Ready Your Wallet For Thanksgiving Dinner : Planet Money What will Thanksgiving dinner cost you this year? Also, Cardiff brings back the debate on which is better, pumpkin or pecan pie.
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Ready Your Wallet For Thanksgiving Dinner

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Ready Your Wallet For Thanksgiving Dinner

Ready Your Wallet For Thanksgiving Dinner

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

John Newton, you are the chief economist of the American Farm Bureau Federation. Welcome back to the show.

JOHN NEWTON: Thanks for having me - second year in a row.

GARCIA: Yeah, I know. And John, first of all, what does the American Farm Bureau Federation do, exactly?

NEWTON: Well, we're the largest general farm organization in the United States. We have 6 million members.

GARCIA: Farmers - you represent farmers.

NEWTON: We represent farmers...

GARCIA: OK.

NEWTON: ...In every state in America and Puerto Rico - farm bureau members.

GARCIA: OK. And you're here with us today to talk about the cost - the changing cost of Thanksgiving dinner. But first of all, man, I got a bone to pick with you, all right?

NEWTON: Uh-oh.

GARCIA: We started getting into an argument last year that we kind of left hanging. I was saying that pumpkin pie is the best Thanksgiving dinner dessert, and you were starting to make an argument for pecan pie. So my question for you is, how can you be so wrong?

NEWTON: Well...

GARCIA: (Laughter).

NEWTON: I've changed my views, I think.

GARCIA: Oh, really?

NEWTON: Yeah. The best dessert's now macaroni and cheese.

GARCIA: What?

NEWTON: Yeah.

GARCIA: That's not dessert. That's not sweet.

NEWTON: Puts me right to bed.

GARCIA: Yeah, fair enough. To each their own. Anyways, so John, the reason we've got you back on the show is at the American Farm Bureau Federation every year does this kind of informal survey of all the ingredients that go into a Thanksgiving dinner for 10. And then you calculate the cost, and you look at how the cost of Thanksgiving dinner has changed over time. So after the break, John, you are going to tell our listeners exactly what the cost of Thanksgiving dinner is and how it's been evolving.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

GARCIA: John Newton, let's talk about this survey that you and the American Farm Bureau Federation do every year, OK? First of all, how is it conducted?

NEWTON: Well, we have volunteer shoppers around the country that go to their local grocery stores and survey and evaluate the price of all the ingredients that you need for that classic Thanksgiving meal. So they're checking prices of turkey, pumpkin mix, milk, whipping cream, et cetera. And we've been doing this for 34 years.

GARCIA: Yeah, and you send, like - what? - two, three hundred volunteers out into different stores all throughout the country, right?

NEWTON: Yeah, all throughout the country. I think this year, we had 38 states represented. We had over 250 volunteer shoppers from around the country go to their local grocery store, see how much Thanksgiving cost this year.

GARCIA: Yeah, and they're looking for the biggest bargain - like, the cheapest ingredient they can find?

NEWTON: Well, we don't ask them to do that. We ask them to make sure that they're looking at the prices that are not on promotion, not on sale because, you know, as we get closer to Thanksgiving, a lot of these - the price of these items do change. And we're not trying to see what the promotional price is. We're trying to evaluate what the real cost of this dinner is going to be.

GARCIA: OK, so I take it that a big turkey is one of the ingredients in the survey. What are some of the other ingredients?

NEWTON: Well, turkey is about 40% of the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner.

GARCIA: OK.

NEWTON: I don't think most folks realize that. Some of the other stuff - obviously, you know, for a family like yours that prefers pumpkin pie...

GARCIA: (Laughter).

NEWTON: We've got that.

GARCIA: You know it.

NEWTON: We've got that on the menu. We've got sweet potatoes, stuffing, whipping cream so you can put a little whipped cream on your pumpkin pie, cranberries, peas, green beans, dinner rolls, all the fixin's (ph) that you need for that good Thanksgiving meal.

GARCIA: I got to tell you, dude. I'm salivating already, like, right this second. I can't wait.

NEWTON: (Laughter) One week away.

GARCIA: Yeah, so - OK. So sum it all up. So you do this survey. Everybody goes out to see what the cost of these items is, and you tally it all up. So a dinner for Thanksgiving for 10 people - how much does it cost?

NEWTON: It came in this year at $48.91. That was up one penny from last year. And the price of the turkey came in at $1.30 per pound. That's down about 4%. So a 16-pound bird's going to cost you $20.80 this year. Again, that's below what we saw last year.

