see that we aren’t spending any more on groceries (and perhaps even less) by purchasing “more expensive” organic, locally-produced foods. Given the health, environmental, and sociological benefits of doing so, we’re going to continue along this path!

Appendix: Related blog posts

These blog posts relate to the topic of organic, local, sustainable food and the cost of food:

7 thoughts on “Month-long food expense tracking

  1. One thing that might (for the future) change the meat prices is finding somebody local that will sells you all/part of a cow locally raised. I used to purchase hamburger from a co-worker of my father whose husband ran a dairy farm. Three years ago, my wife and I started to buy anywhere from 1/4-1/2 a cow (going in with others to make the “whole” cow) and it’s been outstanding. My hamburger is a little more expensive, but I pay the same for a roast, a T-bone, or a porterhouse that I do for hamburger (about $2.88/lb). It’s been the best meat I’ve gotten across the board and based on feedback and requests, the seller tailors the cuts produced at a general level (more steaks/less roast/etc).

    Might be worth looking into.

  2. interesting experiment – kudos to you for seeing it through – what a ton of work!

    Oh, and I want to switch grocery bills with you. What you spend in a month, I spend in a WEEK!

  3. Derek – I was just reading about this! To start off, this month we’re trying out a CSA trial subscription for 4 boxes of produce and eggs over two months. I don’t know yet of local sources for meat shares but may investigate it more after seeing how the produce subscription goes. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    Lisa – Perhaps you have more people in your family than we do…? 🙂

  4. Congrats on tracking the whole month! It’s amazing when it’s very detailed and broken down. I must admit I think I lasted that much detail for a week… and I’m happy to hear it was overall successful and you see positive change (and not a huge increase in expense/time/etc). 🙂 hatzlochah! (success/strength!)

  5. Corrie this was an amazing undertaking – I work in nutrition and it is difficult enough to get people to write down what they eat for three days, never mind a month and with costs!

    We have shopped more seasonally over the last year and it has definitely expanded my cooking repertoire and like you we have become more adept at using bits and pieces up in stir fries and soups etc

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