Groceries: How Much Should You Spend?



How Much Should You Spend on Groceries?
Is coming up with a consistent monthly food budget making you crazy? Or guilty? Or hungry? Jane DeLaney, the founder of E-Mealz, puts things in perspective by sharing her experience with creating a food budget. Read Jane’s strategies to adopt, and some she encourages us to drop.

I am often asked how much I spend on groceries each month. As you can imagine, my food budget has changed over the years. But one thing that remains the same and that I know to be true, is if I don’t set a fixed—and I mean fixed—amount on groceries, my food spending will quickly evaporate into a black hole.

It’s suggested that families with an annual income range of $50,000 to $90,000 budget 11 to 14 percent of their after-tax and tithe income on groceries. For example, a family of four to six with an annual income of $75,000 would budget $500 per month on groceries. In today’s economy that seems nearly impossible, but it can be done.

Perhaps you’re wondering whether the average family can spend even less than $500 a month on groceries. My answer is absolutely. In fact, I’ve pulled off dinners on many occasions that cost only $4 to $5. And that’s feeding my family of six, which includes four teenagers. What those $4 dinners did require was a lot of time and effort with couponing, rock bottom prices, meat markdowns and free produce from my neighbor.

I am always striving to make dinner as cheap as humanly possible. But consistently saving money at the grocery store isn’t about the coupons, free produce or special sales—what I call “props and variables.” Those things can be time consuming and are not always at my fingertips each week.

What I came to realize was that counting on these variables each week turned dinner into an inconsistent “hit or miss” approach, which left gaps. This set me up for “the five o’clock stare” into my cupboard, which then led to a last minute grocery run or the fast-food money pit. And we all know that a single fast-food bombshell can cancel out all the savings from couponing that week.

So, what’s the answer? Menu planning.

As my family grew and I went back to work, time became critical. This forced me to think realistically instead of idealistically. Dinner had to appear every night, come rain or shine, dirt cheap or not. I finally accepted that the best tool I had in my grocery saving arsenal was not my file cabinet of coupons or cupboard full of bargains. Rather, it was consistent, realistic, practical dinner planning.

Meal planning allowed me to stay within a “fixed” grocery budget. Using recipes that were already budget-friendly and then building a menu based on the weekly grocery store sale flyer, were two variables that could consistently translate into a working, frugal menu from week to week. If I had extra time in a given week, I could dig in deeper for further savings with coupons, bargain hunting and stockpiling. But it wasn’t required.

So, what is a realistic amount to budget for the cost of one family dinner? At E-Mealz we believe that a do-able, projected amount that can feed a family of four to six is approximately $11 to $12 per dinner. That’s $360 for an entire month of dinner groceries. The amount is based on today’s current grocery prices and frequent sale prices. And of course, a very young family or couple will be able to save more money on a weekly basis.

If you have never created and followed a dinner plan from week to week, I encourage you to take on the challenge to try it for just one week. Having a dinner plan translates into a grocery-spending plan that is key to making your overall budget consistent and fixed.

You’ll gain family time, sanity and control of your food spending. With this realistic and predictable approach, your very own dinner table becomes a money saving tool waiting to happen!

This Everyday Cheapskate column was printed in its entirety with the permission of Mary Hunt and DPL Press, Inc. 2011. To sign up for this free daily column, go to www.EverydayCheapskate.com. E-Mealz.com is a simple system that saves your brain and your budget by eliminating the time-consuming hassle from dinner menu planning, recipe searching and grocery budgeting. For more information, go to www.e-mealz.com.

For more information about financial counseling services at The Village Family Service Center, call 1-800-450-4019 or go to www.HelpWithMoney.org.

31 thoughts on “Groceries: How Much Should You Spend?

  1. In the last couple of years I started couponing after I saw a You Tube video of the coupon mom getting a months worth of food for next to nothing. Couponing was effective but very time consuming. Trying to run around town to use the right coupon at the right store in the right order of the transaction just to get to the best deal. I ended up with a lot of junk food in my pantry! After a year of that…I decided to meal plan and ended up saving the most money, eating very well in quantity but also HEALTHY! Menu Planning keeps it all in check…plain and simple :) I don’t stress about what to do for dinner as there is food in my pantry and money left in my bank!