GARCIA: OK. And I should note now that I think a lot of people are going to be surprised that it's only $48.91 for a dinner for 10, but again, we're talking about shopping in all the different states. We're not talking about the Whole Foods in Manhattan, where it would be a lot more expensive than that.

NEWTON: No, that's exactly right. I believe the - you know, the turkeys in Manhattan probably come with valet parking or something fancy like that.

GARCIA: (Laughter) Right.

NEWTON: But this is a national average, and we have, again, 38 states represented, volunteer shoppers around the country. So, you know, this is a pretty good representation of what this meal costs across the country.

GARCIA: OK, and so basically, the cost of the meal did not change from last year. I mean, one cent more expensive - basically the same price.

NEWTON: Yeah, and we've seen food price inflation has been relatively flat for a number of years. You know, farmers only receive about 8 cents of every food dollar, but farm prices have been low, really, since 2014, and I think that's led to some stability in this price of the Thanksgiving dinner.

GARCIA: Yeah, and I got to tell you, I was looking at past surveys that you've done. It looks like the cost of Thanksgiving dinner, when you adjust for inflation, has been pretty much the same for about three decades. It stayed within a range of, like, roughly 47 to $54. There hasn't been a tremendous amount of fluctuations. But of course, in that time, the amount of money that households earn has gone up, and so this share of overall family incomes that's gone to Thanksgiving dinner has been kind of falling gently over the last few decades.

NEWTON: In fact, Americans are the leader in the percentage of their budget that they spend on food. They spend less than 6% of their disposable income on food. You compare that to Nigeria, where they spent over 50% of their income on food. We're very, very lucky in the United States.

GARCIA: Yeah. OK, so let's talk about some individual items from Thanksgiving dinner. It looks like the cost of stuffing, pumpkin pie mix and turkey - those all went down.

NEWTON: Right. And one of the things to know about the turkey - you know, the wholesale price of turkey's actually gone up this year. But many retailers are going to use the turkey to try to drive foot traffic into the store, so I think that's probably why we saw it actually go down in our survey. And turkey prices are probably going to get cheaper as we approach the holiday. Some of the other items - the stuffing, the - you know, you see those prices kind of fluctuate throughout the year. The big item - you know, we added ham, and 50% of people eat ham on Thanksgiving. And ham prices actually went up 63 cents for a four-pound ham this year.

GARCIA: Yeah. In terms of the turkey, you mentioned that some retailers were keeping the costs low to drive foot traffic. I mean, do you think that the reason turkey prices haven't gone up more even though the wholesale price has gone up is that there's more competition between grocery stores?

NEWTON: Not in D.C. It's still $3 a pound for a turkey at - near my house. But yeah, I think that's the case. I mean, competition to get consumers into your stores across the country is very, very real. And I think, you know, during the holiday season, it's so important to get consumers in the store.

GARCIA: OK. And some items did have their prices increase - for example, dinner rolls, sweet potatoes and milk. What's going on there?

NEWTON: Well, on the milk side, you know, we've seen milk prices paid to farmers have gone up this year, and whole milk prices have followed that. So they're up compared to last year by about 18 cents a gallon for a gallon of whole milk. Sweet potatoes - we've seen supplies of sweet potatoes tighten across the country a little bit this year, so that's going to lead to, you know, a 36 cent increase in the price of three pounds for sweet potatoes. And really, that's the supply-and-demand dynamics of these agricultural markets working.

GARCIA: John Newton, chief economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation - thanks for being on the show, man.

NEWTON: Thank you.

GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Leena Sanzgiri, fact-checked by Nadia Lewis. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

GARCIA: I want to resolve this pumpkin pie versus pecan pie...

NEWTON: Yeah. Let's resolve that, all right?

GARCIA: ...Squabble. I don't want this to be hanging again for next year.

NEWTON: All right. There are some sympathizers for you out there.

GARCIA: OK. All right.

NEWTON: We did an additional survey, and one the items, Cardiff, that people do add to their - to celebrate the Thanksgiving meal that's not included - pecan pie is on the list. It comes in at No. 5. Importantly, that's behind macaroni and cheese, which is No. 1.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

NEWTON: So in addition to the menu items that we ask them about, what are some other items that you typically serve on Thanksgiving? And so No. 1 was macaroni. No. 5 was the pecan pie.

GARCIA: OK, but that's still way behind pumpkin pie, right?

NEWTON: No. Pumpkin pie is traditional. It's the king.

GARCIA: Yeah. Thank you. I just wanted you to say that just once.

NEWTON: (Laughter).

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