While in bed last night, I thought back to a discussion I had earlier in the day with a co-worker who complained to me about the cost of eating well. They had noticed that every day for the past 12 months or so my lunch has consisted of a large salad (spinach, kale, tomatoes, avocado, red and green peppers, broccoli, garlic, carrots, radishes, beets) and a medium to small sized portion of meat (chicken, fish, or beef), and wanted to know how I was able to “afford” to eat that well all the time.
I didn’t want to get into a debate at work, especially considering I don’t know the person’s spending habits or other potential financial hardships they may be facing, so I just sort of stayed at the 30,000 foot level of “oh, it’s really not too bad especially if you’re willing to cut elsewhere” argument.
But, while lying (or is it laying, I never seem to get that one right) in bed, my mind started racing about where I could take the debate in the future and, most importantly, what facts I could use to back up my argument that spending money on food that nourishes your body doesn’t have to force you to spend more money each month.
Health Care Spending
Before I head down the path of priorities, I think it’s important to take a look at health care spending at large. For those of you who’ve read my “The Answer to the Health Care Crisis?” post, much of this won’t be new, but, ultimately, it’s worth repeating.
In the United States, health care spending accounted for 15.2% of the GDP in 2008, and stands to grow to 19.5% of the GDP by 2017. In terms of dollars, that’s somewhere between $2.1 and $2.5 trillion dollars per year. For an overwhelming point of reference, what we spend on health care is more than the total GDP of every country in the world except China, Japan, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.
Logic stands to reason that since we spend the most on health care we must be the healthiest and, since we keep spending more and more each year, we must be getting healthier.
Not so fast.
In 2008, roughly one-third (1/3) of the population was obese (and addition third were considered overweight but not obese) and, according to the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, over 40% of the population will be obese by 2030. Along with the weight problems comes a host of other medical issues such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, increased risk of stroke and cancer. So, not only are we not healthy, it looks like the problem is going to get worse… and more expensive.
For an interesting look at this problem, check out the “Spending More Doesn’t Make Us Healthier” article by Ezekiel Emanuel in The New York Times. It simply reinforces the fact that we’re not going to solve our health crisis simply by spending more on health care.
The point I’m trying to make here is that we’re already spending a ton of money on health care and, since what we’re currently doing isn’t working, we probably need to make some changes.
Spending Money on Eating Well
Ok, back to what was keeping me up last night. The more I thought about the “expense” of eating well the more I kept coming back to the fact that spending on nutritious, healthy food is a matter of priorities. It’s my point of view that if you make nutrition one of your top priorities you won’t notice any increased expense related to “eating well.”
In my simple mind, I broke down how our food-related priorities into two groups:
- What groceries am I currently buying?
- What other food-related purchases am I making?
What’s in Your Shopping Cart
This morning, I went out to Google and started looking up some statistics on what the average American spends on groceries. I came across an interesting blog post from NPR entitled, quite simply, “What America Spends on Groceries,” that quoted the following breakdown of grocery spending in 2012 as researched by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
- Processed Foods & Sweets – 22.9%
- Meats – 21.5%
- Fruits and Vegetables – 14.6%
- Grains & Baked Goods – 14.4%
- Beverages – 11.1%
- Dairy Products – 10.6%
- Other Foods – 5.1%
In doing some basic addition, I calculated that the average American spends more than half of their grocery dollars on junk. That’s an incredible amount; no wonder we’re so unhealthy and spending so much money on drugs and medical appointments.
Being a numbers nerd, I wanted to quantify how much we’re spending – in terms of dollars — on junk. In order to get there, I used the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Official USDA Food Plans: Cost of Food at Home at Four Levels” for June 2012 to back into the total monthly grocery budget for the average American. The assumption I made is that the Moderate-Cost Plan for a family of two made the most sense because I figured families with multiple people would sort of average out with singles. If you disagree with my assumption, please feel free to use the USDA’s data to do your own analysis.
