the process

Justifying Our Biggest Splurge // Why We Spend So Much on Groceries

we frequently read blog posts outlining people’s grocery spending and practically have to pick our jaws up off the floor afterward.

you’re spending only $30 a week for groceries?!?!

you’re feeding a family of four for $70 a week?!?!

we even read one post talking about how the snap (food stamps) challenge of $28 per person per week was no big deal. we beg to differ!

we’ve always known that our grocery spending is higher than most other pf bloggers, but don’t track it to the penny, because of our anti-budget, pay-ourselves-first philosophy. but, inspired by the snap challenge, we decided to start paying closer attention. we tracked every penny we spent on groceries in june, and it was a bone rattling $…

wait. before we share the number, take a deep breath. this is a big confession.

and maybe a few caveats first. we had a family vacation included in this number, so some of it reflects that we had to buy some food at gas stations while on the road trip portion, and some of the money was spent on communal food.

maybe take another deep breath.

and it’s worth remembering that spending should align to values, meaning that it’s fine to spend more on the things that are important to you. clearly, food is important to us.

third deep breath? okay, here goes…

in june, we spent $716.43 on groceries. for two people.

it’s scandalous, we know. we don’t blame you if you judge us for that. we would never argue for others to spend as much as we do. but here’s the thing: despite all the caveats and hesitation to share what is an obviously high number, we’re mostly okay with this. mostly. we’d love for it to be closer to $500 or even $600, but to us, food is the last place we should scrimp, and so it’s our biggest consistent splurge.

back during our couponing days, we spent as little as $300 a month on groceries, but then we mostly ate processed crap and felt horrible, not to mention that couponing took huge amounts of time to do well. now we spend more money on groceries and less time looking for deals, and the result is we feel better physically, and we have peace of mind from knowing that we’re supporting food producers who are doing better by the planet and their customers.

but why are our groceries so expensive? it basically boils down to: we care a lot about our health, the planet and the treatment of workers, and we live in an expensive place. here are the details:

related post: frugal = environmental = healthy

we live in a high cost of living area. even though there’s a ton of amazing quality local food, we pay a premium for it. supply and demand says we will just never see the prices at the grocery store or farmers market that people in lower cost of living areas will see. this is a fact we’ve come to accept, though begrudgingly, because we love where we live, and have no desire to move to a low cost of living place. but it means that our food easily costs 20-30 percent more than the same food would elsewhere.

we buy mostly organic. we plan to live long, healthy lives in retirement, and place a premium on our health. we also care deeply about the planet, and don’t want to contribute to poisoning the soil or our water. for us, this means not buying foods laden with pesticides or preservatives, and that raises our costs by another 25 percent or so.

related post: the value of health

we support local growers. we buy as much as possible at the local farmers markets, in part to get the best quality, and in part to support local growers. we don’t like the idea of buying an avocado that’s more well-traveled than we are, or an orange from across the country. at the farmers market, we can buy food with a smaller carbon footprint, that’s maximally delicious because it’s in-season and was picked at its peak, and that was raised without soil-depleting practices. but again, this means paying a premium.

we have a major dietary restriction. on this one, we’re just pretty much having to buy through extortion, and we definitely resent it. the products that meet our requirements have their prices jacked up by as much as 100 percent because producers know they have us over a barrel.

we shop with zero-waste practices as much as possible. this one may earn us some funny looks, and it’s not for everyone. we hate how much garbage is generated by “normal” food shopping, and we make it our job to minimize the packaging we purchase. this means we mostly shop loose produce with our mesh produce bags, the bulk bins with our cloth bags and jars, and get milk in returnable glass and eggs in our reusable egg holder. we also pay a premium to do this, not because the prices are especially high, but because these items rarely go on sale the way packaged foods do, and there’s not a lot of choice. if we need olive oil, the co-op has one olive oil in the bulk section, and we are limited to that option. if we need eggs, there’s only one option that’s sold without a carton. the zero waste approach also means avoiding stores where we could save money, like trader joe’s or costco, because their food is packaged to the high heavens. (here’s a great primer on zero waste shopping from treehugger, if you’re curious.)

there’s our justification for that huge number. but the truth is, we’d like to get the number down by at least $100 a month, since our retirement budget allows for “only” $600 per month on groceries.

here are some things we could do better:

