How much should I spend on groceries? Each time I buy food the total seems to grow. We didn’t eat out a lot before the pandemic, but our takeout excursions have nearly disappeared this year.
As we eat three meals at home our grocery bills continue to swell. After loading my virtual shopping cart full of food, I can’t help but stare in disbelief at the total.
Unlike housing and transportation costs, our food bills are variable. We don’t prepare the same snacks and meals every day, so our out of pocket costs are rarely similar. The pandemic is impacting those variations more than ever before.
Can I blame rising food prices prices for my growing grocery bills? At one point, beef and veal prices spiked 20.2%, eggs 10.4%, and poultry 8.6%. One week I spent $150 for a week’s worth of groceries. The next week I paid $50 more for similar items.
As the shelves emptied we stopped paying attention to sales and circulars and bought what we could find. Each time we found bare spots in the grocery store our bills grew higher.
Things are normalizing, but as I stare at the grocery receipts I can’t help but wonder, “Am I spending too much on groceries?”
How Much Should I Spend on Groceries?
According to the USDA, Americans spent just under 5% of their disposable income on groceries in 2019 and another 5% dining out.
If you take the USDA’s data at face value, a household earning $8,000 after taxes would spend $400 on groceries. While a family earning $3,000 a month spends just $150.
|Income||Money Spent on Groceries|
Of course, that percentage is misleading. Households with lower incomes will spend a significantly larger portion of their take-home pay on groceries. Very few families can survive on $150 per month.
The Economic Research Service (E.R.S.) of the U. S. Department of Agriculture estimates low-income households often spend more than five times that much.
According to the USDA, as incomes rise, households spend more money on food, but due to higher wages those families are less impacted by the increase.
“In 2019, households in the lowest income quintile spent an average of $4,400 on food (representing 36.0 percent of income), while households in the highest income quintile spent an average of $13,987 on food (representing 8.0 percent of income).”
This 5% number is also misleading as it doesn’t cover a family’s entire food bill. Restaurant and take-out expenses are calculated separately. Dining out accounted for 5% of household expenses last year, so if you only prepare meals at home you can double those numbers.
How Much Should I Spend on Food?
So how much should I spend on groceries each month? Well, It just so happens that the U.S. Department of Agriculture answered this question for me. Each month the USDA provides a list of recommended food budgets based on household genders and ages.
The USDA’s food plans represent a healthy diet at four different cost levels:
Here are the latest numbers for a monthly plan. As you can see, they are based on the age and gender of family members whom you feed.
|Age & Gender||Thrifty||Low-Cost||Moderate||Liberal|
|Male: 12-13 years||$175.30||$249.70||$311.60||$366.50|
|Male: 14-18 years||$180.60||$253.40||$320.70||$370.00|
|Male: 19-50 years||$193.70||$250.90||$314.50||$384.90|
|Male: 51-70 years||$176.60||$237.00||$296.50||$357.30|
|Male: 71+ years||$177.60||$232.50||$289.80||$358.10|
|Female: 12-13 years||$174.20||$214.20||$259.60||$317.50|
|Female: 14-18 years||$171.70||$214.00||$256.10||$317.00|
|Female: 19-50 years||$171.90||$217.50||$266.90||$341.20|
|Female: 51-70 years||$170.60||$212.20||$264.20||$319.00|
|Female: 71+ years||$166.50||$209.10||$260.80||$314.20|
According to my calculation our family of four should budget for $826.50 per month on the low-cost monthly plan and $1,246.80 on the liberal one.
This calculator isn’t perfectly up to date, but if you don’t want to run your own numbers it’ll give you a pretty similar range.
How Much Should You Spend on Groceries Per Month?
How much should you spend on groceries per month? Well, that depends on how many people are in your household. Buying groceries for one person is very different than buying food for a family of four. Thanks to the USDA we can figure out exactly how much the government thinks you should spend.
Average Cost of Food Per Month for 1 Person
How much should a single person spend on food? According to the latest USDA report the average adult male spends between $193 – $358 on groceries per month. The average adult female spends between $174 – $315.
Average Cost of Groceries Per Month for 2
A family consisting of one male and one female between the ages of 19-50 years of age spends between $402.20 and $798.70. While a similar couple between the ages of 51-70 years spends slightly less. On average between $381.90 to $743.80.
Average Food Budget for a Family of 4
The USDA also breaks down the average food budget for a family of four. In their heterosexual example, a man and woman between the ages of 19-50 years old will spend between $587.40 and $1144.40 per month with two children between the ages of 2-3 and 4-5 years old.
If you have older kids expect to pay more. A family with two children between the ages of 6-8 and 9-11 will pay between $673.60 and $1339.80 per month for food.
Saving Money at the Grocery Store
Unfortunately, this chart doesn’t consider dietary concerns, convenience foods, or preferences for organic products, which can all impact our food budgets.
I don’t think you can make an apples-to-apples comparison on food budgets, nor should you.
However, food is the third-largest household expense, so it’s an easy way for many middle and high-income earners to cut costs without feeling a hefty pinch.
