my simple life: what type of food do we spend our money on? #1

For those who missed the My Simple Life intro, I’m making it my mission to prove that you can eat healthily and ethically on a budget. Granted, not any budget. I don’t suppose for a second that all individuals and families are in the position to do this. There are families out there, the most marginalised and right on the breadline, who are struggling to put any food on the table full stop and this I respect. But for most of us, healthy, ethical, sustainable eating is achievable and it doesn’t have to blow the budget out. In fact, my food budget is lower than the country’s average for my situation (partner, no children).

The premise of my claim is this – on average, food budgets are hijacked by junkie crap that isn’t good for us or the environment and the proportion spent on the good stuff is left minimal.

It’s a bit of robbing from Peter to pay Paul, except Peter doesn’t pay Paul; he pays multibillion dollar international junk food companies instead.

Last week, images from the book Hungry Planet by Menzel were released. I’m not sure why all the media hype now, the book was released back in 2006. But the timing has been great for me nonetheless, because it came about just as I was wrapping up this post. You see the book features images of what people around the world spend their food budget on in any given week. And the images are quite startling. And they prove my point above spectacularly. Here’s a few of them, but I do strongly recommend clicking here to view them all:

A week's food shop in Australia. It cost this family $325. Check out the quantity of meat! And soft drinks!

Bhutan. It cost this family $4.90 (people in Bhutan grow most of their veggies).

America. This family spent $334.

Egypt. Spend = $65.

Lookey, I may be coming off a little aggressive. But I want to make a point. And I’m fired up about it. Only 1 in 10 of us is getting enough fruit and vegetables into our gobs. Yet the average spend on fast food is $30 a week, more than double the average weekly spend on veggies ($14). We spend more money on alcohol than we do on meat, and if I break it down even further we spend double the dosh on processed meat like ham, bacon and sausages than we do on unprocessed beef.

Yet I hear people all the time tell me that they can’t afford to pay a higher price for ethically-raised meat.

And there is still a perception that healthy food costs more than junk.

From my research, there seems to be a disproportionate amount of money spent on crap. Not enough spent on the good stuff.

Before I go on, I’m not pointing the finger at anyone, on an individual level. Some people do. They say everyone has a choice about what they eat, and if they eat crap, well that’s their own fault. But the matter is much more complicated than this. There are many intricate and overlapping factors that determine what someone chooses to eat, not the least of which are the very real food deserts existing all over this country and other first-world nations. I found this article which breaks it all down in a simple way.

But back to the budget issue. In 2009-2010 the ABS surveyed close to 10,000 households (9774 to be exact) to determine household expenditure. They covered pretty much everything people spend money on – pet food, toiletries, travel, food, tenpin bowling costs...  For the first time they surveyed a sample (2,817) of households whose main source of income was a government pension or benefit/allowance, which included aged pension, disability or carer payments, family support payments, unemployment payments etc.  For me anyway, the survey yielded some pretty heart-wrenchingly saddening results.

Like I said, the survey covered everything from how much people spend on house insurance to how much they dish out for outdoor garden furniture. I want to concentrate on people’s food spend but to put this into perspective, here’s a snapshot of the general total weekly expenditure of the average household:

For the full infographic, which includes weekly spend by life stage, click here.

On to food – here’s some highlights:

Average weekly food spend in Australia

Average (All households)
Average (Receive family support payments)
Food budget
Bakery products
$20, mostly:
cakes, biscuits etc ($8)
bread ($7)
cereals and pasta ($5).
$25, mostly:
processed meat including ham, bacon, mince and sausages - $9
beef and veal - $5
poultry - $5
Fruit and nuts
Condiments, confectionery  food additives and prepared meal
(mostly chips and other savoury snacks, chocolate, ice cream and packaged/prepared meals)
Dairy products
Non-alcoholic drinks (mostly soft drinks)
Fast food and takeaway
Tobacco products
I’ve rounded to the nearest dollar.

Again, money spent on crap. Eating healthily, ethically? It's not even about spending more, in the end. It's about re-jigging.

How does this compare to you?

A few weeks ago, I asked readers of this blog to share their food budget. We’re a healthy bunch! Unsurprisingly I guess, those that responded are healthy food enthusiasts. Take a minute to browse through the comments readers left here, they’re so very honest and such a very interesting insight into the range of situations out there. And many contain some terrific tips! A snapshot:

“I would spend $150 a week on groceries, this is for two people, but I do buy locally and any meat I buy is the best, though I am eating less meat. I try to buy everything I need at once i.e. at the Sunday markets across the road from my house, but I always forget something and end up picking up extras during the week. It may seem like a lot for two people but we rarely ever buy our lunches and almost never go out for dinner. If we do eat out for dinner, even a quick cheap Chinese is going to cost $50. One thing I love doing is buying a whole chicken, take the meat off, this gives me eight pieces which I use for various meals, then I use the carcass to make chicken stock - its great no waste.