  2. OMG – we have spent over $800 this month MOm, sons (20 and 22). My 22 even buys alot of his own food to eat. My 20 yr old is very pickey and eats very things but they are healthy. Yes, the freezer is food, because I always over buy. Needing help on what to buy and how to buy in Texas.

    • I would recommend contacting a local NFCC (National Foundation for Credit Counseling) agency. They can help provide a financial assessment that would include good budgeting tips like the kind you ask about in your comment. You can find the nearest agency by calling 800-388-2227.

    • Try this out. Stock up on things like rice, beans, split peas… invest in a slow cooker. Eat less meat, in fact limit meat to a few times a week or less- While you are at it limit animal products all together. They are expensive, usually unhealthy and our bodies live better without most of them. Try some Asian recipes. Maybe some noodle dishes with fresh veggies, maybe an Indian curry like Chana Masala- chickpeas in a curried tomato sauce. Use things like salsa as a condiment. With every meal, make 50% of the plate vegetables, and before you get all bored with veggies- experiment- roast them, steam them, bake them. Don’t forget about thing like squash- acorn squash can be stuffed and baked and it’s delicious. Drink water and tea, rather than sodas and flavored beverages

  3. I intensely disagree with Heather that our bodies live better without animal products. Our bodies were engineered to eat animal products. We are not herbivores by nature. You can certainly by lean good cuts of meat and still provide your family a healthy, inexpensive diet without sacrificing and serving them only rice and beans. I do agree on all the veggies and water! I am certainly going to plan to get better at meal planning to save some $$ on groceries. Good article.

  4. You mention a “dinner budget” but you don’t discuss how much you spend to feed your family for breakfast, lunch and afternoon snacks. Surely, you are not doing all that on $360.00 per month. I can’t get my monthly bill under $1000.00 for 2 adults and two kids. That is roughly $30 per day for an average of 10 dollars per meal, per day for a family of four, which seems pretty good to me. Granted, we eat steak and other decent meats which is an area where I could for sure save money and that amount includes everything (pet food, cleaning supplies, personal items) so the amount I spend on actual food is probably $700) which drops my per meal average even more. I use coupons and stick to what is on sale but unless I want to just hate everything I put into my mouth and say adios to fresh produce, I can’t see bringing it in for much less.

    • i agree with the comments from heather. I have done just that, have gone from being a meat eater to vegetarian. and its so budget friendly, and healthy. I cant complain one bit!

  5. that’s pretty close to what we spend too Alysha and there are 6 of us…..3 adults/3 kids….i recently posted this same question in one of my groups on facebook…..i have one of the highest budgets in the group…..sad thing is….i’m doing a lot of the same things others are doing!

  6. Try a budgeting software that helps you stick to a budget. (www.mint.com is free). I have set $900 per month for family of 5 (two teenagers and a picky husband) that I aim for every month…. I have tried menu planning but most of it is in my head. I try and have stand by meals that the family enjoys. Then I make nutritious healthy meals with a well stocked pantry and freezer. Buy meat on sale and freeze 1/2 for future meals. I go to the market once a week for milk, bread, and produce to supplement meals. Try stir frys (buy the packaged prewashed, cut veggies and zap in it the microwave for 2/3 the time and finish in a sauté pan with your seasoned beef or chicken. served with rice, you can have a meal for under $8! Keep dried pasta on hand and with frozen peas, diced canned tomatoes and the frozen Italian sausage, casing removed, break up in sauté pan with olive oil, you can serve a meal with salad for under $10…also a low cost pressure cooker is my best friend (wolfgang pucks) as it cooks stews, soups, tri-tip, even whole chicken in less time. Good luck!

  7. I do a blog on grocery shopping . I rarely use coupons that afnt store coupons.
    I figure about three hundred dollars a month for two adults and two school aged children. I don’t spend a lot of time on the whole process. I spend more time shopping and less time cooking. I don’t buy junk food or processed foods with few exceptions. I try to hold a middle of the approach on fat and salt. It can be done, butvtakes sone discipline…no one needs pop and chips for a snack. LOL.

