One month on the Thrifty Food Plan

Today marks the end of our one month experiment in restricting our food spending to what we’d be allowed under the USDA Thrifty Food Plan.

As it turns out, we finished well under our $434.40 budget.  Our total spending on food groceries totalled just $340.84, with just under $40 in purchased meals (including one full dinner, one fancy coffee, and a couple of lunches at the very cheap cafeteria down the street from my office).  Even if I accounted at a fair price for the spices and such that we didn’t have to pay for because they’re in my basic pantry, we’d make it in under budget.

Following the suggestions of some of the commenters, I drove out to the Grand Mart supermarket on Little River Turnpike last weekend, which serves a largely Asian clientele.  I was mindboggled by the array of vegetables they offered — four different kinds of eggplant (American, Italian, Thai and Japanese) — and the prices.  If someone can explain to me why Giant or Shoppers can’t have half as good produce for twice the price, I’d be very grateful.  Unfortunately, after I had loaded up my cart and got on line, the manager announced that their computers were down, they couldn’t run the cash registers without them, and the store was closing.  And I didn’t have the time or energy to return later in the week.

We ate pretty close to our typical diet, although a bit heavier on the eggs and homemade pizza than an average month.  Although I didn’t track it, I’m sure we didn’t come anywhere near meeting the food pyramid recommendations for fruit and vegetables.  I’m not sure we do that much better in mid-winter even when we’re not on a budget, as I find the seasonal offerings awfully uninspiring.  (Although worries about the budget did stop me from buying some of my usual mid-winter healthy treats, like frozen cherries.)

The time-money tradeoff was a big factor in the budget, both in the shopping (do I make a separate trip to another store that has a better price on specific items?) and in the preparation (is the two dollars saved buying regular spinach v. the prewashed stuff worth the time involved in preparing it?).  And I truly can’t imagine doing this if I didn’t have access to a car, or had to bring my kids along on every single shopping trip.  (Shopping with kids can be much more expensive, both because you don’t want to spend the extra time studying price labels when they’re getting restless and because they constantly ask for things that aren’t on the shopping list.)

Although I wasn’t tracking our expenditures on non-food items, this experiment made me much more aware of all of our spending.  Friday we took D. to the doctor because his cough was getting worse, and came home with a nebulizer and two kinds of medicine.  Even with our quite good insurance, the copays totalled $60.  For us, that’s not a terribly big deal.  But if every dollar that comes in is already spent, an unexpected expense like that has to come out of somewhere.  And food is almost always the most flexible part of poor families’ budgets.  That, rather than the cost of food, is why so many American families are "food insecure"

20 Responses to “One month on the Thrifty Food Plan”

  1. V.H. Says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed Grand Mart! (except for not actually getting any groceries)
    Regarding the time-money tradeoff, I found myself going to Trader Joes and Shoppers/Giant on alternate weeks during this last month. It was too much to do TJs, Shoppers, and Grand Mart all in the same weekend, and I would often buy more than I really needed to, or make a lot of trips to get only a couple of things at each store. I have found myself starting to go to Grand Mart on a weekly basis, partly because they opened one near me in Seven Corners. I bought a week’s worth of vegetables and some fruit there last night for $10. On the way out I was handed a crate of persimmons just for shopping. Grand Mart had 8 registers going last night, and the store was absolutely packed. I went to Shoppers (catty corner from Grand Mart-Seven Corners) afterwards for a few things and they had three registers open, no waiting. I think it won’t take long for the large grocery store chains in the area to realize that they do have serious competition from the ethnic chains and that they need to do something.

  2. Sara Says:

    Interesting!
    I’ve been following your experiment since I read about it on… oh, some other blog, I forget which… ;)
    It intrigued me because for quite awhile now, the grocery budget for my family of four (two adults, a preschooler, and a toddler) has been within that Thrifty Food Plan amount. Since we aren’t that close to the poverty line, my budgeted amount is a guideline, and we do sometimes go over (if you count second trips to the store to pick up more milk, etc). But most of the time my bill at the grocery store is $100 a week, or less. Including cleaning supplies. And we eat pretty well.
    DH and I were discussing this last night. We eat fresh vegetables and fruit. We eat meat or fish several times a week. We splurge on fancy cheese fairly frequently. We do all this at one grocery store, the one known in town as the “gourmet” store. Why can we live on that amount pretty handily and others can’t?
    What we came up with is – experience. When he was in grad school, we were living on a pittance. Yet we wanted to eat well. I learned to meal plan, to read the grocery circulars, to plan around what was seasonal and what was on sale. I learned canny shopping – to avoid brand names on sale when a decent store brand was cheaper without the sale, to check unit prices, to make on-the-fly changes to the meal plan when I saw something was a good buy. I learned to plan for a splurge meal a week and balance it with cheaper meals. I learned the art of planning for leftovers.
    And I learned to cook intuitively, using what I had on had efficiently rather than buying something because a recipe includes it.
    These sort of skills used to be assumed. I have a “low cost cookbook” from the Berkeley Food Co-op, circa 1970, that bases its target meal prices around the Thrifty Food Plan of that day. It assumes the cook (always a woman, of course) will know what to look for in the market, will know how to plan meals a week at a time.
    How do you teach that to young people before they leave home and head out into the great big world? Can it be taught in Home Ec classes?

