Food and personal finance are similar

Ramit Sethi

For no apparent reason, today appears to be the day where I post a million things about food. I don’t really know why, but I did skip breakfast.

Above is an interesting image about how food prices have changed from 1985-2000. As you can see, “good” food prices increased, while junk food prices went down. It’s no surprise that we see links between obesity and poverty (PDF with nice data).

Anyway, the reason I’m posting about this stuff today is that I’ve noticed how similar food and personal finance are.

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Food: We know we should be eating better, but we don’t. We don’t keep track of what we eat and have no idea how many calories we’re actually eating. (We think we do but we’re completely wrong.) Our friends have pet theories about what’s good to eat, but it’s rarely informed by data and it’s mostly minuatie (“you should eat nuts 18 minutes before sleeping!”). We say we’re going to cook at home more, but never find time to. We spend too much on food.

What’s interesting is that I feel completely comfortable managing my personal finances, but the food issue–a close parallel, I think–is really intimidating. Realizing this has really opened my eyes to how hard it is to get started on a goal, whether it’s personal finance or eating better.

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  1. Eleanor

    Interestingly, there is a clinical link between how people manage their money, and how they treat their food. Eating disorders run in my family, and for the women I know who suffer from them, their finances are disastrous. These issues pretty much go hand-in-hand, in my experience. I’m fairly sure that there have been studies done which show that people relate to money and food with the same part of their brain.

  2. Ramit Sethi

    That’s fascinating. I never thought about that. If anyone has seen research about this, please let me know.

  3. David

    I wonder if the price changes are based more on production costs or marketing. As public awareness of nutrition increases, the percieved value of healthy foods increases; are marketers simply taking advantage of this?

  4. Hawk

    This is interesting to hear right now. Over the past two years, I’ve gotten my finances turned around completely. It helps that I’m extremely methodical and all I really had to do was work up a budget and then spend several months training myself to stick to it.

    It was seeing my success with this that inspired me to apply the same principle to my own physical health and nutrition. I don’t believe in dieting, but I was struck with the idea that if I approached diet and exercise the same way I approached my budget, I might see the same turnaround. This article comes at a good time for me.

  5. Jeff O'Hara

    1. The first step to eating better is making defining meals you want to eat for the week that are healthy.

    2. Make a grocery list itemizing the items you only need to make those meals.

    3. Go to the grocery store and only purchase the items on that list.

    4. Go home and prepare the meals ahead of time if possible to reduce the cooking time it takes for those meals.

    5. Actually cook and eat the meals you chose in item 1.

    6. goto 1. rinse & repeat

  6. Catch a Gideon

    Unfortunetly finance and nutrition goals often counter each other. Vegetables and the like are healthy, but cost dozens of times per calorie as less healthy foods. One of the reasons McDonalds is so prevalent is that it is some of the cheapest food available.

  7. Stephanie

    Great topic. I’ve noticed that the foods that are the best for you are usually the most expensive. I think this point was brought up in the movie “Supersize Me.” Anyway, I shop at ALDI, where I can get a bunch of bananas for 85 cents, a bag of salad for 1.09 and the “fall harvest” (a big bag of oranges, red delicious and granny smith apples) for a little over 2 bucks. Yes, I have to put a quarter into the shopping cart. And deal with the fact that there aren’t shelves. Or bags. But I’ll deal with it because the fruit and veggies are fresh and the prices are right.

  8. spyscribbler

    Healthy food is SO expensive. Even cooking at home is more expensive than eating out these days. We calculated that it would cost $17 to make tacos at home. At tacobell, it would cost us $8 for the same amount of food. How sad is that?

    Pasta and rice are so much cheaper than the healthy things: fruits, vegetables, and fish. If I could cut grocery costs without sacrificing my health, I could save so much more money!

  9. Jennifer

    Ramit, Ramit, Ramit . . .

    This seems a tad misleading.

    While the price of fruits and veggies may be increasing, pound per pound you will pay cents on the dollar for produce than you will for meat or dairy. At my supermarket, you can expect to pay about $4-8/pound for lunch meat, $2-4/ pound for the cheapest ground beef or turkey, $2-3/pound for boneless chicken breast, $1-3/pound for ground veal, pork or lamb, $4-12/ pound for cheese depending on quality, $2-4/ gallon of milk, $2-7/ quart of yogurt . . .

