The average American household spends most of its money — 62% of an average $US56,000 in annual expenditures — on just three things: housing, transportation, and food.
If you’re trying to cut costs and save money, food might be the easiest place to start.
Food accounts for 12.5%, or just over $US7,000 in the average budget, of annual expenditures, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. It’s an area where you can make some pretty immediate changes, whereas housing and car expenses tend to be longer-term commitments with less flexibility.
One key to keeping meal costs low is cooking at home. But the BLS data seems to indicate Americans are not very fond of cooking meals on their own — or at the very least, that they don’t spend much money on doing so.
Eating out, which is typically far more expensive than cooking at home, accounts for 43% of the annual food expenditures for the average family — an obvious area to save some cash. This category, according to the BLS, includes “fast food, take-out, delivery, concession stands, buffet and cafeteria, at full-service restaurants, and at vending machines and mobile vendors.”
The biggest spending category for food eaten at home is “miscellaneous,” which requires some further explanation, as it doesn’t actually suggest much home “cooking.” This category appears to be comprised mostly of premade meals and snacks (think Hot Pockets and Lean Cuisines, as well as Doritos and almonds), though it also includes: “condiments and seasonings, such as olives, pickles, relishes, sauces and gravies, baking needs and other specified condiments; and other canned and packaged prepared foods, such as salads, desserts, baby foods, and vitamin supplements.”
If you throw in the next-largest spending category — nonalcoholic beverages, which presumably aren’t involved in meal preparation — Americans’ three largest food spending categories, roughly 60% of their annual food budget, involve little to no actual cooking.
Now, since this data refers to raw spending and doesn’t indicate anything about the number of meals this spending creates, we can’t really draw firm conclusions about how often Americans are cooking versus eating prepared food. Since prepared meals cost more, they may account for more of the food budget even while occurring less frequently.
Either way, if you want to stretch your dollars a little further, reducing restaurant visits and increasing your home-cooked meals is a surefire way to start.