A common scenario: A mom (working full-time) maps out menus and puts in an order online for her family’s weekly grocery needs, without any thoughts about prices. No time to stroll down the aisles and worry about the cost of potatoes! And if the busy mother is running late, she stops by the nearest takeout counter and picks up a prepared supper. Not that she isn’t careful with money. She doesn’t buy designer clothing or spend money on unnecessary things. But the price difference between chicken and salmon or the couple of extra dollars for takeout? No big deal. Sounds familiar? Very likely. But is this the correct way to go about it?
Does food pricing matter for today’s busy family?
It All Adds Up
What’s likely to be your ticket to Gan Eden? A heroic effort to help someone stranded on the highway, or being consistently kind to your spouse in mundane everyday interactions? Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt”l explained that due to sheer numbers, the simple but ongoing mitzvos in everyday life are the primary drivers of our long-term zechusim. Similarly, although each grocery purchase is small, their consistency means that, in total, they equal a considerable portion of frum-family expenditures. Therefore, the difference between serving chicken and salmon isn’t just a few dollars, but thousands—even tens of thousands—every single year! Discount airline tickets, however, can’t help the budget significantly because most people don’t fly very often. It may be boring, but food finance matters.
The Food Finance Formula
Consider that a person eats roughly 1,000 meals per year, and the difference between a “basic” meal, a “regular” meal, and an “upgraded” meal is a few dollars. By multiplying that difference by 1,000 and then again by the number of family members, it becomes clear that the spread in annual costs between meal category levels isn’t “small potatoes.” This basic formula, cost per meal × 1,000 × number of family members = annual food costs, provides an excellent big-picture perspective on why food selection does matter very much to most families’ finances.
Admittedly, this equation can be nitpicked: Shabbos doesn’t cost but snacks do, a baby doesn’t eat a full portion but a yeshivah bachur can eat for two, etc. And obviously the exact numbers will vary by particular store, city, brand, and sale, and so on. However, since families are consuming thousands of meals annually, the average cost per meal will affect total grocery expenditures tremendously. It’s basic math.
One Store, Three Very Different Costs
In a modern supermarket, you can fill a shopping cart with food roughly divided between basic, middle, and upgraded price tiers. Basic ingredients are simple and unprocessed, costing at most a couple of dollars per pound: pasta, rice, beans, flour, sugar, oil, eggs, milk, most fruits and vegetables, and basic chicken. Extra processing of second-tier foods pushes their costs to about $6-$10 per pound. Included in this category are cheese, better poultry cuts, primary fish or meat selections, processed packaged foods, and some vegetables (pre-checked, mushrooms, etc.).
The upgraded foods in the store are most meats and fish, and prepared takeout foods, which range from $10-$20 per pound and up. While everyone will probably have some of each category on their menu, annual food bills will mirror the average breakdowns between pricing tiers. And the difference between what different families spend on food can be vast.
Basic, Middle, and Upgraded Selections
Above are examples of three versions of a day’s food cost x 1000 meals x amount of people = annual menu cost. The budget category does not require Depression-era style “rice and beans” restrictions or chasing sales. Instead, the cost-conscious eater spends less for the day by sticking to simple home-prepared foods (purchased in family-size amounts). A similar but middling menu costs more due to its more expensive ingredients.
And someone who upgrades, buying breakfast and lunch from a local cafe and enjoying a nicer supper, can easily pay twice the price of the mid-level menu and triple the price of the basic one. Multiplied via the formula above, these selection differences equal thousands of extra dollars annually even without indulging in exotic foods or dining in expensive restaurants. The accumulated difference, year after year, decade after decade, is big bucks. Keep in mind that $10,000 invested annually for 20 years compounding at 9% would equal over half a million dollars! That’s some pretty expensive chow.
It’s up to You
This doesn’t mean that cutting food costs is a must or even doable. Some wealthy people can easily afford to eat whatever they want whenever they want to. Others, whose time is indeed money, may lose more than they can save by worrying about the cost of time-saving options like takeout. And in a hectic world, prepared food and upgraded menus may help maintain priceless sanity and harmony in the home. But the relentless consistency of food costs means they do add up. Those who can trim their eating budgets, even to a degree, may realize significant savings.
When No One Is Watching the Bills
Thankfully, I’m not the one in charge of my family’s food shopping or household budgeting; I’m not interested, nor am I good at it. But in a complicated 21st century, some husbands are. The lines in household duties used to be clear: the husband earned money, and the wife managed the household while making ends meet.
Over the past sixty years or so, women have entered all levels of the workforce. By now, some earn as much or more than their spouses. And many fathers do a good portion of household chores, from helping with childcare to budgeting and grocery shopping. With husbands and wives so busy earning, even minimal budgeting efforts fall through the cracks in some homes. This oversight is understandable, but totally ignoring expenditure levels usually ends badly. Even those bringing in huge sums need spending discipline to avoid debt and build wealth.
Rising Food Costs
I first published this article in 2020, and since then, I updated it to reflect the latest prices for 2023. The increase in prices is staggering! You can quibble on the exact numbers, on how they vary from store or community, but the overall truth is mind-boggling. Take a look at the chart below that shows the estimated food costs in 2020. It’s astounding how prices have skyrocketed in the past few years!
Click here to read about Frumflation: Why Frum Inflation is so High.