The Food Spending Poll: Results and Conclusions

A quick backgrounder on today's post: In response to my recent post on how food spending has fallen to all-time lows (Guess What? We Spend Less Than Ever on Food), I asked Casual Kitchen readers to share their own personal food spending data.

Read on to find out how real people handle their food budgeting decisions, and how their spending compares to the national averages.
So what were the results of our food spending poll? After running the numbers, it's clear that Casual Kitchen readers spend more on food than the national average--quite a bit more, in fact.

Percent of Disposable Income Spent on Food:

Total Food Spending
CK Readers: 14.7%
US Average: 9.6%

Spending, Food at Home:
CK Readers: 9.8%
US Average: 5.6%

Spending, Food Away from Home:
CK Readers: 5.0%
US Average: 4.0%

I know my readers take their home cooking seriously, but I never expected our food spending to be five percentage points higher than the national average. I assumed this survey would generate misleadingly low results due to selection bias (i.e., lower-spending readers might be more likely to respond, skewing the results downward).

So much for my assumptions.

Details on the responses:
1) I had 28 responses via blog comments, email and Twitter. While this sample size is too small to draw much more than anecdotal conclusions, it's worth noting that the results were relatively normally distributed around the mean, and the mean and median of this sample were nearly the same.

2) The responses ranged from a high of 25% of income spent on all food to a low of just 6%. There were quite a number of you in the 8-11% range--at or near the government averages. And I had one respondent (the head of a family of 12 whose food spending exceeds her mortgage payment!) who was so far off the charts that I had to exclude her from the data set.

3) Quite a few of you spend very little eating out. There were several respondents who spent 2-3% (some even less than that) in the food away from home category.

4) A few of you took care to differentiate between your budgets and what really happens each month, an impressive feat of both accuracy and candor.

Which takes us to some final thoughts: Who would guess that the readership of a frugal food blog--one that specializes in laughably cheap recipes no less--would spend that much more than the national average on food!

What does this tell us? Does it imply that there any inefficiencies in our food spending that we can exploit? Are we really spending more than we need to on food, or are we spending just the right amount?

Related Posts:
Brand Disloyalty
Does Healthy Eating Really Cost Too Much? A Blogger Roundtable
If It's So Cheap to Cook at Home, Then Why is My Grocery Bill So Huge?
Spreading the New Frugality: A Manifesto

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NMPatricia said...

I think the next step might to ask readers why they think the results came out this way. I know for me, my at home expense is probably higher because of other frugality, I can spend a bit more on organically grown produce, first order foods (meaning more food), and treats to have at home which would be less expensive than ordering them out. My spending on eating out is less because of the quality of the food generally and I don't want to spend my money on really expensive restaurants.

Anyone else?

MikeV said...

I agree with @NMPatricia. I think that my averages were so high because I care about the food I'm eating.
*Well, that and I'm feeding a family of five.

I buy higher quality ingredients now that I care about cooking. In some cases, that works for me (dried beans are cheaper than canned), but on balance it raises my costs (local, hormone free chickens, Muir Glen canned tomatoes...)

To paraprhase Michael Pollan, if you want to buy good food, you have to be willing to pay for good food.

I eat out WAY less than I used to, before I started cooking. But...when I do eat out, I want something better than I can make, and I've become a very good cook over the last ten years.

This means it's either a small ethnic restaraunt (cheap, good), or a higher-end restaraunt (expensive, good). Again, on balance I think my costs have gone up, due to my focus on quality over quantity.


Laura said...

I can't help but think that those national averages MUST be off. I said 4% of my disposal income goes toward eating at home and 11% goes toward eating out. I'm not surprised to see that I spend less than the average on eating food at home: I'm a single, and I tend to buy pretty much just meats/produce and not many processed things, which are what we really drive up the cost. However, I'm shocked to find that I spend so much more than the average on eating away from home. Even among my own friends, I spend FAR less on restaurant meals and drinks than they do (though I realize that's an imperfect sample).

What I'm wondering is if the national average included "entertainment eating/drinking"? That is, the bulk of my eating food away from home is not for meal purposes but for social purposes - like going out to a bar and getting drinks and appetizers. Is it possible that other people didn't include that in their spending, but maybe bucketed it as entertainment?

Daniel said...

Some really interesting input so far. Agreed on the merits of choosing to eat higher quality food at home rather than paying through the nose for uninspired restaurant food.

