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Unhappy Meals

Ron Wayne

I RETIRED TWO YEARS ago this week. I’d been in a job that was a bad fit for my skills, experience and university degrees. The pay was paltry, but it was the only job I could find four years earlier.

I calculated that my Social Security and state pension would match my take-home pay because they were based on my highest earnings, which were many years earlier. COVID-19 was a threat to old guys like me and my employer was offering a modest retirement incentive, so I happily left.

I did okay on my fixed income during my first year of retirement. But in 2022, inflation has made it much more difficult to maintain my already lean standard of living. Food is the most flexible part of my budget, but it’s obviously necessary and can be cut only so much.

I managed to cope with 2021’s 6.5% increase in food prices. I cut back on treats and sweets. I started patronizing Aldi more frequently, instead of my favorite store, Trader Joe’s. Aldi lacks TJ’s funky, fun atmosphere and friendly employees, but the savings add up. At Aldi, I pay at least $1 less for organic blueberries. I can buy a pound of grass-fed organic ground beef for around $6.

But things have got rougher of late. We’ve had a 13.5% increase in the price of food at home over the past 12 months, including a 9.8% rise in 2022. That’s made it hard to create healthy, tasty meals at a reasonable cost. I don’t buy all organic. But if there’s a small difference in price, I feel it’s worth avoiding pesticides.

As a retiree, I have the time to shop for the best price, so that means weekly trips to Walmart for nonperishable foods, and Trader Joe’s and Aldi for the rest. Publix grocery stores are dominant in my area, but they’re easily the most expensive. Still, I use them for emergencies—the closest Publix is just five blocks away.

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I’ve economized by making larger dishes, such as chili, casseroles and stir fry, so I can get multiple meals from each batch. Chili also freezes well. Still, there’s only so much you can do if you want to eat a varied diet that’s also healthy.

I eat one egg a day. They’re a good source of protein without eating meat, but they also cost 39.8% more than a year ago. Poultry, a healthy and less expensive alternative to red meat, is up 15.9%.

While I’m managing to continue to eat nutritious and tasty meals at home, 5.2 million older Americans face food insecurity, which the National Council on Aging defines as “consistent lack of access to sufficient amounts of healthy food.” Poverty is a key reason, according to the Council’s report.

I shop weekly at a dollar store, but I would never buy food there. There’s no fresh produce. The store’s refrigerated section is filled with highly processed frozen foods. Elsewhere in the store, I’ve seen few canned foods that don’t contain salt. Candy and salty snacks are abundant.

I would cut back on eating out or getting takeout—if there was any room to cut. But the fact is, I’ve gone out to dinner perhaps four times this year. It’s so rare, it’s hard to remember. I go out for lunch maybe once a month. While traveling, I am forced to eat out, and I’m amazed at the prices.

My current hope: The cost of living adjustment for Social Security in 2023 is truly significant.

Ron Wayne spent 26 years working for newspapers in Pennsylvania and Georgia before becoming the editor in the University of Florida’s main news office. During his 10 years working there, he earned his master’s degree in mass communication and taught as an adjunct in the College of Journalism and Communications. Since retiring in 2020, he’s enjoyed a simple life, including reflecting on his experiences on Medium.com. Check out Ron’s earlier articles.

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Edmund Marsh
Edmund Marsh
3 months ago

Ron, my wife starts her grocery shopping online at Kroger, then picks it up at the store, along with other items that she wants to grab in person. She told me this morning that today’s order started at a total of $140, but wound up at $83. This savings was mostly from Kroger program than offers deals on random items that we use. It is easy to aggregate these items online, but that she would never search the store for them. She said it has taken her a while to discover the different ways that she can use the website to save money.

I checked, there is not a Kroger in the Gainesville area, but maybe other grocers have similar deals that are not apparent at first glance. I wish you success, food cost is a major piece of the household budget these days.

Chil 1947
Chil 1947
3 months ago

It has taken me 2+ years of meal planning and strictly sticking to my budget but I am finally in a position to ONLY buy what is on sale. I have a small pantry that is stocked with what we use all the time and even then I only buy based on the amount I can use until the next time that item goes on sale. (Keep track and you will see most everything is on a 4-6 or 8 week cycle. Last month was the first month since COVID began that I went over budget( by $14). The answer isn’t to spend more when prices go up but to spend the same, or less, and become a more careful shopper and to spend only the amount in your budget. Very best way to keep cost down is to make a meal plan based on what is on sale and/or in your freezer/pantry.

