Stephanie Lane no longer makes big family dinners.
Lane, 44, lives with her husband, an art director, and four children in Harrisburg, Pa. A few years back, Lane quit her job as a nurse to take care of her kids, including one child who has a disability. The family now lives on her husband’s income.
Making ends meet has become more difficult as prices have surged, she said, with their household of six living on $65,000 a year. With the yearly rate of inflation at 8.3% in August, every single dollar counts. Families with children are now in “survival mode,” Lane said.
“Rising food costs almost ruined the idea of the family dinner,” Lane told MarketWatch. “You can’t just go out and buy these massive amounts of ingredients — those big chickens and turkeys, and big meat loaves. All of the fixings. The cost of it is just too much.”
With inflation at a 40-year high, households are cutting back. Food inflation hit 11.2% in September, as supply-chain disruptions and labor shortages take their toll. In September, overall inflation rose by 8.2% on the year, down slightly from 8.3% the previous month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Thursday.
“‘You can’t just go out and buy these massive amounts of ingredients — those big chickens and turkeys, and big meat loaves.’”
Lane misses big family meals. “That was something that we really enjoyed,” she said. One reason she no longer makes big family dinners is she found herself throwing away excess food. Her weekly grocery bill is now $40 versus $70 a year ago, partly helped by last year’s child tax credit.
Instead, Lane serves it dining-hall style, where she writes the menu selection on a blackboard and lets them choose. She and her husband make smaller portions for themselves after the kids finish. That could include leftovers.
It’s a balance between what her kids like and what they need. While her daughters love fruits and vegetables, she said her son has gone back to pizza, chicken nuggets, mac and cheese and chicken patty sandwiches. They are his comfort foods.
Lane’s family is not alone. American consumers are feeling the pinch as interest rates continue to rise. Around two-thirds of consumers (64%) said they were worried about their ability to buy food at least once in the past month, according to a recent LendingTree survey.
Last month, MarketWatch asked readers via Twitter TWTR, +0.22% how they’ve adjusted their grocery shopping. Of the 514 who voted, 24% reported shopping at cheaper stores, 26% said they were buying less meat or produce, 7.6% said they were using coupons, and another 40% had not changed anything — yet.
Inflation hits lower-income families first
Economists say that the impact of inflation could move up the income ladder. Lower-income households are being hit first and hardest, experts say, as they spend most of their disposable income on essential bills such as groceries, gas and utilities.
Many lower-income parents report changing their eating habits, substituting meat with cheaper proteins such as beans. What’s more, 20 million American households, largely low-income, are struggling to pay their utility bills.
Scott Brave, head of economic analytics for consumer insights and data company Morning Consult, told MarketWatch that low-income families started cutting back at the start of the year, while middle-income households started pulling back discretionary spending this past summer.
The Lane household found some small joys elsewhere. Lane and her 4-year-old daughter, Josie, look up simple, cheap recipes under $5. Since the little one loves cooking, the two will experiment with the recipes together. If a recipe is a hit, it’s added to the family’s food list.
“‘I know we’re not the only ones who are in this class, this working class that has become the working poor.’”
What started as a cost-saving measure became a special family moment that they recorded with photos and videos. “She loves it,” Lane said. “She gets so proud. If we didn’t have that type of need to do that, she wouldn’t have the ability to make her little $5 meals.”
The Lane family has also cut down on dining out. With one meal for six in a restaurant, “there goes our whole grocery budget for the entire week,” she said. Eating between meals was also curtailed due to rising costs. “We feel it everywhere. We feel it with snacks,” Lane added.
Lane waits for items to go on sale, and has managed to find cheaper groceries by shopping around. But it reached a point where everything became too expensive, and she finally realized her family needed the help of food banks.
“I know we’re not the only ones who are in this class, this working class that has become the working poor,” she said. “We basically were in that group where we don’t qualify for government help for food, but we qualify for help for food through the food bank.”
As for her son, “he’s reverted to not trying things anymore because I don’t make different things anymore,” Lane said. But she said it’s a tradeoff she has to make to get the most out of what she’s spending — and make sure her children never go hungry.
“I want them to have a meal that they enjoy,” she added. “And I want them to go to sleep with full stomachs.”
TOMORROW: Breastfeeding moms talk to MarketWatch about the difficulties in making ends meet as costs continue to rise.