    • what is your blog? I would love to check it out. I have a family of 6 and our budget is set at $700 mo and I can NEVER stay in that. We will NOT eat processed foods or high sugar. So I find couponing really is geared towards most of that type stuff.

    • Where do you live and how often do you eat out? I spend probably 150-200 a week in nj. Try to buy higher quality but it seems near impossible to spend less.

  8. Reading the articles and there are some good points. Planning ahead and doing a weekly meal plan and keeping your trip to the grocery store to 1-2 x a week really have helped me. When I started to cut back after seeing our bills hit $1800 (family of 6 which consist of 3 adults, an 18 year old and two 14 year olds) that included: eating out, two of the three meals at home, school lunches x 3, groceries and paper products. We have cut way back on drive thru’s, one child now in college but can’t seem to get our grocery bill under $1,100 (about $250-$275 a mo). I have done Ezmeals and they were good but after a year needed a change and had to “adjust” some of the meals to add more flavor or expand to meet our appetites and have leftovers for hubby to brown bag it. So the questions is: how do I get my budget for meals to $200 a week that includes paper products? We love scratch made/home made and do not do boxes if at all possible. We live in san antonio, tx and access to the base.

  9. Sometimes I think I beat myself up over this. I am married to a man with three children. They are with us exactly 50% of the time. The oldest is a boy of 11, the middle is a girl of 8 and the youngest is a boy of 5. They all have extremely healthy appetites and to suggest putting a meal in front of them without meat might insite a major war in our household. When I first came into their lives nearly three years ago, they did not eat a single vegetable!!!! Nothing, not even corn and we live in Indiana!! Now, they get excited about cheesy broccoli and cauliflower and will ask for seconds.
    You may wonder why I am sharing all this with you but I am trying to accomplish several things at once with my menu planning. Because we do not have them 100% of the time, I have to be flexibile. I truly can’t plan a whole week or two in advance because sometimes I have to work late, or the kids have something going on with their mothers family or she has to work extra and we get them more. Second, I have to slowly work through expanding their palet. I see a lot of menu planning blogs where some interesting menu items are suggested and I know my kids will not eat them, YET anyway :-) . Still working on that. But, I feel like I am looking for some more kid-friendly meal planning. Also, our girl is overweight. She does not have an off switch. So, I have to plan very healthy, tasty meals that will also fill up a husband that works a labor intensive job and comes home with a big appetite.
    I think I do pretty well. I do not have an exact number, because when we do our grocery shopping we get everything, pet food, paper products, soaps, etc. but, I would ballpark our overall spending at about $600 per month. I shop at Aldi’s which I absolutely love, there is a Kroger near by and for the good produce, Meijer is about 15 minutes away.
    I focus on 6 “pillars” when grocery shopping; Healthy, Inexpensive, Quick, Fresh (I don’t cook out of many boxes)’, Variety (slowly trying to expand those palets), and Bulk (a family of five with big appetites).
    Am I beating myself up? I don’t do coupons. Almost all of that stuff is Pre-packaged and not very healthy. The coupons are always in the wrong car, or in the wrong bag, or I forgot them at home. I work more than 40 hours a week and only get to the grocery store every two weeks for the “BIG” shopping. I shop sales, clearance, off brands, and I have certain price points I stick to. For example, I will not pay more than $5 for a package of meat and it has to feed all 5 of us , I won’t pay more than $0.99 per pound for fruit, etc.
    Can anyone relate to this? It seems like most everyone on here has their kids 100% of the time and while it cost more overall, I think it makes it easier in the meal planning?
    I keep thinking I am missing the “Ah-hah” moment with this. I will say, I have a menu rotation. There are about 12 different meals that I make on a pretty regular basis and I rotate those and mix and match the sides and veggies, etc.
    Can anyone share some thoughts with me? I also had no children of my own up until about 3 years ago, so as you can imagine, I have been on a crash course for motherhood and just hoping I am doing something the right way. Thank goodness, I had a Mom that taught me how to cook and grocery shop.
    Maybe someone knows of a good blog site for me to visit that would address a lot of my challenges. Any insight, advice, wisdom will be greatly appreciated.

