Stretching the Food Dollar: A Different Path to Budgeting
The way we think about food as an individual, family and generation could help in realizing other ways to reduce your overall food budget.
A few days ago, I was looking at some data sets on the site known as “Data.gov.” This site (Link: https://www.data.gov) is the US Government’s open data warehouse. I won’t repeat the technical specs on this blog post, but you can read them for yourself at https://www.data.gov. Information from this suite is freely accessible to software developers and researchers. Also, each dataset might have a Creative Commons license, allowing you to integrate that data for your project free of charge or ownership. If you have questions about a Creative Commons license, please read my blog post on the subject here: http://nickstockton.blogspot.com/2018/01/creative-commons-intellectual-capital.html
The data that I was interested in was about food prices. Why? Let me explain. When you go through your statement every month for the bank, after a while, you notice a few trends. Maybe you see that you’re eating out a little bit too much. Perhaps you spend a lot on entertainment (like movies, RedBox, on-demand film) that you need to cut down on. Other trends that you might notice is the portion of your income that you spend on food. When you have a family, monitoring food prices is a big deal. You’re always trying substitutes which might not taste the same. Maybe you go to one of the “big box” retailers as they have better prices in some areas, but hit the sales of your local grocery store for other items. You clip coupons, monitor the newspaper sale ads, even hit the websites to better plan how to stretch that dollar farther every week. I started thinking, is this the best method to save money? Sure, the bulk items would cost me less for a week or two, and buy in bulk at a “big warehouse club.” But, was there a different way of researching food prices that I wasn’t doing to make my dollar stretch farther? For example: If I bought an apple at a Farmer’s Market, shouldn’t that cost less than buying an apple at a grocery store? Maybe. I thought that I needed to “think outside the box” for a better answer to the budgeting/shopping dilemma.
This has been a problem for every generation looking at the bottom line and wondering how to cut money from the budget. In the 30’s, they had the Great Depression. In the 70’s it was the oil embargo and unemployment. In the 80’s it was the Great Recession. In the 90’s it was the tech bubble bursting and then the stock market crash in the 2000’s. Then it hit me, with each successive generation, we changed our food habits to spend funds on what was available. Then it hit me. Maybe it was about HOW we spent food dollars as a generation compared to what we purchase? Between the baby boomers, Gen X’ers, and Millennials: the phases of our life dictate what types of foods we will purchase.
The United States Department of Agriculture — Economic Research Service (USDA-ERS) has an article in their monthly magazine called “Amber Waves”. In the article from 2014 called, “Millennials Devote Larger Shares of Their Grocery Spending to Prepared Foods, Pasta, and Sugar and Sweets Than Other Generations” state, “The study found that Millennials, on average, devote less of their food budgets to grocery store (food at home) purchases and make fewer trips to the grocery store than the other generations examined. Millennials are demanding healthier and fresher food — including fruits and vegetables — when making food-at-home purchases, and they place a higher preference on convenience than do other generations. The researchers assigned each household to one of four generational cohorts based on the age of the household head responsible for the grocery shopping:
- Traditionalists — born before 1946
- Baby Boomers — born between 1946 and 1964
- Gen X’ers — born between 1965 and 1980
- Millennials, age 18 or older in 2014 — born between 1981 and 1996
Millennials made up roughly 20 percent of the households included in the ERS analysis. Millennials and Gen X’ers were found to spend the least money per person per month on food at home at all income deciles. As income rises, there is a small positive effect on per capita food-at-home expenditure for most income deciles. While each preceding, older generation spends more on food at home than the younger generation after it, there is a larger gap between the spending of Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers. Per capita, food-at-home spending by Traditionalist and Baby Boomer households is similar in size to each other and higher than spending by Gen X and Millennial households. For example, of households earning between $14,000 and $20,000 per household member annually, Millennials spent just under $80 per month per person on food at home and Gen X’ers spent $85, whereas Baby Boomers in that income decile spent $135 and Traditionalists spent $154.
Traditionalists, who have the highest per person spending on food at home, frequent grocery stores the most often. Also, traditionalists are of retirement age and may have the leisure time to grocery shop more often. Having a higher income seems to reduce the frequency of grocery store trips as well. Millennial households in the top income decile went to the grocery store, on average, 4.5 times per month versus the 5.6 monthly trips made by Millennials in the lowest income decile.
