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In 1967 a pound of hamburger cost 49 cents. In 1981, when inflation was raging at 12 percent per year, the price jumped to $1.37. If things continued at that rate, the experts noted, a pound of hamburger would cost $11.79 by the turn of the century.

Well, things did not continue at that rate. And today you can get a pound of hamburger for $1.27. Unless you buy five pounds, then it is 97 cents a pound. Unless you want to pay more for today's lean and extra lean choices. They cost $1.58 and $1.98 respectively (or less in 5-pound packages).Food prices are something we all pay attention to, for a couple of reasons. Food is a necessity, and it is something we purchase often (compared with housing, medical care and other expenses).

What's happening to food prices these days? In general, they have kept pace with the cost of living. On the Consumer Price Index, only apparel and upkeep and transportation have increased at a slower rate in the past decade.

Unlike hamburger, not all food prices have gone down in the past 10 years. But the percentage of income spent on food has declined from about 20 percent to 15 percent. Percentage of income spent for food has consistently decreased in this century. According to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans were spending 41 percent of their take-home pay for food in 1917, 35 percent in 1934, 26 percent in 1960.

The 15 percent of income spent today is an average figure; your family may spend more or less, depending on what you eat.

The USDA's Human Nutrition Information Service (HNIS) computes the cost of food at home, based on four different food plans: thrifty, low-cost, moderate-cost and liberal. (See chart at right.)

In computing the plans, HNIS assumes all food is bought at the store and prepared at home. Costs do not include alcoholic beverages, pet food, soap, cigarettes, paper goods and other nonfood items bought at the store, says Sue Ann Ritchko, HNIS administrator.

"USDA costs are only guides to spending," she said. "Families may spend more or less, depending on such factors as where they buy their food, how carefully they plan and buy, whether some food is produced at home, what foods the family likes and how much food is prepared at home."

Most families will find the moderate-cost or low-cost guidelines most suitable, she says. "The thrifty plan, which the UDSA uses to set the coupon allotment in the food stamp program, is for families who have tighter budgets. Families with unlimited resources might use the liberal plan." All plans provide well-balanced meals and snacks.

To use the chart to estimate your family's food costs:

- Use chart amounts for family members eating all meals at home or carried from home.

- For members eating some meals out, deduct 5 percent for each meal eaten away from home.

- For guests add 5 percent of the amount shown for the proper age group for each meal.

- Costs in the second part are for individuals in four-person families. If you family has more or less than four, total the individual figures and make these adjustments (larger families tend to buy and use food more economically than smaller ones):

- For a one-person family, add 20 percent.

- For a two-person family, add 10 percent.

- For a three-person family, add 5 percent.

- For a five- or six-person family, subtract 5 percent.

- For a family of seven or more, subtract 10 percent.

- Remember that these are costs of food at home. If family members are eating lots of meals away from home, you need to add those costs to your overall food expenses.

According a survey by the Food Marketing Institute survey, average weekly grocery bills jumped in 1991 and then leveled off, declining by $1 to $78 per week in 1992. Twenty percent of the respondents spend $40 or less per week, and 15 percent spend $101 or more.

The FMI survey shows that general economic conditions have made shoppers more aggressive in their use of money-saving measures when it comes to buying groceries.

Economizing measures - such as using coupons, looking in newspapers for advertised specials, stocking up when finding a bargain - are practiced by two our of five shoppers pretty much every time they shop.

The survey also found some differences in the use of these measures:

- Eastern shoppers are more likely than Southerners to scan the newspaper for grocery specials.

- Shoppers age 50 and older are most likely to use advertised specials.

- Women, particularly nonworking ones, are more likely than men to use cents-off coupons.

- Shoppers who live in the East and Midwest use price-off coupons more often than those in the South and West.

- Women are more likely than men to purchase store brands.

- Shoppers under age 25 are the least likely to go to another supermarket for advertised specials.


Chart #1:

Weekly grocery expenses

Question: About how much do you spend each week on groceries for your family?

JAN. 1981 JAN. 1982 JAN.1989 JAN. 1992

$0-$40 29% 23% 21% 20%

$41-$60 29% 27% 24% 23%

$61-$100 31% 34% 37% 39%

$101-and over 6% 12% 14% 15%

Not sure/not answer N/A 4% 5% 4%

Average weekly

grocery expenses $55 $68 $74 $78

Source: Food Marketing Institute

Chart #2:

Cost of food at home

Average costs of food at home for a week during July 1992

Families Thrifty Liberal

Family of 2 (20-50 years) $49.10 $ 94.20

Family of 2 (51 years and older) 46.40 87.10

Family of 4 with preschool children 71.60 133.10

Family of 4 with elementary schoolchildren 82.10 157.00

Individuals in Thrifty Low- Moderate- Liberal

four-person family Cost Cost


1-2 years $13.00 $15.80 $18.40 $22.20

3-5 years 14.00 17.20 21.10 25.30

6-8 years 17.10 22.70 28.40 33.10

9-11 years 20.40 25.90 33.10 38.30


12-14 years $21.10 $29.30 $36.50 $42.80

15-19 years 21.90 30.30 37.60 43.50

20-50 years 23.50 29.90 37.30 45.10

51 and over 21.30 28.40 34.90 41.80


12-19 years $21.30 $25.30 $30.70 $37.00

20-50 years 21.10 26.20 31.80 40.50

51 and over 20.90 25.40 31.30 37.40

Source: USDA

Chart #3:


[Bar graph: see microfilm]