Ronald Wayne
Ronald Wayne
3 months ago
Reply to  Chil 1947

Good advice. Thanks

Jerry Pinkard
Jerry Pinkard
3 months ago

Like you Ron, we are trying to figure out how to cut our food spending. As you say, there are limits to how much we can do.

I am surprised that food prices are up only 13%. Many things we buy have increased 20% or more and there are fewer sales items than in the past. I have begun comparing prices at different stores. The net of that is that I may have to begin buying different things at different stores.

Jerry Pinkard
Jerry Pinkard
3 months ago
Reply to  Jerry Pinkard

I looked seriously at Walmart for our groceries but my Amex 6% food discount does not work there. When you add a 5% senior discount and 6% Amex credit, that is too much for Walmart to overcome. Costco does not offer discounts either, plus their large sizes makes them more limited for a senior couple who do not eat a lot.

Bottomline: We will search for discounts but we will not sacrifice quality of food we buy. We are fortunate that we do not have to.

Derek R. Austin
Derek R. Austin
3 months ago

A carton of eggs has about 1,000 calories (12 x 80-90 kcal per egg) and 72g protein (12 * 6g per egg), so at $3.00 per carton you’re still only paying $0.30 cents for every 100 calories…

Eleazar Morris
Eleazar Morris
3 months ago

We shop at multiple area stores. We have a teenager who is a very much in an extended chicken/beef/pork phase. At Wegmans, the price of meat is discounted by 30-50% as it approaches the expiration/best-by date. I scoop up as much as will fit in our freezer. For fruit and vegetables, in general we try to eat what is in season. The farmers markets are sometimes expensive, but it allows us local, often organic food that is flavorful. Right now that means pears, apples, and squash. The “fresh” berries are all imported from Peru or Mexico, frequently tart, and flavorless. We either have some leftover local berries in our freezer from the summer, or else we buy frozen berries, which are cheap(er) and great for smoothies.

Jack McHugh
Jack McHugh
3 months ago

Has me thinking about a “Three Levels of Wealth” model someone wrote about in the last couple years, maybe here.

Level 2 is: “You no longer have to look at the prices on the menu.”

(Level 1 is no debt; I forget if that includes mortgage but think it does. Level 3 is you don’t have to look at the prices on luxury international travel.)

Derek R. Austin
Derek R. Austin
3 months ago
Reply to  Jack McHugh

Level 1. I’m not stressed out about debt: People who no longer have to worry about their credit card debt or student loans.
Level 2. I don’t care what stuff costs in restaurants: How much you spend on a particular meal isn’t impacted by your finances.
Level 3. I don’t care what a vacation costs: People who don’t care how expensive the hotel is or which flight they go on.”

Here’s the source: https://www.oakviewwealth.biz/blog/2021/1/19/theres-levels-to-this

baldscreen
baldscreen
3 months ago

Hi Ron, this is Chris. Thank you for writing this, I think it is the story of many people these days. Appreciate that Jonathan and Humble Dollar are featuring a more broad variety of writers. I am glad your voice is here.

Ronald Wayne
Ronald Wayne
3 months ago
Reply to  baldscreen

Thanks. I definitely write here and on my Medium blog from the perspective of a retiree who never accumulated a lot of wealth but someone who doesn’t need charity, at least not yet!

Jonathan Clements
Admin
Jonathan Clements
3 months ago
Reply to  baldscreen

Chris: I wish I was in a position to pick and choose writers, so the site had a wider variety of voices. But I don’t have the budget to go out and hire writers, so it all depends on who raises their hand and offers to pen a piece. I feel fortunate, however. Over the past six years, the site has managed to attract a collection of strong writers with a keen interest in personal finance and interesting things to say, and the result — I like to think — is an oasis of financial sanity and civil discussion amid that cesspool known as the internet.

baldscreen
baldscreen
3 months ago

Chris again. I didn’t realize this, Jonathan. I agree with you that HD has quality writers. I have been reading pretty much from the beginning, but have only been brave enough to leave an occasional comment more recently. You have a great thing going here.

DrLefty
DrLefty
3 months ago

Thanks for all you do. I love Humble Dollar.

Ronald Wayne
Ronald Wayne
3 months ago

Coincidentally, PBS Newshour (my favorite news program) had this report today about the varied reasons for the higher prices such as climate change causing heat and drought and the second-largest bird flu outbreak in history. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9wPFl6N3MM

Last edited 3 months ago by Ronald Wayne
R Quinn
R Quinn
3 months ago

Ron, im glad you wrote this because it reflects the reality for many retirees. I’m tired of reading on various FB groups about how well retirees are doing, no worries about inflation or the stock market.

