Percentage of U.S. Household Expenditures Spent on Food, 1919 and 2019

Chart showing household expenditures on food in 1919 and 2019 by income level. Regardless of income, people spent a higher percentage of their income on food in 1919 than they did in 2019.

It seems like food is expensive today, but we actually spend a much lower percentage of our total household expenditures on food now than what our ancestors did a hundred years ago. For example, a typical medium income family in 1919 in the United States spent 30% of total expenditures on food, while today a medium income family spends only 14% on food.

Here is additional information about the data that I used to prepare this chart:

1919 – The 1919 data are from a table in a 1919 book by Mrs. Christine Frederick titled Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home. It was published by the American School of Home Economics (Chicago). See the table below for the 1919 data. The table had information for six income levels. I used the lowest and highest income levels in the table in the book as the “low income” and “high income” respectively when preparing the chart at the top of this post. In the original table, the 3rd and 4th income levels (the middle levels), each spent 30% of their household income on food, so I used 30% as the middle level for 1919. The author of the book says that the expenditure information was collected and compiled “through an extensive survey made through a periodical (p. 284).”

Source: Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home (author: Mrs. Christine Frederick), 1919

2019 – Data are not yet available for 2019 household expenditures. The most recent year available is 2017, so I assumed that expenditures were similar in 2019 to what they had been in 2017. The data are from the Statistica site. The 2019 household expenditure data were presented by quintiles. Here are the food expenditure data for each quintile:

  • 1st quintile: 15.6%
  • 2nd quintile: 14.4%
  • 3rd quintile: 14.0%
  • 4th quintile: 13.0%
  • 5th quintile: 11.2%

For the comparison chart, low income was considered to equal the 1st quintile, medium income equaled the 3rd quintile, and high income equaled the 5th quintile.

29 thoughts on “Percentage of U.S. Household Expenditures Spent on Food, 1919 and 2019

  1. This brought back memories of a post I wrote back in 2014, about 5 years ago. I found similar statistics then and often point out — to people who complain about the price of unprocessed and organic food — that 100 years ago people considered food important enough to spend a bigger chunk of their incomes for it. Thanks for sharing this information!

    1. If you still have it up, can you link in what you wrote in 2014?

      I have to agree with you regarding the complaints. Indeed, not only on this, but on all sorts of things. But I think the reason for the perception on costs changing may be different than we often realize, as I noted in the post linked in, in my comment below.

      This is a really complicated story, but to unfairly condense it, I don’t think that people spent more because they considered it important, but rather they had no other choice. A lot of that is because the poor were, if you will, even poorer then, than they are now, and the middle class was generally lower middle class and lived in the “almost poor” category quite often. With incomes lower, and food generally costing more in real terms than it does now, people had to spend more on food by default.

      1. There are so many things to think about. My sense is that many families really struggled to put food on the table a hundred years ago. I’ve seen several articles in old magazines about how to prepare nutritious yet “cheap meals.”

      2. Pat, I found it for you:

        You are probably right that people didn’t spend more because they considered it important, but rather they had no other choice. I never thought about it that way before but it makes sense. My father often told me that the way they survived the Great Depression was by growing their own food on the farm. How thrilled he was to get an orange for Christmas!

        1. The chart in your post is a wonderful companion to the chart in this post. It’s interesting to see which household expenditure categories increased over time and which decreased. I can remember getting tangerines in my Christmas stocking. It seemed kind of silly to me because there were always plenty of tangerines and other citrus fruits in the refrigerator – but my parents, having grown up during the depression, considered putting fruit in Christmas stockings an important tradition.

          1. My mother often noted that when she was young they’d get fruit for Christmas and a book, and that was about it. This would have been in the 1930s.

            As late as the 1950s fruit was a big deal in some places. Anchorage suffered the effects of a tsunami in the 1950s and part of the loss of life was due to young people having gathered on the docks to receive oranges from merchant sailors, that being the custom there at the time. It was around Christmas.

    1. It’s wonderful to hear that this post was an inspiration for one of yours. I enjoyed reading it. It helped me better understand the historical context.

      1. Thanks. Indeed, there’s so much in this item that there’s a lot to write about. I may come back and post some more based on it.

