When she was growing up, desserts were not served and side dishes were rare. “My mom had a budget every week and she stuck to it,” she said. “As I got older and more financially independent, having a full pantry and being able to eat whatever I wanted was a sign of success.” She added.
“It was very humbling to go from that situation to where we are now.”
Altman and her wife live in Austin, Texas with their three children. Lately they have relied mainly on an income. Their lower income, coupled with inflation, has dealt a blow to their finances.
And that has radically changed the way they eat. Altman isn’t the only one making big changes.
For those who struggled to buy groceries before prices skyrocketed, rising costs could mean falling into food insecurity, a state of unreliable access to affordable food.
Even for those not threatened by starvation, the food price spikes are staggering.
Food “is very important to our self-esteem and our mood,” said William Masters, a professor in Tufts University’s School of Nutrition Science and Policy who is also a member of the faculty of economics. “Not being able to buy the groceries that people are used to — that your kids are asking for, that your family wants — that’s a really tough thing,” he said. “Any disruption of the habit is very, very difficult.”
Give up simple pleasures
For Carol Ehrman, cooking is a joyful experience.
“I love to cook, it’s my favorite thing to do,” she said. She particularly enjoys cooking Indian and Thai food, but stocking up on the spices and ingredients she needs for these dishes is no longer feasible. “When every ingredient comes out, it adds up to the total,” she said.
“What used to cost us $250 to $300 … is now $400.” Ehrman, 60, and her husband, 65, depend on his Social Security income and the increase has been a strain on their budget. “We just couldn’t.”
About six months ago she realized she had done it change the way she shops for groceries.
To reduce immediate costs, Ehrman stopped buying in bulk as often as he used to. Now she chases sales, avoids buying beef, and opts for packaged wine over beautiful bottles if she buys wine at all. She also cooks simpler meals and says goodbye to dinner parties.
Ehrman has even skipped the prep of staples like tomato sauce to save money, opting instead for a prepackaged version.
“I know I can do it a lot healthier,” she said. And “it always tastes so much better.” These fresh ingredients are just too expensive now.
Ehrman’s husband is retired due to chronic health issues, and she has found it difficult to work due to her own health issues — she recently had a pacemaker and cardiac catheterization. The couple, who live in Billings, Montana, were frugal and enjoying simple pleasures before the current price hike. But now even these are out of reach.
“Before, at least we found joy in being at home and having friends and family, cooking and sitting at the table and just being content,” she said. Well: “I’m not entertaining at all. It’s really sad.”
From Coke to Pepsi
Rick Wichmann, 64, and his wife have eaten out less in recent years due to the pandemic and in an effort to eat healthier. With menu prices rising due to inflation, they see no reason to change their habits.
“Eating out is expensive,” he said, noting that he’s often happier with home-cooked meals than with restaurant food anyway.
Grocery shopping is also more expensive. Last year, Wichmann found he was spending about 25% more on groceries for himself, his wife and their son than he used to.
To mitigate those costs, Wichmann, who lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, started going to various grocery stores. He avoids Whole Foods and Stop & Shop, opting instead for Costco and local chain Market Basket.
He’s also switched to private label when he feels quality is the same, and sometimes chooses products based on price rather than brand loyalty — like buying Pepsi when it’s cheaper when he himself otherwise would decide Coke.
A vegetable garden in the front lawn
Like Wichmann, Jenni Wells, 38, pays attention to weather patterns and food systems. As a former cook and rancher, she noticed price increases long before the current surge in inflation.
“I saw food prices going up and I realized it would quickly overwhelm our budget,” she said. So in February, she uprooted the grass on the front lawn of her home in Fort Worth, Texas, which she shares with her husband and her best friend, and planted a vegetable garden.
“I just wanted to see what I could grow for myself,” she said. This year she has managed to grow broccoli, cauliflower, okra, tomatoes, peppers, squashes and more in her garden.
There are of course purchase and maintenance costs for the garden. And it’s not easy to grow vegetables. But the household’s weekly grocery expenses, excluding meat, have fallen from about $200 to $50, she said.
With the leftover money, Wells and her household could eat out at restaurants, which would have been “too much of a luxury” if they were still spending $200 a week on groceries. And there’s the satisfaction of growing your own food.
“There’s a huge sense of reward,” she said. “I’m proud of every meal I make with it.”
change for the better
Some consumers have made changes that they want to stick with due to the current circumstances.
Now, Altman, the Austin mom of three, wants to keep her grocery bill to around $100 to $125 a week through the purchase Store brands, lots of pasta and a limited amount of protein each week.
Instead of ordering or grilling steaks or ribs, Altman’s family eats simpler meals with smaller portions. “Now our meals consist of a main course and that’s it, maybe some bread on the side or a salad.” When they go out to eat, they grab a fast-food meal with a few side dishes, like a burger and two fries, divide the items up, and have drinks at home.
If Altman can afford it, she will buy more fruit and vegetables again. But she hopes some habits, like encouraging her kids to avoid mindless eating and reducing food waste, will stick.
“I’m not going to spend $1,200 a month on groceries,” she said. “That taught us that it’s not necessary.”