  10. I sure wish I knew of a good blog for you, but instead I have a book suggestion. From our library I checked out French Kids Eat Everything. You can read the description on Amazon. What an insightful good read. I have very picky eaters, but my husband and I eat everything! This book didn’t give me a new budget, but a new attitude about meals.

  11. @Brandi…try soups, wraps or pastas that require a lot of vegetables that will stretch the meat farther…check out allrecipies.com. They have great ideas that we add to our on going menu on a regular basis. We shop Aldi as well and there is a recipe on the back of the Angel hair pasta box they sell that is outstanding! So easy and tasty…I say that to say this: check the packages that you purchase for recipie ideas as well. They really help. Many sauces and dips will encourage vegetable eating as well. Hope this helps!

  12. Wow some of the monthly budgets I see that you people are spending on groceries monthly is ridiculous. I have a family of 4 and I am spending 250 to 300 a month on groceries and I don’t buy junk food or soft drinks. We get healthy fresh produce, and no I’m not a vegetarian me my husband and children eat meats!

    • Elizabeth- I’d love to know what your meals look like. We are a family of four, as well. I buy very little processed foods. Nearly everything we eat is organic. Beef is always grass-fed, organic…it adds up! I am trying to cut down on our spending but I’m very curious what you buy/make for the family. Thanks!

  13. I agree with Elizabeth! $900-1000 a month on food? That’s ridiculous! I have a family of 5 (2 of which are teenagers) and I only spent $387.13 last month on food, and I’m trying to cut that down to $300.00. That includes breakfast, lunch and dinner. We hardly ever eat out, an occasional treat to McDonalds or Panda Express or a nice dinner on birthdays (which I usually have coupon for). I shop at Aldi for 90% of my groceries, there are a few things they don’t have that we need like soy milk for my sons who have milk allergies. We don’t eat alot of expensive meats. I stick to drumsticks and whole chickens or roasts which you can get cheap, spagehetti, and luckily for me my whole family loves fish, I can get 2 meals out of a bag of frozen talapia from Aldi for about $6.00, add fresh potatoes and $1.00 bag of frozen veggies and I spent $5.00 on a meal for 5. Once a week we have ‘breakfast for dinner’, eggs, pancakes and fruit. For drinks we tend to stick to water (bought a brita filter pitcher to save money and not buy water bottles), tea (which I make myself with tea bags) milk and the occasional off branded coke, and frozen apple juices. I don’t buy prepakaged snack foods or drinks, those are expensive, and you can buy a nice tervis cup to take your drinks in.

    My husband always takes left overs, everyday. Occasionally he will eat out, but not that often, maybe once every two weeks, if we are low on things. I shop for two weeks on one trip and then I’ll go out if we run out for the occasional milk or bread. I used to spend about 600-700 a mo on food, but then I realized I threw a lot of it away. Now I am shopping a lot smarter and putting that money away to purchase a car for my daughter!

  14. i am trying to help my aunt with expenses, she is 83 years old and widowed, her only income is social security and she collects less than 1000.00 a month. She got a reverse mortgage on her home a few years ago (they took advantage of her) and we sold her car last year to help make ends meet. I would like to know how much to budget for her groceries each month.
    Thanks

  15. I don’t even know how I finished up right here, however I thought this post was once great. I don’t realize who you are but certainly you’re going to a well-known blogger if you happen to are not already. Cheers!

  16. I? not that much of a internet reader to be honest but your sites really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your website to come back down the road. Many thanks

