Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Eating Well on a Budget

Going through Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace this fall has been good for me in many ways. I am not the one in the household that takes care of the finances, so I always can use more advice in this area. As my husband and I sat down to do our household's budget, what struck me the most was the percentage of our income spent on food. It was a little bit higher than Dave's recommended 5-15%. It did not surprise me at all, since food is an area that I will spend as much as I need to keep us healthy. Actually, I have to admit that I had not even been keeping track of how much I spent on food. But seeing those numbers on paper definitely got me thinking. I started wondering about the percentage that was allocated for food expenses. I began researching the percentages for other countries and found that Americans spend only a fraction of our disposable income on food. WOW, a fraction is right! They spend about 9%! Thirty years ago, it was 15%.

Let's compare that with other countries around the world and you will see there is a pretty big disparity between them. German consumers spend 10.9 percent of their disposable income on food at home, followed by Japan (13.4 percent), South Korea (13.4 percent), and France (13.6 percent) among high income countries.

Middle income countries include South Africa (17.5 percent) and Mexico (21.7 percent). China (28.3 percent) and Russia (36.7 percent) are seeing rapid decreases in food expenditure percentages but are still relatively high. India (39.4 percent) and Indonesia (49.9 percent) are among the highest when it comes to the amount of disposable income spent on food.

This suggests that there are many Americans who could afford to spend more on food if they chose to. It all comes down to priorities. For me, staying in good health, not paying for medical expenses, not missing any days of work, and therefore being more productive are things that you just can't put a price tag on. I would rather cut back on other areas of the budget before cutting back on food.

But I do realize that good food can sometimes cost a bit more than some typical American fare. So, for the next few months, I am going to see if I can save more money on our grocery bills, while still keeping good quality food on the table.

Organic does not have to cost much more than conventional produce, if you know where to shop. Rather than buying organic food at Kroger or Publix, there are places like Trader Joe's and local farmer's markets that can definitely be worth the trip. There is a great place in Atlanta called the Dekalb Farmer's Market that carries a wide selection of organic food at unbelievably good prices. I went there just last weekend and bought a cart full of food and only spent $140. If I had gone to Publix or Whole Foods, I would have easily paid twice as much or even more!

Another way to save money on food is to buy in bulk. Every few years, I stock up on food that stores well, such as lentils, quinoa, beans, and other grains. I will buy them in 25 -50 lb. bags or containers and store them in my pantry. If stored properly, these foods will keep for several years. I store my grains in hard plastic buckets that I got for free from grocery store bakeries. I have lots of food in my pantry that will sustain our family quite well for a very long time if I need it to. Tonight, I made a big pot of lentil soup with the French green lentils I had stored away. After dinner, I'm planning on freezing it in small containers for "fast food" for nights I don't want to cook.

Growing your own produce is one of the best ways to save money. If you have time to devote to gardening, I encourage you to do it. Even if you only have a small backyard, you can still produce quite a bit of food. Square Food Gardening is one of the first gardening books I used to grow a garden when we lived in a subdivision with a tiny backyard. It was amazing what we could grow in a 6 x 8 foot plot of land! You can even grow your own sprouts if you don't have land or a green thumb. I will be growing some sunflower sprouts this winter to add to my salads. Several years ago, I volunteered to work for a local organic farm one afternoon a week in exchange for several bags of fresh produce. If you think outside the box, there are many ways to get high quality food without breaking the budget.

Here is a nice blog that I found that will even give you recipe ideas for inexpensive, healthy meals: Poor Girl Eats Well. Check it out and it will give you even more ideas!

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