Wednesday, December 21, 2016

NYC Grocery and Food Budgets


Having lived in NYC for more than four years, I can attest to how expensive life is here, without even getting into things like rent, nightlife, gym fees, or the cost of dining out. From the perspective of someone living almost anywhere else, money just doesn't make sense here, and the idea that "[t]hings cost what they cost in a nightmare" is not that far from the truth.

I'm starting to review my spending for the past few years (old YNAB makes analyzing it all super-easy), and well, the craziest thing on it, particularly from a non-NYC perspective, is probably my food budget. I'm too embarrassed to ever share the real number. My food spending includes, of course, a generous dose of both grocery and restaurant spending. For today, I thought it'd be an interesting exercise to talk about grocery costs and food budgets in NYC and what a more frugal monthly food budget could look like, even if it's not an ideal I'm generally living up to.

Groceries and Budgets

For context, Whole Foods may well be one of the cheaper grocery stores here. Keep in mind that most others, whether independent or part of a chain, are distinctly not-great. Many other grocery stores in town are sort of grimy and dusty-looking, and quite a few regularly stock produce that's practically rotting right there on the shelf. As a general matter, Trader Joe's is one of the cheapest in town, though with the crowds and the finite locations, it's not feasible for everyone to do all their shopping there. Fairway is my second most-frequently relied on grocery store, and I've now found that they actually price some items cheaper than Trader Joe's. Fairway isn't great, particularly the produce, but it's apparently one of the better-value grocery store chains here, (cheaper than Whole Foods, unlike D'Agostino or Gristedes, and the latter is one those grimey-dirty chains, with poor labor practices to boot).

Accordingly, even the most frugal shoppers in NYC may still rely on grocery delivery services (most likely Peapod, rather than FreshDirect) because, when the added delivery expense (somewhat negligible) and saved effort (considerable) are evened out, it makes the most financial sense. Those bloggers' reported $350/month for two adults total food expenditure is, by the way, extraordinarily frugal. Understandably, for NYC, their ultra-frugal budget appears to have required that food from NYC's ubiquitous halal carts and $1.00 pizza slice joints play a large part in their diet. I can confirm that some of the cheaper food options in NYC, particularly when time and effort are factored in, do involve "eating out."

For additional NYC grocery and food budget context, this reddit discussion is fairly recent and includes some reasonably diverse perspectives. Somewhere around $300-$350/month per person for groceries seems to be somewhat low end of average there, with $200/month per person reported by the truly frugal. 

My Food Budgets

In my first year of law school, when I religiously cooked my own meals and was generally buying enough groceries to cook every single meal (I wasn't great about food waste), my grocery spending averaged out to about $350/month. Breakfasts typically were oatmeal with an egg and lunches and dinners generally included ~5 oz of meat or fish; with a side or beans, sweet potato, or squash for something starchy; and green vegetables. I sometimes bought organic, but only rarely. I also ate out with friends roughly once per weekend, sometimes twice, mostly at the most frugal sit-down places we knew, for an additional $150/month, including the occasional latte or Chipotle meal in the mix. Full disclosure, being the unfrugal student I was, my food expenses eventually ballooned in 2L and 3L year, as I started to get tired of cooking.

In the interests of having a diet that features fresh vegetables heavily, involves the semi-regular consumption of meat or fish, and with some awareness of the health and other benefits of organic versus conventionally raised animal proteins, $350-$400/month may be about the most frugal grocery budget I could imagine for myself now if I was cooking every meal and only had my own needs to think about. I could adjust things down by featuring less meat and more tofu, beans, and vegetables, but I think I'd start to compensate for that by wanting to buy higher-quality meat and fish in smaller quantities as a result and well, I like to indulge in fancy cheeses sometimes too.

Eating Out versus Cooking

As that ultra-frugal NYC food budget I linked to suggested, the most frugal approach to food in NYC might actually feature eating out, primarily at halal carts and dollar pizza joints, in a prominent role. For a sense of how that might be possible, I thought I'd also do a quick analysis of one of my favorite homemade lunches versus one of my cheapest eating out alternatives from when I was at the firm.

My favorite homemade lunch at the moment is a riff on Sweetgreen's kale caesar. My homemade version involves almost exclusively ingredients that are purchased at Trader Joe's, with the exception of the dressing, as I prefer a creamy caesar over Trader Joe's vinaigrette-type caesar dressing, and omits the parmesan crisp croutons. The cost per serving is calculated below, using a shopping list that makes me six servings (each with a lot of kale and a little less than 5 oz chicken).

  • 16 oz. of grape tomatoes, chopped into halves or quarters depending on size = $2.69 
  • 2 bags, 10 oz. curly kale, I rip the leaves off the remaining pieces of stem and massage the kale with a little salt the night before, $1.99x2 = $3.98
  • 1 pack non-organic chicken breast (typically around 1.7 lbs total), oven-roasted and chopped = $8.50
  • 3 limes for a squeeze from half a lime on each serving = $0.87 total
  • 1 container shaved parmesan, romano, asiago blend (5 oz.) = $2.99

Caesar dressing is purchased elsewhere. I like Ken's Chef's Reserve Creamy Caesar dressing with roasted garlic, which is $2.99 for a small bottle with around 12 servings, so I need about $1.50 worth of salad dress for the six servings. This is not, by the way, particularly healthy salad. Raw kale does, in my experience, need a fair bit of dressing to taste good. The total cost for the week is, therefore, $20.53, divided by six that's about $3.42/serving. That's not bad, and certainly much better than the almost $8.50 or so it'd cost at Sweetgreen with tax. Sweetgreen is, admittedly, fairly "bougie" in its target audience, but those prices are typical enough for a salad from almost any deli or takeaway lunch place in any office-heavy part of Manhattan (it's notably cheaper than my Chop't order, though I only got that when the firm was reimbursing when I was working late). 

Still, my alternative lunch back at the firm, at our subsidized cafeteria (deli sandwich around $6.00 , a cup of soup around $4.00, and hot food and salads are sold by weight at one price per ounce), usually a salad with baby spinach, some vegetable toppings, cheese, and meat, was generally only around $3.75 to $4.25/serving. A dollar slice would of course, be cheaper than my homemade salad, as would quite a few lunches at one of those ubiquitous halal carts. (Except that my salad lunch, whether homemade or from the firm cafeteria, likely has significantly more nutritional value than those cheaper alternatives.) Of course, I could also make much cheaper lunches - peanut butter and jelly (not a thing anyone at the firm does, to my knowledge, though a lot of clerks and others at my current job outside of the city do that), something vegetarian etc.

How much do you pay for groceries per month? Are there any eating out options that would be cheaper than cooking in your area? I think it's pretty rare in the US for eating out options to be cheaper than cooking, but from my time in Taiwan and Hong Kong, eating out gets close to being more affordable than cooking there.

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