Thursday, January 22, 2009

Details on the Food Budget

As other readers have, SingleMa expressed some shock as to how a single woman could manage to spend over $8,000 a year on food, quite consistently. So I dumped some Quicken data into a spreadsheet so I could look at it differently:

For coffee/bagels/yogurt etc. bought at delis, I had 176 transactions totaling $640, an average of $3.64 per breakfast.

For soup/salads/sandwiches/sushi etc. bought at delis, I had 178 transactions totaling $1,241, an average of $6.97. (I pretty much never eat a sit-down restaurant lunch unless I'm expensing it for work.)

For Indian/Chinese/Mexican/Thai/Pizza takeout dinners, I had 26 transactions totaling $622, an average of $23.91.*

For sit-down restaurant dinners, which always include a couple of alcoholic drinks, I had 58 transactions totaling $2,976, an average of $51.30.*

As noted above, drinks with meals at restaurants are counted under "dinner," not "liquor."
For purchases of wine at liquor stores, I had 16 transactions totaling $1,078, an average of $67.39. I stock up by the case at cheap liquor stores outside the city whenever possible, but sometimes buy just one or two bottles at a time.*

For drinks at bars, I had 5 transactions totaling $63, an average of $12.60. I rarely go out to just drink without a meal.

I'm dividing this one into two categories, "supermarket," and "upscale supermarket." The Supermarket category can include cleaning supplies, but otherwise is pretty basic groceries. The Upscale category is for places like WholeFoods and Garden of Eden, a gourmet chain in NYC. I'm usually just buying basic items like meat, fish, fruit and vegetables at these places, but they tend to be more expensive, and every once in a while I will also get a prepared food item, so I think it's worth separating this out as luxury grocery shopping. Either way, I tend to buy groceries a couple times a week or more-- I don't stock up for very long periods of time as it always seems to lead to more waste than it's worth. Lately I've also been trying to find some healthy frozen meals for nights when I get home from work late-- Trader Joe's has some inexpensive options, but you have to be careful on the fat content.

For supermarkets, I had 96 transactions totaling $1,158, an average of $12.06.*

For upscale supermarkets, I had 15 transactions totaling $204, an average of $13.59.*

There wasn't much other-- just $2.19 for 2 instances of buying candy bars, and $35 for lunch at some wine bar that seems to be an error, probably belonging under business expenses.

*For all the dinner, grocery and liquor items, it should be kept in mind that about 3 or 4 nights a week, I'm with the sweetie and we're either splitting or alternating picking up the check, so sometimes the per-transaction amount may seem high. We eat out sometimes, but also tend to stay in and cook at least 2 nights a week, so grocery bills are also somewhat shared.

So what does this all show? Obviously it's those restaurant dinners that are a killer. I don't go to extremely high-priced restaurants, but these days, anything that is a cut above take-out runs you between $15-20 for most entrees, and the markup on alcohol is deadly, about 4X what it costs to buy a bottle at a wine shop. But dinners out are also a fun, social way to enjoy food and try things I could never make myself-- there's more to it than just getting my daily required intake of nutrients. And when you average everything out, I am only getting take-out and restaurant dinners less than 2 nights a week. I could also save a lot of money by bringing my lunch to work more often, but there is definitely a convenience factor involved in buying it at a deli. I buy breakfast and lunch on about 75% of my work days, so I could definitely do better there. Part of my strategy is to try to cook more dinners that I can eat as leftovers for lunch the next day.

All in all, though I do have a somewhat luxurious level of dining expenditure, my food budget is probably lower than many New Yorkers', as a percentage of my overall income, at least. So many people here just don't cook at all, even if they're on tight budgets. But it's no excuse to just say "oh, it's the New York lifestyle." Yes, we live in tiny apartments where it's hard to have dinner parties, and yes, we're surrounded by a wealth of restaurants offering some of the best food in the world. But most of us still have perfectly usable kitchens and plenty of sources for cheap yet interesting groceries, including lots of ethnic ingredients that are hard to find elsewhere. I like to allow myself to spend a little extra money on food that is enjoyable, relatively healthy, and part of a fun experience with friends. But I'm conscious of this spending and strive to lower it, rather than just taking it for granted.