I'd add a couple of things that were beyond the scope of the article. First of all, the average American household has 2.55 people, so if you have a lot of kids, it's gonna be tough to come in below average on food spending. Also, if you have one income earner in your family, your food spend as a percent of your income will be higher than a family with two earners (all else equal of course).

Laura, your question on entertainment eating/drinking is a good one and I don't know the answer. But it could certainly be a factor skewing people in the 20-40 year old age demographic to the high end of the scale.

What are other peoples' thoughts on these issues?


Chloe (Naturally Frugal) said...


I think it's true that readers care more about the food when responding to a food blog. I know that I care about where I buy my food, who I buy it from, and if it's seasonal or not. I'm willing to pay extra for fresh eggs or summer squash straight from the farm.

I think this will only increase once we have kids. My personality will probably lead me to become more aware of what I put in little mouths, and I think I'm shaping the boyfriend to think that way too ;)

Good article, it's intersting to see the responses to this post and think about how most people spend their dollars.

Kristine said...

I'm wondering if I'm the one that was thrown out. LOL But we only have 8 in our family (*scratches head*). Yes, we pay more on food than our mortgage (even with the insurance and taxes added in). Really, the government must be taking all the income, and dividing by the number of households. If you look at how much they say it costs to feed that family with 2.2 kids, and how much most families actually make, I think that almost all of us would be spending more than that 15%.

Daniel said...

LOL Kristine...nope you weren't the one I had to throw out of the data set--but you did bring up the average in our survey. :)

And you ask a good question on the data. The source data takes two aggregate numbers (one for disposable income and one for dollars spent on food) and divides to arrive at a percentage. So yes, you might have a few really rich dudes in there who skew the income data, but keep in mind the aggregate food spending still reflects the food spent on *everybody* including of millions of kids, non-working spouses, etc who don't earn income.

However, I am far from an expert at the derivation of gov't data. Are there any readers out there who can comment knowledgeably on this?

And, admittedly, this is an unscientific and purely anecdotal study.

Thanks for reading.


Daniel said...

One more quick follow up to Kristine's question:

I just traded emails with the contact person at the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service who is listed below the source data on that chart. She informed me that "disposable personal income is calculated by the Bureau of Economic Analysis and includes both low and high earners, although they go through statistical calculations to exclude outliers."

Again, it's going to be difficult to tease out if there's any skew from either the high end *or* the low end of the income scale here, but that response does give us some extra context.


Erin said...

After reading the responses to your poll on the blog I think that most people did not answer the question correctly.

The survey asked for people's food expenditures as a percentage of their DISPOSABLE income. Many of the blog responders gave their expenditures as a percentage of their TOTAL income, making comments such as "XX% of my paycheck goes to food".

If this is the case, people reading this blog actually spent an even higher percentage of their disposable income on food than reported.

That being said, the sample of people who read your blog is likely to be much younger than average, meaning that on average their incomes probably lower than the sample from the survey.

Amy B said...

The more food blogs I read, the more creative I try to be, the higher my food bill.

If I just go to the store for food just to get me through the week, I will spend WAY less than if I've been "inspired" by what I've read on the 'net.

craftevangelist said...

I realize this is an old post, but do you think that people reading a frugal cooking blog generally have lower incomes than "average" Americans?

Daniel said...

Hi Craftevangelist: I would guess that the income level of my readers skews above the national average, but that's just a guess.

In any case, I think it depends. For example, you can live in NYC and have an income that is "above average" nationally, but still find yourself needing to watch how much you spend on food.

When I used to work on Wall Street, I made much more money than the national average, but I still have always had a fascination with "beating the system" and eating good, healthy food for less. I guess that's why I write this blog in the first place!


PS: And to Amy B: do what works best for you. But if you make any of the "laughably cheap" recipes on THIS blog, I guarantee you will save money. :)

Ronda said...

I am reading this WAY after the fact, obviously, but I just ran a quick tally in Quicken and it looks like our food expenditure percentage is so high that I would probably be thrown out of the sampling, too! I know that our income is low--probably unimaginably so to most people, but I also know that I am incredibly frugal. I'm guessing that the key reason for the surprising result you got is that people who read a food blog and actually take the time to figure out how much they spend on food are, for the most part, living on a much lower than average income! I have practically NO friends who would bother to do this even if they read the blog. Those who have a higher income probably don't even track their food expenditures at all!

Laura said...

Just throwing out there that I make a pretty high income (I'm not really comfortable saying how much) and I still read this blog. Frugality isn't only for those who don't have money; I am just as careful now as when I was making half my current salary.