  3. U.S. Food Policy Says:

    A month on the Thrifty Food Plan

    The Half Changed World author finished her one-month trial of the Thrifty Food Plan budget.

  4. U.S. Food Policy Says:

    A month on the Thrifty Food Plan

    The Half Changed World author finished her one-month trial of the Thrifty Food Plan budget….

  5. Z*lda Says:

    Wow, this makes great reading. Thanks for sharing the experience. What I’m wondering is, don’t you have any finicky eaters in your household that you had to cater to during this month…?

  6. Elizabeth Says:

    Z*lda, our two kids are 16 months and 4 years. The 16-month old will eat almost anything, and he pretty much only drinks milk, so he’s quite easy to feed. The 4-year old is a very picky eater, but the things that he likes most aren’t terribly expensive — crackers with peanut butter, chicken “dinosaurs” from Costco, muffins.
    The hard part with him wasn’t his pickiness, but his constant requests for us to buy cookies, pirate booty, etc. and his desire to have juice boxes at home, not just for school lunches. But he’s never had a Lunchable and if I have my way, he never will. (I know, famous last words.)

  7. Wassim Says:

    You should shop at BESTWAY around the corner at Graham Road & Route 50.. Excellent selection of seafood and meats…Hispanic Grocery store that is a cleaner than Grand Mart

  8. Steck Says:

    Congratulations on the success! We’re assigned to make an imaginary budget based on the USDA Thrifty Food Plan, and my class of about 60 is quite sure that it is impossible. It’s nice to know that it is. My question, will you go back?
    Was the quality of food different?
    How hard was it to shop Thrifty, compared to normal?
    Is the Thrifty Plan nutritionally adequate in the long run?

  9. V.H. Says:

    Elizabeth, I thought you would like this. It’s photos of different families’ weekly food consumption from around the world.
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5005952

  10. JG Says:

    As far as thrifty shopping, for canned goods, have you tried Aldi foods on Route 1 in Alexandria in the Mount Vernon Plaza? They have most canned vegetables from .35 cents a can, spaghetti sauce (better than Ragu, prego or name brands) for .99 cents a jar and pastas (bowtie, penne, rotini) are only .59 cents per box. They also carry unique items, it’s worth the drive.

  11. dave s Says:

    Sara, I thought I had the only surviving copy of the Berkeley Co-op cookbook. I got fed a LOT of those dishes, growing up in Berkeley, and I put some of them in front of my kids these days, too. Many of the cooks were the mothers of my friends.
    Back to the point: Elizabeth, you asked why Giant can’t do as well as Grand… think of Giant as General Motors and Grand as Honda. Giant pays not quite twice as much, and they have a swell set of benefits – one of my friends works there, is deeply pessimistic that they will survive, and told me the other week she just hopes it lasts long enough that she can milk the dental plan for some work her kids need. So the labor cost load that Giant has to put on its parsnips is way higher.
    But it’s hell to be in your early fifties, to have worked at a job for twenty years, to have expected to retire from it, and to suddenly doubt that it can survive. Am I patronizing Giant because of that? No, I go to Grand, too. And I bought a made-in-Ohio Honda last year, after three disappointing Fords.

  12. Elizabeth Says:

    Dave, I understand why Giant costs more than Grand Mart. What I don’t get is why Grand Mart’s fruits and vegetables are so much nicer than Giant’s, especially in the off season. They have 4 kinds of eggplant, all of which look fresh, while Giant’s eggplant routinely look wrinkled. Last time I went to Grand Mart, they had beautiful Israeli hydroponic tomatoes for less than the tasteless rocks that Giant sells as tomatoes this time of year.

  13. amy Says:

    I have to say I’m a little baffled by the thrifty plan, too. Granted, we’re only 2 adults and a 2-year-old, so it’s a small family. But most of the time I shop at the local organic-foods co-op, and we’re averaging about $400-500/mo before the 30% discounts we get for bagging & doing odd jobs there. It still seems to me outrageous, but I’m coming to terms with the fact that feeding a family well is not the same thing as scraping by anemically, and that I can’t feed a child that much canned tuna.
    I usually buy wine, organic meats/dairy/veg, gourmet cheeses, etc. Maybe it’s the starving-vegetarian experience and time to cook helping out, there. (Laurel’s Kitchen was my cookbook.) I bake most of our bread and we have soup a couple times a week; the only times we have big hunks of meat are on Friday nights, when I usually roast a chicken, and occasional splurges on salmon. Rest of the time it’s stews, sauces, casseroles, gratins. Plenty of beans involved, too — tonight it was lentil soup & cornbread.
    OK, I’m stalling, back to work. I just don’t get how you spend $900/month on a family of four, unless you’re buying the chickens their own motorized scooters.

