Why so many women feel guilty about how much they spend on food (and how to stop)

Do you feel like you spend most of your disposable income down Tesco or refuelling after the gym? You’re not alone, as Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi has been finding out.

One of the unbearable realities of adulthood is that a lot of your money simply isn’t your own. You’ve got to pay tax, rent, student loan, bills. You’ve got to chip in to buy birthday presents for colleagues you barely know and fork out a small fortune on hen dos in Crete that could have been held in Clapham. But one huge expense that we rarely talk about is food.

I spend the vast majority of my disposable income on food. A couple of months ago, I took an inventory of all my comings and goings and the amount spent in supermarkets, restaurants and bakeries was hundreds more than on gyms, clothes or socialising. It made me feel sick.

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And it turns out that I’m not alone. In a poll we recently conducted with nearly 370 women, 67% (250) said that they felt guilty about the amount they spend on snacks, meals and groceries. 80% said that food was their biggest expense after rent and bills.

“There is nothing unusual about worrying about money – all of us do it – but it’s important to understand why,” says Helen Forward from Get Chip.

Now, the Strong Women audience is quite a specific one. We’re into our fitness and wellbeing – we’re active, we want good-quality grub; some of us are vegan or flexitarian. I’m a vegan who eats a lot because I move a lot, and having sacrificed quite a lot of foods from my diet already, I don’t like the idea of having to cut down yet further. One woman explained that her food guilt comes from buying “plant-based alternatives which are more expensive and limited than meat.”

“I struggle between buying the cheapest items versus more sustainable/local ones that are expensive,” explains another.

More common is the feeling that it simply costs more to eat healthier:

“It seems utterly insane how much it costs to eat healthily.”

“So many programmes and adverts focus on eating well for less… the pressure!”

“Fruit and veg in the quantities that I buy cost more.”

“I’m so privileged to be able to afford nice, healthy food – that’s the guilt I feel.”

Healthy eating: is it really more expensive?

When put to nutritionist Lisa Swabel, however, she claims that the idea of healthy food costing more “is a myth hyped up by the diet industry to sell their processed ‘weight loss’ or ‘healthy food’ ranges. We are led to believe that cooking healthy food is expensive and time-consuming but in reality, healthy foods are the basics we see in the cheaper, forgotten aisles of the supermarket – the tinned beans, dried legumes, fresh vegetables and fruit. Buying fresh produce in season keeps costs down as does buying non-perishables such as beans in bulk.”

She’s right of course: a tin of chopped tomatoes starts at 28p in Tesco, while a 1kg bag of petit pois costs £1.40. Lentils and rice are seriously cheap… but I’ve definitely found that eating over five portions of fruit and veg a day quickly racks up, purely because of the amount you get through. 

If you have a bowl of frozen berries for breakfast every morning, a veg bowl for lunch (including kale, nuts, hummus, lemon juice, tomatoes, cucumbers and pitta bread, for example) and a lentil curry with a side salad (spinach and broccoli) in the evening, you’ll reach the minimum number of plants you need for good health, but you’ll probably need to buy the ingredients all over again two days later. And it’s that what, at least in my case, makes you feel like you spend all of your money and time in the supermarket.

What’s behind your relationship with money?

Forward recommends looking into our relationship with money to workout where guilt may stem from: “Is this because you have debt to pay off and it’s in turn making you concerned about your spending? Do you have a difficult relationship with money because you feel like you lack the knowledge? Are you worried about your lack of savings? There could be a multitude of reasons, but I’d say it’s important to get to the bottom of what’s causing the stress and address that issue first.”

Those who have experienced food insecurity growing up may, for example, struggle with being able to indulge as adults, or feel guilty about buying the ‘nice’ or luxury version, rather than the basic own-brand item.

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One way of overcoming those complex situations is “to take a step back and reevaluate your priorities,” Forward says. “Food is an absolute essential and if, in the words of Marie Kondo, it’s something that sparks joy, then spending more on meals is not necessarily a bad thing.”

Swabel agrees that the guilt about spending money on food is all to do with our emotional connections to food: “Guilt can be from buying ‘bad’ foods (like chocolate) or guilt because spending money on food you enjoy is spending money on yourself. Women are conditioned to feel guilty for prioritising their wants or wellbeing and this extends to the foods we choose to buy.” And given that many of us have grown up with diet culture, it follows that we might feel guilty for spending money on food because we link that with greed or gluttony, Swabel explains.

How to overcome food guilt

So, what do we do about that? One way to address our anxieties around spending on food can be by going back to the good old budget, Forward says. “Go through your expenses and look at how much you really spend on meals. Apps like Monzo or Money Dashboard can be very helpful at giving you a breakdown of where your money goes each month. It’s possible that it’s nowhere near as much as you think.

“If you still feel you spend too much, there are ways to manage your outgoings without giving up the things that make you happy and, let’s not forget this, healthy. Start with meal planning and making shopping lists. Try to make fewer shopping trips so that you’re less likely to buy things on a whim. This will help you budget better and will also help with anxiety around the spending.”

The cost of eating out is a different kettle of fish; Forward points to the social pressure many of us face to go out and spend on meals and drinks. “It can be a tricky situation to navigate but remember that you can always compromise and suggest a more affordable alternative. Swap a brunch for a coffee, a croissant and a walk. Pick a BYOB place instead. Throw a dinner party instead of going to an overpriced restaurant.”

Should we be spending more on our food, or are we actually wasting our hard-earned cash? “I think we need to understand that we are what we eat and a healthy, balanced diet today will help you avoid the cost of living with long-term health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes in the future,” says Swabel. “This current pandemic has been a good example: those with healthier diets and lifestyles were less likely to fall very ill with Covid and therefore suffer the physical and financial impact of the virus.”

Forward also stresses how important our health and wellness are. If we’re looking to curb our spending, it’s worth thinking about slashing any app subscriptions, streaming services, clothes, etc before you try to cut down your food budget. “Money should be about balance; of course, building up your savings is important, but don’t forget to treat yourself.”

That means seeing food and nutrition as a priority; we need to eat well to live well, and once we start to see our meals, snacks and social dinners as necessary parts of our wellbeing, it may elevate those complicated feelings. 

For more nutrition tips, check out the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

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