        1. I agree – there are a lot of important considerations when thinking about the percent of household expenditures that are devoted to food. Another aspect to consider is the international dimension. There are food insecure countries where a much higher percentage of household expenditures go to food than in the U.S. – both a hundred years ago and now. In some locales where there are very dire circumstances, I believe that people spend more than 75% of their household expenditures on food.

  2. Even with the complications of comparing the vastly different cultures of a hundred years ago, people did spend more of their income on food and that always makes me pause. I try to buy local and organic as much as possible, and I hear people talk about how much more expensive that is. It is only more expensive if you don’t take into account the other impacts, such as environmental, of eating conventional food that is shipped around the world to our tables. Yes, we’ve created a “cheap food” network that is not terribly good for the soils or our bodies, and we pay for that in many ways. Mass production means cheaper food, not better food, and that is part of the equation as well. We also have our priorities out of whack. People don’t bat an eye at spending hundreds of dollars a month on cable, cell phones, internet, etc., but if the broccoli from the local farmer is a dollar more a bunch, they shake their heads at how expensive it is.

    1. I’m definitely a fan of farmers’ markets. Today there is so much highly-processed food that can’t possibly be good for us, yet it is often difficult to avoid eating it. It’s so true that each person has their own priorities,

    2. The transportation network and overall fuel consumption involved in modern food distribution is simply stunning. Take coffee for example. It’s grown mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, harvested and dried there, shipped by trucks to docks, shipped by ships all over, and then trucked all over again.

      And its an unusual example in that its been a widely distributed product for a long time. Tea as well. Fruits and vegetables are another matter, as are all perishables of all types. Nothing was shipped much until refrigeration, which came in after the Civil War, and the only really portable foods were things that could be dried.

  3. Wonder if the survey took in account that back then folks didn’t eat out like today ,there were also more packed lunches than today. It’s amazing how kitchens aren’t being used like they used to be.

    1. I don’t know, but I’m guessing, probably not . . . There’s been such a huge shift, even within our lifetimes, in how much people eat out. As someone who enjoys cooking and prefers to eat at home, I’ve never been quite able to understand why this shift has occurred.

      1. Home cooking beats eating out any day! We just don’t do it much.. too costly, must time not good for you,and why sit in a noisy restaurant when you can sit on the porch?

    2. Packed lunches were indeed a big deal. “Lunch buckets” and “lunch pails” were standard for children and a lot of blue collar laborers.

      Indeed, when I was a kid going to school in the very late 60s and 70s I had a lunch bucket that had been my uncles, passed down to me. It’d been his in the 40s and 50s, and apparently was just like one that my father had in the 30s and 40s. My kids never had them.

      1. Your comment brings back memories of my childhood when it was a big deal to have a really cool lunch box. Lunch boxes that featured popular cartoon characters, TV shows, and other aspects of pop culture were a “must have” in the ’60s and ’70s.

        1. How true!

          Indeed, while I never complained about it, I was secretly jealous of the other kids who had cool lunch boxes. I thought it neat that mine had been around so long, my uncle had scratched our last name in it where a paper was supposed to go with that, and even then I thought the connection to a prior era was cool. But it wasn’t as cool as having a G.I. Joe or Astronaut lunch box.

      2. Yep ,I too carried though lunch buckets! Our children did too for they went to a private school that didn’t have a kitchen. Children today probably wouldn’t have a clue how to pack a lunch for a month of school.😀

        1. Funny thing is, I don’t think I knew how, really, even when I did. My mother always took care of that for me. It must have been a daily tasks she did that I didn’t even notice.

    1. There has been a huge shift. Of course, other expenditure categories have really increased across the years – for example, medical/health care.

  4. Very interesting! As time goes on, society become less apt to have families who plant a veggie garden, have at least chickens for protein, and preserve food in season. Fewer parents are at home now, to make time consuming, cost conscious choices in food prep. That said, I think the higher impact of percentage costs, would weigh on those of the lower income.

    1. A century ago a much higher percentage of the population lived on farms or had gardens. I would think that would factor into the percentage of household expenditures that people spent on food back then, but I’m not sure how it impacted the 1919 statistics. I agree that high food costs disproportionately affect those with lower incomes. It can be so difficult.

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