But one thing i can’t understand is you say your pension and SS equal your pre-retirement take home income, but then refer to your “already lean standard of living” It seems like being retired is a secondary issue. The good news is looking forward to an 8+% increase in SS next year.

Ronald Wayne
Ronald Wayne
3 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

I’ve prioritized being healthy in retirement so I probably am spending more on better choices of food. Wasn’t so much a problem two years ago, but inflation has made it harder to maintain higher quality.

Andrew Forsythe
Andrew Forsythe
3 months ago

If trying to eat cheaply and healthily, it’s hard to beat rice and beans. Lots of plant protein and fiber. And if done right, very tasty. I could eat my wife’s Mexican beans and brown rice, with homemade salsa, every day.

Nate Allen
Nate Allen
3 months ago

Now I can’t get the Dave Ramsey voice out of my head: “rice and beans, beans and rice”

Ronald Wayne
Ronald Wayne
3 months ago

Thanks for tip. Yes, I often eat both. I live in Florida where there is an abundance of Cuban, Jamaican and other Caribbean restaurants, so I’m a longtime fan.

Nate Allen
Nate Allen
3 months ago

No Costco, Sam’s Club, or BJ’s nearby?
Also, Walmart?

Ronald Wayne
Ronald Wayne
3 months ago
Reply to  Nate Allen

Just a Sam’s, but my freezer is always full, and I don’t have a lot of storage space in my 2-bedroom condo, and none beyond the front door. When I was married with two kids at home, I was a frequent customer of Sam’s and especially Costco.

Brent Wilson
Brent Wilson
3 months ago

At the risk of sounding depressing, I recommend canned sardines as a cheap and convenient protein option. Amazon has a good selection. Regular, boneless/skinless, packed in olive oil, etc. It’s a step up from canned tuna, and a bit healthier too.

Ronald Wayne
Ronald Wayne
3 months ago
Reply to  Brent Wilson

My palate declined. Just never liked, but thanks.

Randy Dobkin
Randy Dobkin
3 months ago
Reply to  Brent Wilson

Also oysters and mussels, all available at Trader Joe’s.

Chazooo
Chazooo
3 months ago
Reply to  Randy Dobkin

Cheap oysters? Uhhh, seriously, man? 🙁

Ronald Wayne
Ronald Wayne
3 months ago
Reply to  Randy Dobkin

Never liked. Perhaps they are an acquired taste!

M Plate
M Plate
3 months ago

Retirement has allowed me to easily cut out the fast food that I often consumed in my years of being overworked. I feel healthier. Ironically, thanks to inflation, my food expenses are higher now.
Dining out with friends defies easy categorization, yes, it is food, but it’s also entertainment.

During my international business travels, I saw eye-opening TRUE poverty. Those that see food insecurity amongst our obese, would do well to see more of the real world.

Ronald Wayne
Ronald Wayne
3 months ago
Reply to  M Plate

I never eat fast food while at home and managed to avoid it except one time on a long road trip this summer. It was Wendy’s and it was awful. The Frosty wasn’t bad. I feel lucky to eat well at home because I can still afford good produce and some organic foods.

Last edited 3 months ago by Ronald Wayne
Edmund Marsh
Edmund Marsh
3 months ago

Ron, here’s a tip from my wife: our local Publix runs weekly two-for-one deals on brand name goods. She cruises the aisles and looks for the current bargains that match our needs. Other purchases are made elsewhere. She says the Publix deals are the best bargain in our area.

Last edited 3 months ago by Edmund Marsh
Ronald Wayne
Ronald Wayne
3 months ago
Reply to  Edmund Marsh

Anytime I need to stop at Publix to pick up an item I forgot from the other stores, I always check the circular when I enter the store. The BOGO specials are quite the bargain, and I buy them if it’s something I like.

Mik Cajon
Mik Cajon
3 months ago

The end result of no affordable and reliable energy sources…self-inflicted inflation.

Last edited 3 months ago by Mik Cajon
Derek R. Austin
Derek R. Austin
3 months ago
Reply to  Mik Cajon

Good thing that solar panels are by far the cheapest electricity source now.

Ronald Wayne
Ronald Wayne
3 months ago
Reply to  Mik Cajon

The Covid pandemic certainly affected prices.

Derek R. Austin
Derek R. Austin
3 months ago
Reply to  Ronald Wayne

The main input into meat derivatives (including milk and eggs) is the price of oil, which is still around $90USD with a very strong dollar. (Source: https://oilprice.com/oil-price-charts/#WTI-Crude )

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