“Wow, this is fascinating - I would spend a minimum of $500 a week on groceries (2 adults and 1 toddler), which does include grass fed meat, pasture eggs, activated nuts and cultured veg (attempted to make myself but unsuccessful!). I don't even buy 100% organic veg, 70% of the time I suppose. But I don't buy anything packaged, processed or with chemicals. Every month I try and cut back/find cheaper alternatives but I can't seem able to do it. Plus, extraordinarily bad at budgeting ... Interested to know how people afford organic on $150/$200 a week! I don't eat legumes or grains so that would probably make things cheaper.”

All in all, most readers who responded seem to be balancing a healthy, sustainable/ethical diet with budget. But a few are struggling to stick to something reasonable.

I have some tricks up my sleeve. I’ll be sharing my food budget and my tips here next week and I sincerely, so so badly, hope they help and motivate. So come back next week for part deux.

But before I go, a nifty way to track your own spending

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been tracking every dollar I spend on this ace little smart phone app, TrackMySpend. If you want to know exactly how much you spend on what, I recommend downloading this little baby and getting clocking. 


  1. "...the matter is much more complicated than this. There are many intricate and overlapping factors that determine what someone chooses to eat..."

    I agree. While individuals can make healthy food choices, I think other issues and systemic factors play a much more significant role in the majority of peoples behaviour. People generally are subsumed in a dominant food culture/system which:
    - uses manipulative marketing and advertising (crafted around established insights into human psychology),
    - is a global system fuelled by cheap oil, which distorts true costs, eliminates food diversity and prizes the durability and longevity of processed foods
    - has, until more recently, been without many alternatives, due to the power and control of the systems main agents (large multinational corporations) to undermine small sustainable and localised food producers, systems and markets
    - is a culture which has become more impoverished when it comes to growing, eating, using, storing, preserving and sharing a rich diversity of foods because of decades of being suckled on cleverly formulated, packaged and marketed processed foods
    - is a culture structured around the availability of cheap fuel which has (with the support of strong invested interests) helped spread the sprawl of suburbs where shopping centres and supermarkets, kilometres away, are considered convenient, and the culture around food becomes merely a passive set of linear behaviours, cut off and alienated from where the food is grown and who the people are who grow it and, also, a food culture devoid of the rich and meaningful aspects and offshoots a more localised, diverse, wholistic, unindustrialised and ethical food culture/system can give.
    - is a culture where food is just an unsavoured adjunct to a life of holidays, entertainment, big houses and gadgets, rather than being a culture where savoured food (in all its infinitely rich, colourful, fellowship creating, joy inspiring and meaningful potential) is not seen as an end itself, or as something you wouldn't hesitate spending more than 10-15% of your wage on.

    But it's hard to see all that if you are enculturated or socialised into accepting that the dominant way things are now is normal; or if anything which deviates from the way things are is perceived as being alien and strange; or when most people are doing things one way and to do things another way would make you stand-out or look and feel odd and peculiar in the eyes of those around you; or cause open hostility that you are somehow putting yourself up on some kind of holier-than-thou pedestal. Many of the currant green trends in ethical food (even though still not mainstream) were, as little as ten years ago, still seen as fringe hippy behaviours (or so I think from my observations). And it's hard for people to accept an alternative food culture/system if it is perceived as infringing on their existing lifestyle or seen simply as just too much hard work. That's where it is often said that necessity will be the biggest driver of change, i.e. rising oil prices, growing food scarcity or financial insecurity, as opposed to people being educated about what's best.

    But what would I know.

    There's my rant!

    You didn't come across as aggressive at all, just as someone who is passionate and who deeply cares, and perhaps as someone who can see how truly beautiful things could be and so the reality of things as they are only cuts that much deeper.

    I love the photo of the Bhutan family. So modest, so simple, so little packaging - yet so rich!


    1. Wow, I definitely couldn't have said it better myself! Excellently said. And thank you for mentioning I didn't come across as aggressive... I get paranoid I'm coming across as a holier-than-thou type. As you say though, it's just that I so badly want to see change happen (that I rant in this way), and I know that change can happen from the bottom up too.

      Thanks so much for your comment!


  2. Oh I meant ' seen as an end itself..' not 'not seen'



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