Surprising but true. Gallup has been asking American families each year how much they spend on groceries since 1943, excluding a 24 year gap from 1988 to 2012.When adjusting for inflation to 2012 dollars, it turns out that grocery spending is actually lower than it’s ever been according to the Gallup poll. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, measured since 1984 supports the same overall decline in grocery spending also.
The highest level of household grocery spending measured by Gallup was between 1967-1968 where families spent an inflation-adjusted $234 per week, greater than 50% of average spending in 2012.
How is this possible? Many researchers point to the decline in the cost of food production and processing as the main factor. For example, after significant price increases in the cost of sugar during the mid 1970’s, many manufactures like Coke and Pepsi switched over to high fructose corn syrup which was much cheaper to produce. By 2010, natural cane sugar cost 65% more than HFCS to produce according to Beverage Watch. Another popularly known example is synthetic trans fats which are produced by food manufacturers for food processing and cooking as a cheaper and more stable alternative to other oils. Trans fats help add to the firmness and longer shelf life of many products. In restaurants, trans fats have an especially profitable use because they can be heated and reused several times without breaking.
As a result of decreasing food manufacturing costs, food portions and serving sizes have all increased in the last 20 years. A few decades ago, the average diameter of a chocolate cookie was 1.5”. Bagels diameter rolled out to an even 3”. Today, both have doubled in average size and almost tripled in calories. Just about every food has gotten bigger and calorically denser than it was 20 years ago. This link shows the difference side by side. Even the average size of dinner plates has increased just to keep up. What’s also increased? Food waste and waist size.
It’s worth saying that Gallup and the BLS only measure spending, not actual prices, so it’s possible our parents and grandparents during the 60’s and 70’s were either more free spending at the grocer or extreme stockpilers. However, that’s probably unlikely considering those same generations endured the food rationing of WWII and The Great Depression. So when you think about how much groceries cost today, consider are you getting your money’s worth or getting more than you need. How much did you spend on groceries last month?