  17. I wanted to mention first that there is a huge difference between “grocery budget” and “Food/Meal budget”. A true food/meal budget is just that- a predetermined total amount to be spent toward meals made in your kitchen to be eaten at home or taken to work/school for those you include in your budget. Where a grocery budget is anything you can purchse at the grocery store (Super Walmart, Target, etc.) Which might include personal care products, housekeeping products, pet food, charcoal for your barbque, paper products like toilet paper and paper towels, and more! You cannot prepare and eat these items, so why would you include them in your food budget? I bet most of the readers here would be shocked as to the amount of money they actually spend on food and what they think they spend on food. Some of the comments do not say if the money spent is strictly for food or for food and other stuff too! Assuming this is useless. It’s inaccurate to compare the amounts of these two catagories as one. And I did want to mention that you can supplement your meals with food grown organically from your own raised bed garden or containers. You can. freeze, dehydrate, and can fruits and vegetable to use later on. If you purchase “heirloom” (open-pollinated) seeds, ($1.39-$2.49 per seed packet) you can share the cost and seeds with other gardeners, trade seeds online, then you can save your seeds to plant for next year. Then you never have to purchase seeds again! You can look up “VICTORY GARDENS” to see how much you can save by growing your own! Additionally, I also menu plan on the 20th of every month for the following month. I go thru my master freezer list and pantry to see what I already have, then I go thru my cookbooks and post-it note the pages where I want to try a new recipe. Then I make out a grocery list to add what I don’t already have on hand. I keep my meal menu calander page on the fridge, so I have easy access and can view it at a moments notice. I hope this helps out the readers here with saving money on meals!

    • Well said Gail – the non “real food” items NOT included in these budgets are a huge factor. I would like to see all the posts include that portion of their budget as well. You might get away with feeding a teen a meal with little cost but homeboy will be tearing through that triple ply toilet paper and hopefully some tooth past like nobody’s business! And those products cost money.

  18. I came here looking for tips on how to stay on budget and I this was some great advice!
    I have been budgeting for about $400 a month for years (family of 4- with a 5 and 14 year old) and frustrated that I always go over budget even with coupons and weekly meal plans. I work full-time, my husband works well over 40 hours a week so snacking is big deal in the family. I see now that even being cheap with $400- that isn’t very realistic and I need to budget for more-somehow I will have to figure it out I guess. I try to avoid many packaged/canned dinners and super cheap places like Aldi’s because it’s hard to find nutritional value in very cheap foods-I’ve tired. I’m frustrated honestly with rising prices in food and the desire to keep my family healthy with out going broke.
    Some of you are finding success others like me are trying to find creative solutions. I’m fresh out of ideas at this point though…

  19. I’m not one to write comments in articles like these. But, reading all the comments that were written here made me want to write my comment. I have a family of 6 with 2 adult children (21 and 18 years old) and 2 younger (9 and 12 years old). I have tried just about every suggestion posted here and my final comment is “it’s very hard to find the right amount and the perfect solution”. What I have done is used a little bit of everything. On the comment posted about gardening, I wish I could keep a garden, but our family moves every 2-3 years by the time you spend the money to start a garden and enjoying the fruits of my labor I have to move again. Also, depending in what State you live produce is so expensive and just horrible and when you do find a whole foods market the prices are just ridiculous. The reason this country is having difficult in keeping the weight down is because more and more good, healthy foods are becoming so expensive that it becomes very hard to budget. My answer to all is balance and to find the right balance for your family. I don’t like to buy overprocessed food but you’ll find in my pantry and I’ll use every so often. Also, if I find a good sale on meat and poultry I’ll buy enough to freeze and I don’t have to buy meat and poultry for 2 months. The meal plan ideas are good whenyou have a family that will eat everything. I have kids who will eat green beans but refuse to eat brocoli and vice versa, then add a husband that is gluten free and is fighting to lower his cholesterol which is high not because of food, but is hereditary and stress. Gluten free food is so expensive and his stomach can only tolerate certain foods. So try to balance all that on a budget. I work full-time and what I have done and someone made a comment about this idea. My family have certain meals that I know they’ll eat so I keep those in mind and rotate with new ones. I also started to write notes on my recipes, things that I changed to make gluten free and recipes that have passed the test and everyone liked. I’m a huge fan of breakfast for dinner, Thursday left over night, Fridays is pizza and a movie. If our family did good on our budget we can go out or order pizza if not I make my own pizza. Sundays I try to go all out and make dinners with ingredients that I will not cook during the week. When our family have busted the budget we sit down and tell the kids the upcoming month is going to be tight and they are old enough now to even help out with ideas and to cook with things that we have in our pantry. I will continue to set a budget for food, but I will not stress over it.

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