Feasting on Debt: The Grocery Budget

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The grocery budget is perhaps one of the hardest parts of a household budget. There are so many moving factors to consider, including children’s taste preferences, social obligations, and seasonality of produce. And, of course, the temptations created simply by walking down a certain aisle at the store or seeing a favorite item available at the farmers market.

According to the USDA, the U.S. average cost of food per month for a family my size is between approximately $500 (thrifty) and $1,000 (liberal). These amounts are solely for eating at home, and are based on the MyPlate system, which assumes a balanced diet of whole grains, lean proteins, and fruits and/or veggies at every meal.

Feasting on Debt: The Grocery Budget - Farm eggs

Setting a Grocery Budget

In my last Feasting on Debt post, I noted that finance experts recommend spending approximately 15% of your income on food. When I do the math for us, it seems like quite a lot of money! Now, note that this number is both dining at home and out, so you’ll need to decide on your dining out budget as well. We try to do a 10% groceries, 5% dining out split.

While 15% is a good recommendation, remember that food spending is really personal. The budget of someone who cooks everything from scratch is quite different from the person who purchases a lot of convenience foods or visits restaurants a lot. Also, if you’re like me, you place a higher priority on good food than something like cable television. We don’t have a cable subscription, so that “extra” $50 a month can go toward groceries.

The easiest way to pick a starting grocery budget is to either go with the 15%, or use the USDA chart I linked above. You can also take a look at the past month’s bank transactions, but if you buy food at megastores like Costco or SuperTarget, chances are non-food purchases will skew your findings. Likewise, if you use cash at the farmers market, you might not be able to track past purchases.

Feasting on Debt: The Grocery Budget - Market tomatoes

Keeping to the Budget

First and foremost, you should be taking stock of your pantry before grocery shopping. Some people choose to write down the entire inventory and cross things off as they get used up, but I prefer the visual of actually looking. (Chances are I won’t get around to making a new list every time I add something.)

Meal plan with your pantry in mind. Almost everyone can throw together a meal or two based on what they have on hand, and pantry or freezer items can easily be dressed up with fresh produce. While meal planning isn’t for everyone, keeping a general idea of what you’ll make in the days and weeks ahead will reduce stress and (hopefully) cut down on impulse purchases.

Keep an eye on sales, but be critical about stocking up. I think Americans are bred to love sales. There is nothing more enticing than a 50% off or “buy one, get one free” sign, right? I know many, many people who buy certain foods simply because they’re on sale or they have a coupon, leading to pantries stuffed with food they’ll never get around to eating.

Buy seasonal produce. Citrus in the winter, berries in the summer, apples and pears in fall. While I’m no stranger to out-of-season cravings, seasonal produce is almost always the best way to save money.

Feasting on Debt: The Grocery Budget - Kale

The February Challenge

My challenge to you for February is to set a grocery budget and stick to it. If you’re already confident in your budgeting skills, try spending 10% less. My goal for February? $300.

On my Monday meal plan posts, I’ll be posting updates on how much we’ve spent, and throughout the month I plan to be sharing a few of my more thrifty recipes.

Are you down for the challenge? I’d love to hear how you feel about it, and if you think you’ll succeed.

10 Comments

  1. My grocery budget is definitely something I want to get a better handle on, so I look forward to your posts in the coming month. I am planning to use Mint to track my spending and set alerts when I hit certain amounts so I know if I am going over-budget. My biggest challenge will be convincing myself to cook at home as I gear up for my move at the beginning of March. Then I’m hoping the excitement of a new kitchen (with a level range and oven that maintains a consistent temperature..a novelty after years of apartment dwelling) will persuade me to cook more!

  2. I just shared this post on my Facebook page and asked about everyone’s budget for food. I’m amazed at how many people are able to spend so little. I’m not sure what I am doing wrong haha. I spend at least $300 a WEEK. I’m taking your challenge, I plan to attempt cutting our bill down by 10%. Wish me luck……

    1. @Carrie Thanks SO much for the share! Everyone is posting good comments over there. Let me know if you want help with your groceries. Location does matter a bit, but $300 a week is definitely a lot! Good luck 🙂

      1. @Megan, I spend that as well. I bet a lot of people do. I’d like to cut back, but not willing to give up my Whole Foods.

  3. We spend *maybe* $500 a month on all groceries, including toiletries, because there is nothing. We are a family of 10. So you can imagine those foods are usually the worst foods possible, and the cheapest. Very little meat, some canned veggies, and horrid carbs neither I nor my disabled child can process. But then we have a disabled child and that takes what grocery budget we may have ever had. Coupons are pointless because they are always for junk or stuff we don’t use. So if you have pointers on how to pull off the impossible…I am all ears, er, eyes!

    1. @Rebecca, I don’t know where you are located but do you have a chance to go to a farm market or directly to a farm? I find their veggies to be a better price. If you can get your meat and items that you buy more of at costco that’s a good start cause then you don’t have to stock up as often but I assume you already do that. Sometime I email companies that I want a product from and ask them for a coupon, sometimes they respond sometimes they don’t. Good luck

    2. @Rebecca, I didn’t respond right away because I have been thinking a lot about this. You definitely have a challenge with such a large family! Are you able to shop at a club store (Costco, Sam’s, BJ’s)? We get some of our toiletries there to save money. Other toiletries come through Amazon Subscribe & Save. Saving money on those things helps us buy more/better food. I buy lots of frozen fruit and veggies at Costco; bread might be a good deal for you as well. I make our own bread a lot but with as many people as you are feeding you’d be making bread every single day, which I know isn’t tenable. Do you have a “thrift” bakery near you? We used to buy food there when I was a kid. We also have a grocery store nearby that often has fruit for 50 cents or less per pound (not just bananas!) and I stock up there. I will keep thinking of ideas for you; I hope more readers chime in as well.

  4. Interesting post!

    Based on the USDA chart for my family (which is me and my BF and we are both in our 20’s) our budget is about $380 / mo if we wanted be thrifty. Even for someone who lives in the Washington DC Metro area, this seems like a lot of money for food if it doesn’t include eating out/buying lunch.

    I’m always curious what food-cost saving tips other people have.

  5. I started doing this last year. My husband and I were spending so much money on our food bill it was out of control, and its just the two of us! The first shopping trip of every month we take out $300 cash and we only use that cash for the food store. Having the money in cash makes you more aware of what your spending and exactly how much you have left. So far each month we have had some money left over and by doing this, it has helped us clean out our cabinets and freezer of stuff we didn’t even know we had!

  6. The best way I have found is to make more things from scratch. Check your cupboards for the convenience items. Most times it doesn’t take any longer to make a dish from scratch. The bonus is that you have eliminated the preservatives and chemicals buy making it at home from scratch.

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