    In contrast, I pay less than $0.30 per pound of bananas, less than $0.20 per pound of carrots, about $0.50-.80 per pound of apples, Ramit, Ramit, Ramit . . .

    This seems a tad misleading.

    While the price of fruits and veggies may be increasing, pound per pound you will pay cents on the dollar for produce than you will for meat or dairy. At my supermarket, you can expect to pay about $4-8/pound for lunch meat, $2-4/ pound for the cheapest ground beef or turkey, $2-3/pound for boneless chicken breast, $1-3/pound for ground veal, pork or lamb, $4-12/ pound for cheese depending on quality, $2-4/ gallon of milk, $2-7/ quart of yogurt . . .

    In contrast, I pay less than $0.30 per pound of bananas, less than $0.20 per pound of carrots, about $0.50-.80 per pound of apples, <$1 per pound of onions, garlic, shallots, salad greens, eggplant etc. I can usually find seasonal produce for <$1. Plus dried beans cost a lot less per pound than most meat and dairy. And then there's food costs in terms of associated health care issues, farmer's supplements and subsidies and enviormental impact. So you really pay for junk food twice.

  10. Jonathan

    Spyscribbler, my girlfriend and I frequently make yummy tacos at home for less than $5 total for the both of us. What special stuff are you putting in your $17 tacos?!

    The 3 most important things about eating healthy are fruits, vegetables, water. I just try to make sure to get enough of those three, and then I eat some meat or whatever else I want to eat.

  11. Jim

    I wonder what role, if any, agriculture subsidies play in this trend…

  12. sfgal

    i tried to budget $20 a month but after two weeks i couldn’t keep starving. and i was buying groceries at the ethnic markets and at the end of the day when prices were discounted. it’s possible to do it but you’d be eating a lot of beans, rice and vegetables.

  13. NLG

    I’m unsure about the taco cost results by Spyscribbler too.

    Some tortillas cost $2 (enough for 4 people at least), ground beef or tofu $4, spices $.5-$2 depending if you get prepackaged ones, veggies $1 maybe, and cheese $1.

    You have to consider how much you are putting into a meal. You may pay $7 for a block of cheddar, but you probably use about $1 in your tacos for 4 people.


  14. mikeymo

    Just in case anyone hasn’t seen “Super Size Me” (and I suggest everyone should), it is now being shown on MSNBC. It’ll be showing again this coming Wednesday at 10:00pm ET…

  15. Greg

    This is how I do tacos, FWIW, 12 taco shells= about $1, seasoning= 69 cents, lean ground beef $3/lb, Head of lettuce= $1.19 ( and only a small fraction of this is used), 8 oz Kraft cheese $1.67 ( see lettuce), tomato, 33 cents. so for 12 tacos at most $8, assuming you throw away half a block of cheese and head of lettuce ( I don’t but apparently people on the internet don’t know how to use ingredients more than once).

    The price of taco bell is not the only thing I would consider. For one I dont consider Taco Bell anything close to real food or fresh food. I dont know where the ingredients are coming from, what has been frozen, what is squirted out of a tube,etc. While I understand not paying MORE to make tacos at home, if its about the same- seems fine to me. I also wouldn’t use Taco Bell as a price comparison for making tacos anymore than I would compare cooking a steak at home to eating one at Denny’s. I would use the prices of a real Mexican joint and steakhoue, respectively.

    Eating at home should not be compared to eating fast food and being malnourished. For example, dont say its cheaper eating out because you have a donut for breakfast, and 1 item from the Dollar Menu for lunch and dinner. When you prepare food at home, its more comparable to at least a medium-tier casual restaurant. Especially since you control the ingredients, prepare it within minutes of eating,etc.

    I read over and over again people online saying eating at home costs more and it is clear to me these people distort the data and suffer from a couple issues:

    1. Purposely shopping at the most expensive store and buying the most expensive brand/type ( ” A gallon of milk is 6-7 bucks, it’s cheaper to buy it at McDonald’s”‘) or buying the most expensive dinner possible ( ie ” A lobster, caviar, bottle of wine, truffles, cheesecake”).