  14. Sonia Says:

    I’m disabled and go hungry every month. I run out of money midmonth, and have to ration food the entire month (500-1500 calories per day). Anything I need to buy that is not food comes from my food money. I went years without buying clothing, books, etc., and often went without cleaning supplies, until I realized I had to be even more sick to get what I needed. I often get blackouts from low blood sugar, and an increase in seizures. My Social Security and food stamps are based on the thrifty food plan, and I’ve contacted every agency I can think of to get food and to discover how to have the plan adjusted for people with multiple food allergies and/or celiac disease. Food for celiacs costs about three times the normal cost. I went for years eating only beans and rice, and was still unable to meet my caloric intake. Sometimes I need the convenience foods when I have severe fatigue from seizures and depression. A loaf of bread costs about $5, crackers @$3.50, 9 cookies are about $3.50, and cakes mixes are around $7. Baking is extremely expensive since the absence of gluten requires a combination of flours that run about $3-$14 for 1-2 lb. bags, xanthan gum, etc. I’ve contacted congressmen, who have brushed me off, SS, Medicare, Medicaid (other countries consider this a medical expense), food pantries (won’t help – no one donates what I need, and one grocery store says the world will come to an end if they had to separate these items when they are sent to the food banks, which is not often), governor’s office, relatives, friends, and everyone passes the buck. They all send me back to the same agencies to “try again” as if something has changed. 211 has hung up on me. I’m even denied the right to ask for accomodations, because these are federal programs I’m dependant on, and not private businesses. Everyone is so casual and cool when they say sorry, as if food is no big deal. They don’t understand an empty cupboard or one filled with beans and rice, and nothing to eat them with (try meeting 2000 calories let alone 1500 that way). I’m unable to work much, but when I do my food stamps are lowered to $10, my rent is increased by a third, and my SSI is reduced until I lose Medicaid benefits. I’m left with about $35 regardless of how much I work, and my food needs are in the hundreds. Without enough food I’m unable to be very productive anyway (confusion, fatigue, etc.), and I want to die when I think of the prospect of watching my life waste away for decades to come as it has the past ten years. You may think the plan is workable with a little sacrifice, but for me the Thrifty Food Plan is a joke!

  15. michael jones Says:

    That was so interesting. I am sure that it will help me with my picky eater diet! Thank for the essential information!

  16. michael jones Says:

    My kid is keen on some picky eater diets and i have to thank you for the useful information! Really nice work!

  17. murat Says:

    Iwill follow picky eater diets. thanks to you

  18. anne Says:

    Pretty cool experiment. I have a family of two – our weekly food budget is $50.00. I’m a vegetarian so I don’t buy meat very often. Ham for sandwiches for my son maybe once every two months. My son eats with his Dad’s family two days a week, and my Mom gets us fruit and vegetables from the farmer’s market the alternating weeks we visit her. I have to remember to tell her what I want her to buy. I’m guessing that’s another $50 a month. I use vinegar and baking soda for cleaning products, that is part of my grocery budget too, as well as paper products and laundry detergent and light bulbs and furnace filters and and and….
    But I searched into your site because I am looking for a copy (or at least some of the recipes) from the Berkeley Co Op cookbook. My Mom had a copy from the 60’s that she can’t find and she is really missing her recipes for Socher (SP?) torte and Mexican style leg of lamb. Can Dave or Sara help out?
    Thanks, Anne.

  19. Timothy Drew Says:

    Perhaps it is because of food price inflation since this experiment was conducted (now July 2009); but as a disabled person whose entire income is $573 per month, I rely upon the maximum SNAP benefit for one of $182 per month. The article did not state family size, but based upon the stated budget of $434 per month I infer that the experiment involved a household of 3. Although that breaks down to $144 per individual, I believe that due to economies of scale, the economics of buying food makes buying for the first individual proportionately more expensive than for each subsequent family member. Two eaggs, two slices of bread, two tablespoons of butter, one serving each of peanut butter and jelly, and one piece of fruit per day comes to $132 dollars per month. That leaves $50 for 30 days worth of vegetables + meat/protein. That DOES NOT include spices/staples already on hand – but given the paucity of items available under this budget, what would I use them for anyway? I do not drive, and there is NO public transit where I live, so shopping around for a better price is not an option – though these items were purchased at a mainstream supermarket, Winn Dixie. I spend well over half of my total income IN ADDITION to food stamp benefits – and this does not include non-grocery items. If I were not homeless, I could not even afford to eat what little I do.

  20. Timothy Drew Says:

    Hi – this is Tim making an addition to my post. I forgeot to mention that included in the $132 spent each month on bare necessities – I can also drink one cup of milk per day.

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