Based on what I assumed, the average monthly grocery expense for a family of two is $584, or $292 per person.
In going back to the grocery breakdown data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics referenced above, here’s where our grocery dollars are going per person:
- Processed Foods & Sweets – $66.87
- Meats – $62.78
- Fruits and Vegetables – $42.63
- Grains & Baked Goods – $42.05
- Beverages – $32.41
- Dairy Products – $30.95
- Other Foods – $14.31
Again, in doing some basic addition that comes to $155.64 for junk and $136.36 for meats, fruits, vegetables, and dairy. For two people that’s $311.28 and $272.72, respectively, per month.
It seems to me, if you slashed your spending on junk and instead put all of that money towards good, nutritious foods, the “good stuff” wouldn’t seem so expensive. In fact, if the average two-person family just doubled their meat, vegetable, fruit, and dairy and cut out all junk, they’d actually save $40 per month. This is a simple argument, but the point is valid: if you cut out the crap, the good stuff really shouldn’t have much of an effect on your budget.
I think the root of the problem is, in an attempt to eat better, people spend more on good stuff without cutting out the junk, thus the appearance that healthy food causes them to blow through their budget.
Other Money Spent on Other Food Related Purchases
Here’s where the discussion on priorities really gets heated. I understand I am in no place to tell you what your priorities should be, and that’s not the goal of this article. I’m just trying to prove a point that eating well doesn’t have to cause you to spend more than you already are, especially if you’re willing to make eating better a higher priority than, say, you’re morning trip to the local coffee shop.
According to an article on the Huffington Post, the average worker spends $1,000 per year on coffee. That’s roughly $85 per month. This may not be a ton of money, but it’s nothing to shake a stick at either, so, for the purposes of comparison, here’s what I got this morning from Whole Foods (not the cheapest place in the world) for $81.85 before tax:
- Organic Baby spinach ($5.99)
- Bunch of organic carrots ($2.49)
- Bunch of organic radishes ($1.99)
- Bunch of organic kale ($2.49)
- Two crowns of organic broccoli ($2.99)
- Container of organic cherry tomatoes ($3.99)
- Organic red pepper ($1.99)
- Organic green pepper ($1.99)
- Two avocados ($4.00)
- 1-pound Organic zucchini ($4.99)
- Bunch of asperagus ($3.49)
- 2 pounds chicken breasts ($12.99)
- 1 pound grass-fed New York strip steak ($19.99)
- Container organic blueberries ($3.99)
- Container organic raspberries ($4.99)
- 1-dozen Omega-3 enriched organic eggs ($3.49)
All of the above will get my wife and me through a week’s worth of breakfasts and lunches, and through at least two dinners. To get us through a week’s worth of dinners it’s probably safe to tack on another $75 for various vegetables and meats.
So, for the two of us, we spend roughly $150 per week on groceries, which works out to $600 per month. Hmm… go back up a couple of sections… what does the average two person family spend on food including junk? $584? So, for just $16 more per month, or $0.50 per day (I sound like an infomercial) you can cut out all the junk and eat extremely healthy foods? Sounds like a deal to me!
Ok, so let’s say you can’t live without your morning coffee. Where else could you cut?
What about dining out? According to Ally Bank, the average American spends $232 per month on dining out. Even if that was just cut in half to $116 and the other $116 was applied toward buying better grocieries, you’d be eating a lot better without impacting your monthly budget at all.
What if you can’t live without your coffee and you look at eating out as not only a means of getting food, but as a form of family entertainment. Check out this list on the Top 10 Things Americans Waste The Most Money On and I’m sure you’ll come up with a few ways to come up with some money you could stop spending elsewhere and apply to better grocery shopping.
What in the hell am I getting at?
To sum this up in one run-on sentence: when you get past all of the data and a little bit of editorializing, the point of this article is that eating well doesn’t have to add to your monthly expenses if you’re willing to make it a priority.
Make it a priority.
What are your thoughts? Am I crazy? Do I need to get off my soapbox? Am I spot on? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.