    2. Not knowing how to count/use ingredients. If I buy a pound of ground beef for $3 and make 1 quarter pound burger, that 1 burger cost 75 cents, not $3. If I buy a bag of 10 apples for $3, each apple only costs 30 cents. But the people who whine about eating at home costing so much ( if you prefer eating out or its more convenient, then just say so) apparently dont have modern refrigeration and things like that. I mean if I buy a gallong of milk or a block of cheese, I will use it multiple times over the next week or so. Tthe lettuce or tomato in today’s taco might find their way into tomorrow’s salad or sandwhich topping,etc.

    Lastly, as already stated above, the actual cost of “healthy” fresh food is much lower than junk food when compared on a per serving basis, especially if you consider the nutrition you actually get ( healthier foods pack more punch and are filling). You can get 10 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables for the cost of a pound of fatty meat or 1 bag/box of chips or 1 value meal, or whatever.

  16. Steven

    Perhaps there is something that everyone is overlooking. Yes, there is a price difference for healthy versus unhealthy foods, but what can we consider health cost benefits for paying extra?
    A quick look at Wikipedia:Obesity shows that obesity costs about 78.5 billion dollars, or 9.1 per cent of healthcare costs. Not to mention the personal costs later in life for the treatment of diabetes, cardiovascular issues and the like.

    I choose to pay extra to eat healthy not only from a self-respect standpoint, but also from a financial perspective. I consider the extra difference I pay for healthier food an investment to an asset: my body. The return may not be fully realized, but it helps to keep me on track (economic incentives are some of the most powerful psychological motivators).

  17. Anonymous

    Fast Food Nation made a really good point that the trend you see in the graph above is due more to public policy factors than anything else. In the 1970s there was a huge glut of food being grown by American farmers that even the Soviets couldn’t import simply because there was so much of it. Gigantic agribusiness combines like ConAgra and Iowa Beef were intent on growing more rich and powerful, but they couldn’t do it just by simply growing more food. The only way to expand further was to somehow cram more food into the already overstuffed gullets of Americans. That’s when Congress stepped in. These huge businesses lobbied hard to increase subsidies dramatically for the processing of this surplus of foods into manufactured foodstuffs. Hence, for example, why most sugar now consummed in this country is no longer real sugar but a corn syrup byproduct (the corn lobby will support this subsidy to convert corn to sugar tooth and nail). All these processed foods were kept artificially cheap, due to the subsidies, so that Americans would buy more of them. The price of unprocessed foods, like healthy fruits and veggies, were not subsidized, thus the higher prices in comparison to the processed stuff. Even more so, because much of the farm output was and is being gobbled up to produce all of this processed junk, the price of unprocessed foods is artificially increased due to a decrease in supply of raw farm produce. The subsidies thereby distort prices to such an extent that you get what results: really cheap processed garbage and relatively expensive real food. I guess that’s America’s food system for you nowadays: God Bless ConAgra!

  18. spyscribbler

    Wow! I need to move to where you live. Gosh, a tomato here is almost two dollars! Not to mention cheese which is $3.49, plus onions (cheap, less than a dollar), taco shells = $3.69, meat =$2.99 (on sale … often $3.99 a lb.), seasoning=$1.19, and taco sauce is $$4.29.

    Ack! Maybe it’s just Ohio, but it seems like the cost of groceries has just gone up astronomically in the past year or two.

  19. spyscribbler

    I will give to Greg that we do get to use the tomato and lettuce (lettuce is same price here) the next day for salads. We eat all the cheese and onions and meat, but we do have some salsa leftover for the next taco run. So take away what? $3 from my total.

  20. Murph

    This is straight up cheap vs. frugal though, sure you can spend next to nothing at Taco Bell but the quality of ‘real’ food is much higher.

    This reminds me of dog food. You can buy the cheap stuff but your dog will eat more. You can buy the expensive stuff and the dog will eat less of it.

