When we stereotype rich people, we don't picture them slaving in the kitchen to feed their family, rather we see them enjoying fine food in fine restaurants. The top quintile U.S. household mean income is nearly $200,000 a year, so they can afford eating out more than most people.
However, the group that spends the next most on restaurants, as a percentage of total spending, is the bottom quintile U.S. households who have a mean income of $12,000 per year. According to J.P. Morgan, the rich spend 17.8 percent of income on restaurants and the poor spend 16.6 percent on restaurants. People who earn in-between these groups spend a smaller percentage on restaurants.
So why do people of limited means spend money eating out at a rate nearly as high as the most wealthy? They are obviously not visiting the same eating establishments. However, many fast food places have dollar menus that are deceptively affordable. You may be able to feed a family of four for $10-$20. If you do that twice a week, for both lunch and dinner, that's $1,000-$2,000 per year, hardly affordable if you only make $12,000 a year.
Not only is it not affordable, there is increasing concern that the nutritional value of fast food is suspect. The secret to fast food success is flavor. The industry has spent millions developing the kinds of food we love and crave. Award-winning writer Mark Schatzker reported this phenomenon in his 2015 book, "The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth about Food and Flavor." He discovered that in nature, flavor is a signal to humans that a food is desirable and nutritious. However, modern chemists have been able to reassign these flavors to manmade foods. You don't need to eat a strawberry to get strawberry flavor, you can get it from candy, ice cream or a soft drink. Strawberries are packed with vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, doctor-recommended omega-3 fatty acids and more. Candy, not so much.
The naturalist John H. Tobe said, "Any food that requires enhancing by the use of chemical substances should in no way be considered a food." These cheap food substitutes are making frequent consumers of such meal choices both sicker and poorer.
A high proportion of low-income households are young, and many of them have children. It's to be expected that someone just starting out in adulthood is going to make less than someone with an established career over decades. With a smaller income, it is all the more important to make the best choices of how to spend limited funds. If this describes you, you just don't have enough money to spend on all the things you need.
Here are some suggestions for a healthier wallet and body:
Make that trip through the fast-food drive-through a special occasion and not a weekly or-gasp-daily trip. Going cold-turkey off fast foods might not be realistic, so create a special fast-food fund in your budget each pay period. By planning for this in advance, you can pick a dollar amount that won't bust your budget for other things that are more important.
Consider joining a food co-op like Bountiful Baskets for a weekly supply of in-season fruits and vegetables. You will probably get a chance to eat foods you are not familiar with-consider it an eating adventure!
Time poverty is a big reason many people take the easy way out with fast food. You can avoid this by making a friend of your freezer. Here are some great freezer meal tips. Not only will these meals be more nutritious, you always get more value for your food dollars when you prepare the food yourself.
If you use SNAP benefits to help pay for food, see if your local community has a program like Double Up Food Bucks. This program gives you dollar-for-dollar matches to spend SNAP funds at local farmers markets.
Summer is the perfect time to switch from fast-food to fresh food. Follow this advice and you may be using the drive-through at the bank more than the fast-food drive-through as you add money to savings, instead of eating it up.