As previously discussed, we're tracking our grocery spending this month to see how hard it is for us to stay within the limits of USDA's Thrifty Food Plan, which allows up to $434.40 per month for a family of our size.
For the record, I don't think this gives us a real feel for what it's like to be poor, any more than making teenagers carry around an egg or a sack of flour for a month gives them real insight into what it's like to be a parent. I know that it makes a huge difference not to really have to worry that my kids are going to go hungry if I don't leave enough money for the last week. But it's a useful consciousness raising exercise.
When I last updated, we had spent $112.38 on food. This week we've mostly been doing quick grocery runs when we're running out of food, and haven't really done meal planning. Friday I spent $8.90 on milk, bread, eggs and tea at Trader Joe's. Monday, I went to Giant, and spent $23.90 on rolls, bread, cheese, milk, eggs, butter, spinach, graham crackers, grape juice, and ice cream. Today, we spent $22.95 on milk, chicken and veggies for stir fry, flour, cake mix (D's birthday is next week and the party is Sunday), and chocolate and marshmallows (D talked us into making s'mores). So, our current total is $163.24, or $182.62 if we include the cat food and laundry detergent (which are pretty much necessities, but are not legitimate uses of food stamps). Not too bad for halfway. Except that I also went out to dinner with friends on Sunday, and then we bought part of our lunch on Monday, and I bought lunch at work on Tuesday. So add another $28.25 to the total, for $210.87, just barely under half the budget.
A few comments about some of the choices that we've made this week.
- Mostly, we're eating the way we normally do, although with slightly less prepared foods. I've made muffins and coffee cake from scratch, but that's something I do semi-regularly in any case.
- We're eating more eggs than usual, but some of that is because we've just discovered that the 15 month old adores them, and once we're scrambling them for him, it's easy to make them for us too.
- I've been stunned at how much variation there is in the price of milk across stores. The least we've paid for a gallon of milk is $2.35 at Shoppers Food Warehouse (cheaper than Costco); the most we've paid is $3.99 (at Giant). I also don't understand why 2% milk is so much cheaper than whole milk. This is likely to affect our shopping patterns even after the month is over.
- Monday, I was shopping with D and I let him convince me to buy ice cream, since Breyer's was on sale for $2.50 for a half gallon. But when we got through the checkout lane, I saw that I had been charged the full price for it. I went to the manager, who told me that only some flavors were on sale. I returned the half gallon I had been charged $5.29 for, and would have left the store, but D was saying "you said we could get ice cream" and was about to burst into tears. So we got a package of the other flavor, got back on line, and got it. I probably wouldn't have bothered if I weren't watching the budget -- at least not with D in tow.
The most basic insight I've had is about how much of a privilege it is to be able to shop and not pay attention to the total cost of what's in your cart. I've never been one to shop for anything without paying attention to the price -- I scrutinize unit price labels with the best of them -- but if I'm confident that each individual item is a reasonable buy, I generally don't worry about what the total is going to be. That's had to change this month.
Unfortunately, it's no longer available for free on the New York Times website, but last summer, Adrian Nichole LeBlanc, author of Random Family (reviewed here), had a fascinating article in the magazine section about grocery shopping and attitudes towards money. She wrote:
"That afternoon, I was trailing my book's main subject, Lolli, as she bought the month's groceries. She was a teenager, pregnant, homeless and already the mother of two children. Her young family subsisted on food stamps and vouchers from the federal subsidy program, WIC. The shield of my judgment rose when she passed right by the C-Town weekly discount flier and made her way down the dirty aisles with her shopping cart. She just grabbed things -- packs of chicken legs and pork chops, bags of sugar and rice, bottles of vegetable oil; in went cans of beans and tins of Spam. I stood, stunned, as she reached for the individual-portion cartons of juice -- with their brightly colored miniature straws -- ignoring the larger, economy-size bottles. No calculation of unit price, no can'ts or shoulds or ought-not-to's, no keen eye to the comparative ounce. By the time her stuffed cart reached the checkout line, my unease was turning into anger. Didn't she know she was poor?"
LeBlanc notes that one of the emotions fueling her anger was envy -- neither she nor her parents had ever shopped that way, as they had scrimped and squeezed the grocery budget in order to save for college. But she also acknowledges that it's hard to imagine that any amount of scrimping was going to bring Lolli and her family a noticably better future.
Next update here.