  • eliminate food waste: work travel is often our excuse, but we do let things go bad. this has to stop. it’s bad for the planet and our finances, though good for our compost. ;-)
  • avoid impulse buys: we’re mostly good about shopping from a list, but sometimes a juice or gatorade or prepared food snack will happen, especially when we’re far from home. we can avoid this by planning better, and bringing more beverages and snacks with us.
  • eat less: while not pc to say, we think it’s the truth. we’re not overweight, and we’re plenty active, but we could still stand to eat less, which would save money and probably be better for us in the long run.
  • make everything ourselves: because we avoid processed foods, we make plenty of things from scratch. but not everything. some of this will have to wait until we retire and have more time, but there’s no reason why we can’t make all of our baked goods, sauces and condiments ourselves. (except maybe ketchup — thanks, kate.)
  • change our meal-planning approach: we aren’t religious meal-planners, but definitely try to keep meals in mind when we shop, so that we don’t end up with food waste. but we could switch to think about what the cheapest meals would be to make, and shop around those, rather than shopping purely around what produce is the best quality at the moment.

so, big exhale. it feels good to get that off our chests! now tell us what you think…

shocked by what we’ve just divulged? what’s your biggest splurge? any other big grocery spenders out there? anything you splurge on that is verboten in the pf blogosphere? we’ll help you get it off your chest… :-)

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56 replies »

  1. I’m think we all need our splurge category. And you have to let your beliefs guide you, so I think it’s great you have reached your happy medium! We are more middle of the road on groceries…. Neither of us has any desire to live off of rice, beans, and oats. My husband loves meat, my kids and I love fruit. And we do spend more for better quality…I think of it as investing in our health!

    • Couldn’t agree more with thinking about it as investing in your health! (And taste buds!) ;-) Your approach sounds great of your family.

  2. That’s a big grocery budget, but you have a lot of legit reasons why you got there. I’m intrigued by your zero waste shopping. Must read more.

    Hubs and I are on the complete different side of the spectrum from you two. We were both high on convenience food when we met and its been a slow process to get away from that. We were used to food lasting forever… which is totally disgusting to me now… so going fresher has lead to a lot of food waste. I’ve been trying to buy just what we think we need from the grocery store and eat through the forever food in the cupboard. We’ve made big progress in the last 6 months.

    There are so many things to optimize in the grocery budget, it will be interesting to see where we land. Where you shop, what you buy, how you buy, what is the packaging (recyclable? Lunchables? Seriously. Hubs used to buy these all the time, even while we were together. I was raised being told they are the devil. … because they are the devil.) how you take it home, how much you spend, how long that food lasts, who was harmed when making your food. It’s all so much! We’re getting better.

    • Do check out zero waste, and try to read past the self-righteous tone in many of the resources about it. ;-)

      Lunchables — LOL. Pretty much the poster child for the exact opposite of how we eat now. ;-) But we’ve been there, especially when we let coupons dictate what we bought. Don’t beat yourself up about eating indestructible food. The progress is what’s important, and it sounds like you’re making that.

  3. Love this post! We are the same way and I was planning to post about it soon. We have a family of 5 and the kids are still young so they don’t eat a ton yet, but we spend probably closer to $850- $1,000 a month on groceries. I refuse to budge on it, I can’t cheap out on food… I see it as an investment in our health and starting my childrens’ lives off in the best health possible. I find the absolute best deals I can, make almost everything from scratch, and try to stock up on the good stuff when it’s on sale, but it still adds up. More to come in a future post. Thanks for sharing!! I’m glad we’re not the only ones!

    • It’s refreshing to see numbers bigger than ours. :-) Love that you guys are so focused on healthy, quality food — especially for your kids! Look forward to reading your post on it!

  4. No judgment here! I spend a lot on food as well, mainly for two reasons. 1) I love food, especially dairy and meats, and 2) I work out 4x a week and to be able to maintain what I consider decent body weight and keep me energized, I need to eat quite a bit. I’ve mostly moved away from processed foods (except cereal… cereal is too tasty and easy to have for breakfast in the morning) but haven’t jumped on the organic bandwagon yet. For my other meals I eat a lot of rice, vegetables, and meat. If you love it and it brings you happiness, it’s not overspending :)

    • Plus you’re in a high cost of living area, too! That for sure adds to your food costs. Thanks for letting us know it’s not just us. :-)

  5. The cost of medical care is outrageous! Eating nutritious, healthy foods to stay healthy is the best way to save money. Plus you enjoy life more when you feel better. You can’t put a price tag on that! Great post! :)

      • I would like to point out that you should be careful when buying organic products because the very definition of “organic” has been distorted. After spending over 8 years working in the produce industry, I can tell you some scary stories about products that claimed to be “organic”. As a result, we no longer focus on buying organic products, but we do look for products with whole ingredients.

      • You’re so right about this, which we’ve for sure learned over the years. That’s a big part of why we try hard to buy local, because then we actually know the producers and can make sure we trust that what they’re claiming is true!