  21. Ramit Sethi

    How dare you insult Taco Bell

  22. Jeremy

    I am so busy during the day that I make all my meals on Sunday. I put them in tupperware and grab and go before I go to work. By doing this I can also by bulk dry goods (rice, oats, beans) which are a lot cheaper they just take longer to prepare.

  23. Nagel

    I have not had fast-food in well over a year. My wife and I go out to eat maybe 2 times a month. We consciously try to keep our food spending down.

  24. Dave

    Sounds like it is time for you to subscribe to Men’s Health…

  25. Kiran J. Umapathy

    The idea that cooking for yourself is more expensive than eating out is ridiculous. There are tons of meals that can be made for a couple bucks. Also, there is nothing wrong with pasta and rice. They really aren’t unhealthy foods (try brown or whole wheat once in a while), and if you are gaining weight because of them you just need to get out the door more often. I shop mostly at Trader Joe’s and most everything is priced well below the regular supermarkets as well as being less processed. But the goal really shouldn’t be to be frugal at the expense of your health. Eating right should be considered an investment in your well-being. Check out to a see a list of foods and recipes that will keep you feeling good.

  26. breck

    I think the best way to solve the food problem is to eat less and live a more active lifestyle.

    I like to look at pictures of my great grandfathers. Fit as can be, they did it without keeping tracking of what they ate or any fancy technology. Looking at these pictures, I realize 2 things:

    1) Being fit is definitely in my genes
    2) It’s a lot simpler than it seems

    If you are a consistent person, you should be able to beat it. If you are prone to mood swings or easily influenced by ads, try to control that and you could accomplish your other goals better.

  27. Patrick

    “As you can see, “good” food prices increased, while junk food prices went down. It’s no surprise that we see links between obesity and poverty.”

    Really? By that logic, if food prices were the same between

    I would suggest that those in poverty are more likely to be those who make poor choices–they haven’t learned to be rich–and those who make poor choices in general will make poor choices when it comes to nutrition. Isn’t this a more likely cause of the link you cite?

  28. John

    looking over these replies, I see a distinct lack of ccounting for the value of time spent on either activity – i.e. the value of the time (and labor) spent acquiring and preparing food vs. the time spent on buying “junk food”.

    Some prefer to eschew Jeff’s “simple” 6 step process
    for an even simpler 3 step process:

    1) Order food

    2) Eat food

    3) Repeat (as needed)

  29. hypatia


    You’re crazy… Going to restaurant takes a lot of time: driving, parking, ordering, waiting, eating, waiting for the *&%#ing check… etc. It’s fun when going out with friends, tedious otherwise.

    @everyone else

    Now, on to tacos. Leave it to gringos to make tacos expensive. I buy fresh corn tacos in 30-packs and refrigerate them. Cheap, easy lunches all month. I use chicken as filling (ground beef is so school cafeteria). That’s the most expensive part since I usually get tenders instead of cooking it from raw. A little ground cheese (even cheapass mozzarella works), any veggies I have in the house (peppers are most authentic anyway), frozen peas and corn if I don’t have fresh veggies, an avocado if I can get it (sometimes as little as 99c–you’ll pay more than that for guac at Chipotle), and spices–free! Okay, so I did have to buy them… once. I get large packs of fresh, tasty mexican spices from the ethnic store. Badia is a good brand, often in actual supermarket. Why would anyone buy “taco seasoning” packs? Ugh! Get “chili powder” mix, or use cumin, cinnamon, cayenne and a little tumeric for fun.

    Also, you can buy kidney beans in the can and mash them with a fork. This reduces the gas and is much cheaper than refried beans. Just add ground cumin to give them the “mexican” taste.

    Sour cream is too expensive, too fatty, and goes bad. If I put a lot of hot pepper in my tacos, I add a dollop of plain yogurt. If you use clean spoons to dish out the plain yogurt, the tub will last longer than you think.

    I eat microwave “tacos” almost every day for lunch. They are cheap, delicious, and satisfying. You taco shell, canned salsa, and seasoning mix purchasers are being ripped off big time!

  30. Lee Walmach

    #6, McDonalds USED to be fast and cheap, now it’s slow and expensive :P.

  31. june

    On emore solution: Forage and freeze. Bargains galore but watch out for contaminated sites.

