Often preceded by the third-person singular pronoun it, the American-English phrase doesn’t buy (the) groceries is applied to an act or activity that brings in no money.
These are the earliest occurrences of the phrase that I have found, in chronological order:
1-: From “Just We Three”, by Bettye Brown, published in the Evansville Journal-News (Evansville, Indiana) of Monday 2nd January 1911:
“What a grand old year it was!” we all say it to be agreeable—it’s force of habit—and the “Happy New Year” is being worked to death”—so says the grouch—but stop and think. Isn’t it true? The mere saying of it doesn’t help much—make an effort—help some one this coming year—for “actions speak louder than words.” It’s all very well to wish some one a happy New Year when you know it will be a happy one any way—but “Happy New Year” doesn’t buy groceries for, nor give coal to, nor keep warm the poor little tots and unfortunate ones in town. Say less—do more.
2-: From The Bay City Tribune (Bay City, Michigan) of Friday 25th July 1913:
The extent of his losses he refuses to reveal. He intimates however that they have been sufficiently large to justify him in taking precautions in the future.
Justice of the Peace C. A. Cowan has ceased to begin suits unless he has first received some compensation or guarantee. “It makes business good, but it doesn’t buy groceries.”
The Justice declares that since opening his office he has started dozens of suits, and advanced the initial court fees himself. “When the cases come up for hearing,” he declared, “nine out of ten have been dropped. His honor, the judge, is left to hold the sack.”
3-: From the statement issued by Frederick Thomas Woodman (1871-1949), who had just “entered the race for re-election to the Mayoralty”—statement published in The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) of Friday 21st March 1919:
The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Replacement Bureau is my answer to the question of how shall labor readjust itself when the boys come home. Already more than 1200 service men have been placed, without cost to themselves, or their employers, in this patriotic process of assimilation.
Returned service men must be shown a lively appreciation of their efforts in a practical way. Oratory doesn’t buy groceries.
4-: From the Columbus Daily Advocate (Columbus, Kansas) of Friday 31st March 1922:
In view of the calamity to Burlington, which caused a flood damage of $1,000,000, and ruined the town’s business district, many other sister cities in Kansas feel the urge to help a little. It’s up to Columbus to get in on this. We should raise $150, at least.
Sympathy is a fine thing. It may soften grief, but it doesn’t buy groceries. If you have sympathy for the unlucky ones at Burlington, pin a check to it, and have it counted.
5-: From the portrait by Graham Stephens of Juanita Miller, daughter of the U.S. poet Joaquin Miller (Cincinnatus Heine Miller – 1837-1913), published in several U.S. newspapers on Sunday 24th June 1923—for example in The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, Iowa):
She wedded her lily love, otherwise Juan Miller. Juan of the flaming hair who plucked her from a burning pyre to claim her as bride. That was the way Juanita staged it and Juan was willing. Another feature was the wedding kiss that lasted twelve minutes by a reliable watch.
But the lily love had many debts. There Junaita [sic] met him on common ground. But merging debts doesn’t buy the groceries, and so that wedding failed to take except that Juan of the flaming hair soon took himself off and Juanita did likewise—to a divorce court.
6-: From a United-Press story published in several U.S. newspapers on Monday 14th July 1924—for example in the Evening State Journal (Lincoln, Nebraska):
Chicago, July 14.—Bobbing the hair for the girls is “nice work” but it doesn’t buy the groceries—so the Journeyman barbers’ union will demand higher wages or strike.
“Our tips aren’t what they used to be,” a spokesman for the union said. “The girls are nice but their hair is harder to cut and all they leave with us when they go out is a lot of fragrance.”
Girls don’t argue about the price but they don’t tip and so the barber bosses profit while the “help” is losing money, the union will argue during negotiations this week with their employers.
I have found a British-English use of the phrase in an article about the “question of deserted wives and fatherless children”, published in the Evening Chronicle (Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, England) of Monday 20th June 1966:
It has always seemed somewhat irrational to those who have concerned themselves seriously with the matter of maintenance that a court should have the responsibility of deciding whether or not a marriage has broken down.
But it is even more illogical that the law, as it stands, should seem so often to be biased towards the irresponsible husband once separation has been established legally and a maintenance payment ordered.
Enforcement of the order can be a difficult, occasionally impossible, affair, and sending the most recalcitrant of the defaulters to prison doesn’t buy the groceries.