  6. Thank you for this post. My husband and I have an $800 per month grocery budget (just food, no household goods) and I find it quite discouraging to hear all the OMG THATS WAY TO MUCH arguments. We buy almost completely organic; mostly vegetables, fruits and bulk bin but there are meats purchased to. We buy local as much as we can and as you say, that can be expensive. We are very active, watch our intake quite carefully and choose to eat nourishing whole foods as an investment in ourselves. I would love to reduce this figure to ~$600 but I don’t care that much. It’s refreshing to hear of your similar situation. Thank you.

    • Thank you for chiming in! Glad it’s not just us. :-) Thinking of it as an investment in yourselves and your health is absolutely the right way to look at it!

  7. I’m with you. This is my splurge too. I agree that the health aspects of eating mostly whole, fresh, organic foods far outweighs the costs. We also buy local whenever possible. I have no clue what our actual spending dollars are, so I started keep track of my receipts this past week to see how much I am spending. My husband and I eat very differently, so I’m going to try to track just my food costs as his are probably much higher. We both eat meat (humanely raised and local), but I eat it in much smaller portions. I like beans, but can’t seem to get him to want to eat them. Beans are a great healthy cheap filler food to cut down on the meat. He likes his sweets, but I’ve been fortunate to not have too much of a sweet tooth. I eat A LOT of veggies. Way more than he does. After reading “Eat to Live” I try to strive for 2 lbs a day. Since I love veggies anyway, it is not hard for me. He likes packaged and frozen foods like pizzas more than I do. We both eat a lot of fruit, but for me, it is mostly a summer craving.

    Like you mentioned, we both could stand to eat less.

    I also try to minimize food packaging waste where possible, but sometimes I just want what I want. I haven’t seen blueberries at the farmers markets in years, so I buy them in the little plastic containers. It drives me nuts though. I also bring back the plastic produce bags and reuse them over and over. When I do buy things in containers, like yogurt, I keep the container for food storage. It also works great to take these containers with you when you eat out and bring home leftovers in them without getting a takeout container. At the farmers markets, we have been able to give egg containers and jars back to the vendors for reuse.

    • Tracking your costs will be informative, for sure! We’re going to keep doing it, and see if we can come down a little for July and August. Love your idea of bringing your own takeout containers — we’ve done that a few times, and have gotten funny looks, but we do it anyway. :-) And we always bring the berry baskets back to the farmers market, and they’re happy to have them back — great you guys do that!

  8. Thank you for this post… We spend a LOT on groceries too. But we also spend a lot on eating out, which we need to work on for sure… Our groceries spending for June was up almost near $800. I love that you put so much importance on organic and zero waste, that is great. I am not there yet, but I’m trying… I’m an definitely a work in progress on all fronts.

    • Work in progress is a great place to be — it means you’re still open to learning and changing and growing. We hope to be works in progress for our whole lives. :-)

  9. Since we rarely go out to eat these days focusing on eating fresh, unprocessed foods, our food budget is just slightly less than yours. We went Paleo (well, kind of) last year and that changed things up a lot. We feel so much better now and even lost some weight. Thus, we don’t give the food budget a second thought. Great post :-)

    • That’s great to hear, since you all are farther ahead than us on! Glad to know that you’ve found a way to make high grocery spending sustainable. We totally agree that it’s worth it!

  10. I’m with you on the idea of eating less. We as Americans are conditioned to obscene portion sizes and many of us eat to that “full” feeling. I know that due to the amount of labor I do daily + my resting metabolic rate that I need to eat close to 3000 kcals a day. The composition of those calories is what matters. If I eat mostly produce + protein, I rarely feel “full” afterwards. So I binge on carbs and thus eat too much. Bad habit! I think though if you can really stick with smaller portions and let your body become accustomed, you can eat less, feel full, and save $$. Great point to bring up !

    • So true! Not to demonize carbs, but grains offer much less nutrition than other foods. Of course, cutting back on grains doesn’t save much money, since they’re cheap, but it’s probably still healthier to do so!

  11. There are well thought principles on your splurging on food: it is aligned with your values. Is it splurging then? You are standing firm behind the reasons on why you pay a premium price. Don’t feel bad about it!
    We started to make our own bread this year. It is more fun, we have it each morning fresh. It is not necessarily cheaper than buying in a bakery.

  12. My partner and I have agreed that food is the one area that we have to really spend in. We aren’t willing to sacrifice quality for the sake of saving a few dollars. As you said, some of our most memorable moments together have been built in the kitchen.

  13. We are definitely more on the splurge side when it comes to our grocery budget, but we value paying up front now rather than experiencing high health costs in the future by not taking care of our bodies! We also prepare all 3 meals at home, where nourishing & healthy foods allow for a wonderful home-cooking experience together. My fiancé always laughs at our store visits because I tend to scrutinize labels if we buy any packaged food items. I love the farmers market, and I’ve been meaning to check out our local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes. Purchasing supports local farms, and you are provided with a box at pick up locations with all in-season produce. I definitely dig your zero waste philosophy, and want to get better at that as well!