  32. Scott

    I enjoyed this post, and I snicker because I have recently become perhaps more obsessed with my calorie counting than my finances (which I keep well, but not at the detail I’m tracking calories now!).

    I found a website that allows me to keep a daily diary of calories and exercise The site is motivational about consistency (they give you badges) and has a rich community that has populated the database quite well, making it easy to know the caloric intake. Arguably the reason people probably don’t really know what they’re consuming is that the information isn’t always easily obtained (the website helps). Using a dietary system/tool is essential, just as it is for finance.

    My favorite statistic is how many servings are in a basket of Island’s french fries: 4.5 (I have been known to eat one by myself). Each serving: 420 (that’s almost 2000 calories I was eating!).

  33. Dave

    Wow…people complaining about food prices??? why i do agree that it sucks to pay more for healthy foods.. i spend about $300 a MONTH on food.

    Thats about $10/day.

    I eat healthy, am in great shape. And (including snacks) I eat about 6 meals a day. (some of which might be as easy as a handful of almonds).

    Skip all foods with High fructose corn syrup, sugar, beached wheats, trans fats.. etc

    I eat mostly chicken, veggies, oatmeal, fruits, cottage cheese, almonds, cashews, tuna fish… etc.
    Almonds are $7.99/lb at the grocery store.. but Amazon has them for $4.50/lb… buy smart
    I save about $3/lb on chicken by getting it from costco…

    stop using the $$$ as a cop out to eating healthy. i guarantee most people spend more on candy each month than they do whole grains.

  34. Joe Bassett

    If you have a chicken plant near you and you can afford it buy a thousand lbs of chicken and split it up between your family members. Grow a garden already. Now tomatoes are a dollar a piece. No matter how high food gets seeds stay the same price. Processed foods are junk food anyway. If you have a fish plant by a thousand lbs of fish and split between your family members. Grow a big garden that many family members can take care of. Walking in a grocery store and buying processed foods is like bending over and taking it big time. Grocery stores are a rip off. BUy at smaller stores that don’t sell kosher foods marked with the K or U.

  35. Joe Bassett

    My mother comes from the old school. She doesn’t feel like she’s eaten well unless she gets out the frying pan or turn the oven on everyday. In the summer eat big salads that you have grown in your garden and you’ll save a ton. IN Europe everyone grows a garden. Those people hardly go to the grocery store. They can’t afford it and we see that we cna’t afford food prices that we have now, either. There is alternatives, grow a garden, it’s fun and cheap.

  36. Joe Bassett

    Americans are so fat and stupid. That’s why our airlines can’t make money and they can in Europe. Americans are 50 lbs fatter on average. The airlines should charge fat people more money to fly. The airlines claim if they cut just one lb from their flights they save 13,000 gallons of fuel. So just think how much it cost to fly a plane with 200 Americans weighing 10,000 lbs more than Europeans. The airlines will figure this out. Also, McDonald’s is the worst place to eat in the world. A big gulp soda has 40 teaspoons of sugar. A family of five eats lunch at McDonald’s the cost $40 and the food is junk. Here’s a better tip. If you’re leaving home and you know you won’t be home for lunch just pack a sensible lunch. Also in the hot Summer pack a cooler with Gatorade or water. If not you’ll buy the big gulp. If you are caught away from home and you need to eat lunch go to Dollar General and get a can of corned beef, jar of pickles and can of spinach and apple sauce. A family of five could eat at Dollar General for $12.00. Americans are lazy. When you go to Pizza Hut you eat the junk and then have to leave a tip. I would love to see all the Fast food restaurants go out of business.

  37. jana

    you well have a point here. i have some experience on this. i have sarted dieting last year as mentioned elsewhere. in 2007 i was keeping a budget and doing pretty good with my finance. but my calories were out of control. in 2008 i have desided i need to shed weight so i worked on it, but soon after i was just unable to stick to my budget – counting both cals and money was too much at that time, and healthy weight was a priority.
    at the end of 2008 i did some planning so i hope 2009 is a year when i will be able to handle both, but sure will need to learn a lot, and to read many blogs and articles as motivation – having control of both finance and food is harder that just doing one (but i am sure if i stick to it the results will be fabulous)