I Tracked Every Penny My Family Spent on Food During the Pandemic in 2020
In 2019, I started a little project: tracking every cent my family spent on food, both groceries and eating out. (I even wrote about it!) My tracking endeavor then continued into 2020 — and now 2021! I had no idea how much I’d learn this past year, especially once our eating habits were completely altered due to COVID-19 and the birth of our second baby. Yes, it’s been a whirlwind to say the least.
My family consists of myself, a stay-at-home mum and writer; my husband, an engineer who works remotely (and did so even before the pandemic); our 3-year-old toddler; and our baby son, who was born in April 2020, three weeks into California’s first lockdown. We live in San Diego, and we primarily grocery shop at Costco, Trader Joe’s, and Vons.
How We Built Our Grocery Tracking Spreadsheet
My husband and I built the spreadsheet in 2019, when I decided to do this tracking thing. I wanted to know more than just “We spend $X on food over the span of an average week.” I wanted to know what food we were buying and where we were buying it from. How much do we spend on fruit and vegetables? On meat? On processed foods? Where are we spending our food dollars? Are some places cheaper than others for certain products? How much do we spend on eating out?
I kept detailed records. (I even used the food categories from the Food and Drug Administration, which breaks things down so much, cheese is even divided by type!) We had drop-downs for the ‘food category’ and the store where the item was purchased. I also entered the dates we shopped and total cost of purchases. I diligently kept all of our grocery and eating-out receipts, and manually entered every single cent spent into the spreadsheet.
How the Pandemic Changed the Way My Family Grocery Shops
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic changed how we shopped and ate. Our family stopped eating out as much, and we didn’t replace eating-out occasions with takeout. Instead, we just cooked a lot more. Part of this was because we couldn’t safely eat at restaurants, but it was also partly because we rarely did things outside of the house that previously would have led to a meal eaten out. Not going to the gym meant not stopping somewhere to pick up dinner on the way home; not going to physical shops for errands meant we rarely bought lunch while we were out.
There were also fewer impulse purchases. A lot of our old impulse purchases were thanks to Costco’s free samples, and when those stopped, so too did the accidental purchases that were always additions to the shopping list. I also stopped doing the grocery shopping, and that became the domain of my husband, but we also started getting groceries delivered or shipped.
Because there was so much uncertainty about the virus, and when the lockdown would end or if it would get stricter, we started keeping our pantry, freezer, and fridge very well-stocked. We also did fewer but larger shops. For the first time, we bought long-life milk. We subscribed to a CSA box, which delivers fresh fruit and vegetables weekly, and we signed up to have meat delivered through FarmFoods. When the COVID-19 numbers began to skyrocket towards the end of 2020, we stopped physically going to grocery stores and started using Instacart for delivery. (In 2021, we are still getting most of our groceries through Costco, Whole Foods, Yasokushi Family Farms, FarmFoods, and Amazon — all delivered to the door.)
Breaking Down the Numbers
In 2020, we spent an average of $777.75 on groceries a month, and our total grocery spend was 50.2 percent higher than in 2019. (But in 2019, we spent an average of $418.68 a month eating out, and that wasn’t really happening in 2020, so the money was reallocated.) Also, for what it’s worth, the USDA publishes monthly Cost of Food Reports. For most months in 2020, we spent a little more than the average moderate food plan but not as much as the liberal one. And some months we even spent closer to the low-cost average.
Above is our monthly breakdown of grocery expenses. You can see the effect of the pandemic and our resulting food decisions: March was significantly higher than January and February because that’s when the lockdown began and we started stocking up the pantry and freezer. The last three months of the year were high because that was when we started buying meat from FarmFoods.
This next table shows some of the most common grocery items we purchased the last two years. The category that saw the highest increase was fresh fruit and veggies. We spent 45 percent more on fresh fruit and vegetables compared to 2019, largely in part to subscribing to a CSA box.
The pandemic also altered where we shop. We tried to limit our trips to the supermarket, and ended up buying more in bulk at Costco. This became especially true towards the end of the year when we started getting Costco delivered. We also started spending more money at Von’s because that’s where we bought the majority of baby purées and ice cream.
Not so surprisingly, we spent more money on groceries in 2020 compared to 2019 because we were simply buying more of them. But our preferred delivery methods also contributed to the extra expense. I learned that there was about a 30 percent markup on Instacart’s Costco prices, because one time our Instacart Costco shopper left the receipt in the box so I could compare the in-store prices and the Instacart prices. And of course, we also make a point to tip our shoppers generously.
Because of my glorious spreadsheet and the tracking I’ve been doing for the past two-plus years, I’ve learned that we do pretty well on eating fruit and vegetables, cooking from scratch, and not buying much ultra-processed food. I’ve also learned that even if you don’t eat out much, you can still spend a lot on food. I do often wonder if my family just eats a lot in terms of quantity, or if we’re spending more than the average family of four on food. (Those USDA reports do help me answer that one and they do make me feel a little better!)
My Grocery Goals Based on 2 Years of Tracking
At the end of 2019, I set out with a couple of goals moving forward: Namely to eat out less, and to eat less meat. I’d say that the first goal was a resounding success in 2020; we definitely ate out a lot less than we normally would, due to the pandemic. I also feel like we did eat less meat in 2020, although our spending wouldn’t tell the same story.
After two years of tracking and being hyper aware of what food we buy and from where, these are my goals for the future.
- To buy food straight from the source as much as I can. This means continuing our CSA box subscription and continuing to buy our meat from FarmFoods.
- To eat less meat. Again. While we will source the meat that we do plan to eat locally, I still aim to eat less of it overall.
- To continue eating out less and cooking as much as I can, even if it means it feels like my entire life revolves around food. (Right now, I’m either cooking, cleaning up from cooking and eating, or thinking about what to cook next).
This year, 2021, will be the third year that I’ll be tracking our food spending, and I’m expecting the amount we spend on groceries to increase, if only because my children seem to eat more the older they get. As for what else 2021 has in store, only time will tell.