Anonymous said...

If you divide $8000 a year by 12, it isn't *that* much per month. You include your eating out as food too, which of course drives up the total cost.

I spend $400/mn on groceries alone *if I am careful*; this does not include house,pet or personal supplies. Eating out is my greatest entertainment expense and kept separate. So...if I am being "good" I am spending at least $500/mn on average. This is with cutting back - it used to be more.

I'm shocked really when I hear a single people should get by on $150-$200/mn for food. Seriously...what do they eat?

Madame X - can you give examples of what the common price is for your common grocery items please? I think that is important in a discussion. (I live in a DC suburb so that has got to be a factor; same when I lived in SF 15 years ago - a name brand box of cereal at Safeway could be almost $6).

Anonymous said...

From the looks of your budget (very high on food, very low on entertainment), your idea of the entertainment is dining out. I'm the same way and keep this in mind when looking at my budget. THough the food budget looks very high by itself, the "food + entertainment" budget looks about right.

Mike said...

@first comment:
It would be interesting to compare the total price of a set basket of grocery items across the nation. I've seen very rough "cost of living" metrics that compare the COL in various cities in the US, but they don't break it down into components like housing, food, etc.

But for anecdotal evidence that groceries in NYC cost much more than other parts of the country, I'll offer you this data point:

8th continent soy milk (64oz)
Cost in suburbia PA supermarket (friends that used to live in NYC moved there so I check out the grocery store there when I visit):
NYC freshdirect (grocery delivery service with minimal overhead):
$3.79 (+27% vs PA)
NYC Gristede's supermarket down the street:
$4.39 (+47% vs PA, +16% vs freshdirect)

Similar results with other food items. I envy those living outside NYC who have bigger grocery stores with 2-4x the product selection at cheaper prices...

Unknown said...

I look at your budget and I have mixed reviews. The monthly average seems high to me since I live in a much less expensive city. I currently live in VA but grew up and frequently visit Queens, NY. That budget would buy you alot here but there is a distinctive cost difference between the locations.

I love to eat out myself but have to tightly manage it. This budget would be a point of concern for me if it were coupled with a high clothing budget or other entertainment budget. But since this seems to be your "thing" I don't see anything wrong.

Shawnna said...

I live in Boston. Including groceries, alcohol, dining out and going out, you're lucky if I spend $250 a month and I eat very well thankyouverymuch. How do I do it?
1. I cook as much as possible. That means making my own lunches.
2. I buy coupons from and use them on food that's already on sale.
3. I only dine out and go out a few times a month.

And here I was thinking I spend too much money to feed myself. This story makes me feel a little better.

The Landlady said...

Wow. I am shocked that you are being criticized for your food budget when you clearly spend within your means. You are paying all of your bills, saving and investing and this is how you choose to spend your money. Is that really so bad? It seems that you order take out an average of once a week (assuming your SO pays the same number of times) and you go to a restaurant for dinner about twice a week on your own dime (same assumption). Maybe you eat out a few more times during the week on the company tab. In a city like New York, I don't find that surprising *at all*.

Car Free in Philly said...

Comparing stuff like this is tricky. NYC is more expensive than anywhere else I can possibly think of.

What I don't get is why other people feel the need to judge how you spend your money. My partner and I spend a lot less on food/alcohol, but I make less money than you do and we're still in debt. We also spend almost $200 per month on our pets, which most people would consider exorbitant. It's all relative.

Anonymous said...