Millennial shoppers generally purchase a larger share of prepared foods, pasta, and sugar and candies than the other generations. On average, Millennials devoted 13.6 percent of their at-home food expenditures to these three categories, compared with 12.4 percent by Gen X’ers, 11.5 percent by Baby Boomers, and 11.2 percent by Traditionalists. Millennial households also devote the smallest share of their at-home food expenditures to grains, poultry, and red meat. Prepared foods, sugar and candies, and pasta all require minimal preparation for consumption, while grains and meats require cooking.
Examining at-home expenditure shares by income, some noticeable patterns appear. As income rises, expenditure shares for vegetables, fruits, red meats, and sugar and candies for all four generational groups increase, while shares for poultry decrease as incomes rise. Poorer Millennials assign lower shares of at-home food spending to vegetables than poorer Traditionalists and Baby Boomers, but they increasingly apportion more of their food budgets to vegetables as income rises, surpassing Traditionalists when per capita household income reaches about $30,000. Specifically, the wealthiest Millennial households (per capita income greater than $100,000) dedicated 8.1 percent of their food budgets to vegetables, compared to around 6 percent for the other generation groups in the same income decile. The share of at-home expenditures for fruit was similar for Millennials and Traditionalists — just over 6 percent — with fruit’s share of expenditures also rising with income.
Millennial households devote more of their at-home food spending to prepared foods, such as frozen entrees and instant breakfasts than the other three generational groups. In addition, the slight negative relationship between income and prepared food purchases for the three oldest generations was absent for Millennials. Millennials’ preference for convenient, prepared foods could be due to a variety of reasons. Perhaps, some Millennials may lack cooking skills or interest in cooking. Or, maybe some Millennials prefer to spend their non-work time on activities other than cooking and cleaning up afterward. In fact, Millennials spend significantly less time on food preparation, presentation, and clean-up. An ERS analysis of 2014 time use data revealed that, on average, this generation spent 88 minutes doing food preparation, presentation, and clean-up — 55 minutes less than Gen X’ers who spent the most time at 143 minutes.
The differences in food-at-home spending between the generations suggest that the younger generations have a stronger preference for eating out at restaurants, fast food places, and other away-from-home venues. Data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, support this finding: survey respondents under the age of 25 allocate the highest proportion of their food budgets (6 percent) to eating out versus the 4.8 percent by respondents between the ages of 55 and 64 years old.
Perhaps reflecting a preference for eating out by Millennials, the number of times a month a household frequents a grocery store follows the same generational pattern as for monthly food-at-home expenditures. Frequency generally decreases with each successive generation, with Millennials patronizing grocery stores the least. Higher Millennial households spend less on groceries, so their patronizing grocery stores less frequently makes sense. Traditionalists, who have the highest per person spending on food at home, many grocery stores the most often. Also, traditionalists are of retirement age and may have the leisure time to grocery shop more often.” (Link: https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2017/december/millennials-devote-larger-shares-of-their-grocery-spending-to-prepared-foods-pasta-and-sugar-and-sweets-than-other-generations/)
When you look at the trends (bolded above), you can see a few trends developing with the weekly food budget. For example, your food budget might not wholly say how much your family eats because eating out could be part of the “entertainment” budget. If you purchase more of your food “pre-processed” or even “heat and serve,” that’ts a convenience that costs additional dollars than doing some planning and prep for dinners at the beginning of the week, freeze them, then pull them out when they are ready to be consumed. Also, one of the trends is the act of cooking itself is becoming a lost art form. Millennials don’t want to cook and tend to get prepared foods (which are pricey but save time). Traditionalists, on the other hand, know how to cook, but don’t need to make large meals. If there was a way of letting Traditionalists use their skills in making great home-made meals and sell them directly to Millennials (who prize well done and homemade food), then both groups would benefit.
When you are rolling through your monthly bank statement and see how much you spend on food, think about some of the points illustrated in this blog post. The way we think about food as an individual, family, and generation could help in realizing other ways to reduce your overall food budget. Think about it. Millennials like fresh food, but buy expensive prepared foods because of the lack of cooking skills. Thank you for reading this blog!