    • If you don’t travel a lot, a CSA box is awesome! We loved those boxes, but currently travel too much for work, which makes it tough. They’re also great for zero waste, since you return the box and get most produce loose in the box. Worth it!

  14. Yes! I couldn’t agree with you more. Nothing but support for eating health conscious foods that promote happy bodies and and sharp minds. Pat yourselves in the back for your food choices and responsible spending. 💕

  15. We all have our splurges. It sounds like you guys enjoy the food you eat and most importantly are health and environmentally conscious. I found lists and freezer meals (which I don’t do as much as I should) have helped reduce our grocery spending and also food waste (this was the key driver for me over reducing spending). Our biggest splurge currently is travel and I don’t see this going away anytime soon!

  16. This is a very motivational post for me. My husband and I spend more than DOUBLE what you guys do each month if you can believe it. My grocery bill is about what yours is – $600 – and we eat most meals at home besides his work lunches and a couple of dinners out a month. But I don’t make much from scratch, we are members at two wine clubs, we like to entertain, and I drink a lot of wine…plus we eat pretty much whatever we feel like even if it’s fresh wild salmon or other very pricey items.

    I know we could cut here – and really need to cut here – but food/dining is our entertainment budget as well. We don’t do a lot of concerts or sporting events or anything, but we love meeting friends at a new restaurant a couple of times a month to the tune of $100+ including drinks.

    Hope this confession makes you feel better!!

    • I don’t think there’s anything *wrong* with spending this kind of money on food, if that’s what you really care about. (Lord knows cheap food is a big problem too from a health perspective!) If that’s your entertainment and you get a lot of enjoyment from it (and if you don’t mind working for a while longer), then there’s no need to cut just to match what more frugal people are spending. That said, we’ve cut back a good amount since this post, so if that’s something you want to do, it’s very doable. We have stopped buying certain products unless they’re on sale, try to shop less often to make ourselves clear out more of what’s in the back of the pantry, and buy much less of the expensive products like cheese and meat (only Mr ONL eats those, and he sure wishes he could eat them every day!). Good luck!

  17. I was just scanning through some of your older posts and read this and I have to say, you made me feel so much better! I am so glad that we are not the only ones who put a priority on good, healthy and locally sourced food. Afterall, we need to be healthy in order to enjoy our retirement when we get there.
    We spent the last month tallying all of our food purchases as this is also a huge budget line item for us and we spent a whopping $774 on food. Yup, even bigger than your month. I want to decrease this amount but think it is going to be hard without completely changing the way we eat. It’s all about priorities and finding the right balance, which I am still working on.

    • Yeah, you’re definitely not alone! We have trimmed our food spending a bit since posting this, but we are never going to get to $100 a week or less… just not gonna happen! We care way too much about eating healthily, and having as much of our food be organic, unprocessed and local as possible!

  18. Thank you so much for sharing this! My husband and I realized we spent $600 on groceries last month and wondered if FI could ever be in our future! However, we rarely eat out, and he has a physically demanding job where he needs LOTS of calories to keep going. We also shop zero waste and organic, and are with you on believing that the benefits definitely outweigh the costs :)

    • You’re welcome! I’m glad this made you feel better. :-) It’s just about priorities — if you can find other places in your spending to minimize, there’s no reason you can’t account for the higher cost of the foods you value!

  19. Thank you for sharing your thoughts above grocery spending and why sometimes higher prices are justified. The way I think of it sometimes is: am I willing to spend on food or on medicines/medical fees? I choose to invest in healthy quality foods over on pills! May I know if your ‘groceries’cost mentioned here include everything you eat (including meals outside) or only for foods combined at home?

    • That’s a great way to look at it, and to weigh the true costs! The costs in this post were groceries only, not meals out, though I need to do an update because we’re now spending a bit less. ;-)

  20. I know I’m several years late on this, but I’m working my way through from the beginning and I really loved this post!
    Groceries are the hardest one for me because my values of saving can’t beat out my values of taking care of my health. (If I have lots of cash but get sick or can’t do what I love to do, what’s the point?)
    I’ve cut back lots by preparing most of my own food and bringing lunches, but trying to eat organic and good quality proteins and produce is hard to do without spending a decent amount.
    Frugality blogs that suggest a “ramen” meal plan to save just make me wonder how those people must feel so awful all the time :(

    Thanks for offering a fresh perspective!

    • I’m just stoked you’re reading the old posts! ;-) And I agree — I was a bit of an extreme couponer for a while, and though it saved us a bundle on groceries, we ate crap and accordingly felt like crap! That was the wake-up call that I needed that it was worth it to spend money on food that would keep us healthy and make us feel good. So I’ve got your back on this. :-)