Madame X,

I am a regular anonymous reader, like you I am in my 30s, live in Brooklyn, make 100K plus, eat out as a social activity and love food. However, I recently (since Sept.) started bringing lunch and breakfast. Amazing not only how much $ you save, but how much better quality food you can eat. And you are right, I do it by cooking big soups and salads on the weekend and then eating them for lunch and dinner during the week. For breakfast, I bring greek yogurt. Another way I save on food is trying to really avoid ever buying processed food. It is bad for the body and the budget! So I just buy meat, cheese, fruit and veggies. Even if it is usually high-end organic or expensive, it still saves $ versus buying chips or ice cream or pre-packaged food.

Anonymous said...

i enjoy my food. so i am willing to spend more on food and spend less on something else, for example clothes.

Rae said...

I'm a single, in my 20's and living in Manhattan. I don’t think $8,000 sounds like much compared to what many of what my friends spend. I can’t imagine what New Yorkers as a whole spend on eating out! I don't make a lot of money, but I've found ways to still eat well. It takes a bit of creative grocery shopping, but I don’t use coupons or run myself ragged. I cook most of my meals and pack most of my lunches. My work offers breads and bagels, they're not the best quality but it's a free breakfast.

My grocery budget is $175 month. I might order takeout or go out to eat about 2-3 times per month. I include this in my entertainment budget, so it’s not something I track separately. Under $100 a month is a decent estimate not including trips to the bar. It comes down that I’d rather spend money on clothes than at a restaurant. At the moment, I am not dating anyone that would be figured into this estimate and I don’t use men for the free meals either…there are some girls that do here…I think there’s even a club!

I love Trader Joe’s it’s the only supermarket with normal prices. It’s on my way home from work, and I go about once a month to stock up on meat, pasta sauces, etc. I know where to buy a dozen eggs for only $1.79, and which supermarkets within walking distance offers the best prices for cheese, produce, and breads. I know which street vendors have the best fruit and veggie prices. If I’m going to make a recipe, I browse online circulars to see which has the most items on sale and I’ll go to that store. One recipe usually provides me with 3-4 meals, so I aim to do this at least once a week. Most meals cost only $3 each. I rarely waste food or let food go bad.

TeacHer said...

Food is a tricky item in my budget, too. I count eating out as entertainment, but I spend about $200 per month just on groceries. I insist on eating high-quality food (translation: more expensive!), but I do always pack my breakfast and lunch. I would love to say that this is because I'm committed to frugality; it's really because I work in a school that serves absolute garbage. (If something happens and I can't bring lunch, I just don't eat - it's really that bad.) So I guess a big-time money-saver would be making more meals, but really, your overall expenditures are well within your means so if spending more on food than other may or you may really like is important to you, it doesn't seem like an issue.

Plus, it's great to take advantage of all of NYC's excellent restaurants. It would kind of suck to be in one of the best cities (for food, and otherwise) in the world and stay cooped up at home every night to save some money. Not worth it!

Anonymous said...

You shouldn't lose track of the forest for the trees. While worthwhile to save, life without a certain amount of "reasonable" enjoyment is just passing time.

I would say that your restaurant bill, which averages a little over one dinner per week, is anything but excessive.

Just to establish my bona fides on the saving front, I retired in my thirties (approximately 15 years ago). You have nothing to feel bad about in this category. Now if credit were funding your meals out that would be an entirely different matter.

Anonymous said...

Bronx Chica- ever since moving to NJ from NY, I've saved so much. The supermarkets double or triple coupons, value meals are cheaper,& tax is lower or none including at the malls.

Anonymous said...

When you see food expenses @ $8k, it's mind boggling that a single person can consume nearly $700/month on food alone. I don't care what anyone says or how healthy you're eating, THAT IS A LOT.

But you include numerous items most people don't consider when they see the word "food" (liquor, cleaning supplies) and I keep forgetting you're a NYer (frequent dining out, delis or takeout almost daily for B, L, and D), so $8k doesn't seem like much at all. As I always say, the devil's in the details.

And don't feel bad about eating out often. If that is your only vice, it IS a form of entertainment. So does that mean drinks are on you when I come back to NY? ;-)

To be honest, if I didn't have a child, I'd probably NEVER cook. LOL

Miss M said...

I'm sure there are many many people in this country with similar food costs Madame X, the difference is that you are aware of how much you spend and they are probably in denial! Since you save money in other places you can afford to splurge here, also most critics live in low COL areas and can't relate to how much more expensive the basics are. We rarely eat out because I can cook a fabulous meal for less than the cost of a tip.

Nabi said...

I loved this post and all the comments. I'm also a 30 something in NYC and I'm usually feeling guilty at all these other PF bloggers spending next to nothing on food. My food spending is close to yours though I don't track my eating out expenses closely as we have a 'no questions asked' his & her allowance.

Teezy said...

I was single in Seattle less than 5 years ago and I spent an average of $50-70 on food a month. I am an expert on how to make my dollar stretch to it's absolute limit. However, I don't ever want to live like that again.

It is interesting to me that a few posts back, a man received some disparaging comments about his DVD budget, but no one is making a peep over Madame X's alcohol expenditures! Entertainment is entertainment. At least with the DVDs, you can enjoy them over and over again!

moocifer said...

I happen to think it's totally cool to spend $8000 on food and drinks if you want to and have the cash and are clear that the money is worth it to you for whatever reason.

As to those who wonder how to live on $150 a month--well, I cook from scratch only and *use up* everything and use mostly the most cost effective version of everything. Instead of boneless chicken breasts or stuff like that, you buy a whole roasting chicken and cut it up (takes about 8 minutes), then use the carcass to make chicken stock in your pressure cooker. 2 of those per month is more than enough for me. Eggs are bought in the 18 pack (they don't go bad--at least not within 2 months)

Everything else I eat is beans, grains, and fruit--the cheaper varieties. Lunch break is soup from home, leftovers, or a couple pieces of fruit and a short walk outside.

Coffee is from home or made at work in the back room using microwaved water, a pyrex bowl, a strainer, and a coffee filter. Wine is from a box, beer is from a 6 pack.

But if I had $8000 free with nothing else I strongly wanted to use it on--I'd go out and eat and EASILY spend $8000 a year.

moocifer said...

@ "(I live in a DC suburb so that has got to be a factor; same when I lived in SF 15 years ago - a name brand box of cereal at Safeway could be almost $6).

That's exactly the kind of stuff you can't buy when you are spending less than, say, 150 or 125 per month on food.

Instead, it's oatmeal, or hot cereal made from bulk bought whole grains in the slowcooker, topped with chopped nuts, a little butter, and brown sugar (if you go for that kind of thing). The price per pound of that is usually well under a dollar (food under a dollar a pound is my general guideline for grocery items). Or, skip the "breakfast food" some of the time and have leftover soup for breakfast, along with a veggie and fruit shake.

Stuff like boxed cereal, or other heavily branded and marketed food products, as well as frequently buying cuts of meat that cost more than $2 a pound, will pop your monthly grocery bill up around $400 no problem. Which I don't think is a problem if that's what you want and what you like.

Anonymous said...

I'm shocked that you didn't spend MORE than $8,000 per year.

New York has some damn fine dining options. It would be a disservice to yourself NOT to try out all of that great food.

frugal zeitgeist said...

You pay your bills, don't take a cent from anyone, save a decent amount of money, and love food. What's to criticize?

moocifer said...

I was thinking about this post again after a recent update on Madame X's overall financial position (the "September Update" post) The marginal return on Madame X's changing her food habits and expenses from the ones she has to the ones I currently have is a gain in savings of about $5500 per year. Over 20 years, that amounts to $110,000 in today's dollars.

Unless she has a need or a perceived need for that $110,000 that is more important than having the luxury and convenience/experience of eating out for dinner a couple times a week and buying takeout for work lunches, then there is no reason for her or someone like her to change. And it seems that her current savings trajectory is fine from my point of view--she should have at the minimum about 1.2 million in today's dollars in 20 years given her current savings rate and no hiccups on the way and assuming no increase in income over that period-- so, again, unless she decides she needs that $110,000 in 20 years, there would be no reason to alter those habits.