Track How Much You Spend
Before we cut expenses we must figure out how much we spend on groceries in the first place. As I mentioned above, it’s easy to figure out how much our recurring bills cost each month.
Mortgages, rent, and transportation costs typically remain steady from month-to-month, but food prices are rarely the same, so it’s time to figure out how much we spend each time we checkout of the store.
To keep track of your food expenses, keep a running tab on your refrigerator and write down how much you spend every time you return home from the grocery store.
Write the date, name of the store, and total. Remember to exclude items like cat food, kitty litter, dishwashing detergent, etc., which shouldn’t be included in food costs.
Many of us buy products other than food at the grocery store. Don’t count that stuff in your calculation.
If you use a credit card to pay for your groceries, you can log in to your account once a month to review your expenses, but this will make it more challenging to exclude non-food items from your totals. Without the receipt, you won’t know what to exclude.
How much do you spend right now? Does that number seem high, low, or just about right? Divide your current take-home pay by that amount and see what percentage of your income you are spending on food.
Once you figure out how much you spend, you can determine if you have any excess that can be trimmed.
How to Save Money on Groceries
So how can we save on groceries. How can we trim that grocery bill if it’s too high?
1. Prepare Easy Recipes
In 2001, I fell in love with Rachel Ray’s television show 30 Minute Meals. Not only were her meals easy to make, but they didn’t contain a giant list of ingredients.
Some people love to create gourmet meals. That’s great, and all the power to them, but if you don’t feel like a super talented chef, stick to the basics.
Search for easy recipes. You don’t have to cook a gourmet meal every night. If you have young kids and need to get dinner on the table, search for the easiest recipes you can find.
There are lots of easy dinner recipes that don’t cost a lot to make. Quesadillas, grilled cheese, omelets, pancakes, egg sandwiches, frittatas, and tuna melts make that list. There is also nothing wrong with eating spaghetti with can pasta sauce.
2. Learn to cook.
After my husband and I got married, we took a cooking class at a fancy French cooking school. We learned how to sharpen knives and use them to break down a whole chicken. It’s an experience I haven’t tried since.
These days the Internet is full of step by step videos showing you exactly how to prepare meals. You can pause the video multiple times and replay it to teach yourself.
No matter what type of cuisine you love, you can find an online instructor to show you what to do. Best of all, you can find great content for free. Forget that fancy-fancy French school we went to. You can learn how to cook in your pajamas, right from the comfort of your own kitchen.
If you enjoy cooking you won’t mind cutting up vegetables and preparing your own sauces. This can be much cheaper than purchasing prepared convenience foods that do that work for you.
How much are you spending on restaurants and pick-up? When we think about our food budget, most of us think about the food we buy from the grocery store, but restaurants need to be factored into the account. One meal at a restaurant can cost as much as a week’s worth of groceries.
According to the USDA, the average American household spent 6% of after-tax income dining out last year. If you enjoy cooking you can learn to make the same meals at a fraction of the cost. Plus you can control the salt, sugar, and fat that goes into them.
3. Meal Plan
I used to figure out what I wanted to eat and then go to the grocery store with a list in hand. The problem with this approach is that you often pay full price for the ingredients you need.
You can get around this problem by learning to meal plan. Coordinate your meals with this week’s sales. Look through the sales circular, which is much easier to do online these days, and choose your meals based on weekly discounts.
If ground beef is on sale, consider making hamburgers, tacos, or spaghetti. If sausage is on sale, make a sausage potato hash, gumbo, or jambalaya for dinner.
4. Figure Out What You Like to Eat?
Figure out what meals you like to eat. Many of us like similar flavors. For example, my husband and I enjoy meals made with fruit. We love lemon chicken, dishes made with orange zest, and orange marmalade.
Most of us have ‘go-to’ flavors, particular tastes that we enjoy. We make different kinds of recipes, but we often search for meals with similar flavor profiles.
Why does this matter? It helps us use the same sets of ingredients, so we don’t have to buy new ones.
Some ingredients simply cost more than others. Spices are notoriously expensive. A tiny saffron bottle can cost $12.00, while fresh vanilla beans can cost $30 or more.
If you know what foods you enjoy, you won’t waste money buying ingredients you won’t like. Plus you’ll often have the ingredients available in your pantry.
5. Buy Goods That Fill You Up
Here’s another trick to saving money. Search for foods that fill you up.
Thanks to this pandemic, I’ve gained twenty extra pounds. My poor body hasn’t seen the inside of a gym since March. No matter how hard I try to squeeze in walks around the block or bike rides with my kids, it’s not paying off the way my beloved elliptical machine did.
To lose weight, I cut the garbage from my diet and started searching for foods that would help me feel full longer.
Protein like eggs, tuna, beans, and chicken help me do just that. Many of these foods are relatively inexpensive, but even if they cost more, you don’t need to eat as much of them to fill your rumbling belly.
6. Perform Online Price Comparisons
This pandemic has radically altered the way we purchase groceries. Use this to your advantage. Log on to various grocery websites to figure out how much ingredients cost at each store. It’s never been easier to compare prices.
Certain stores are simply cheaper than others. If you love the produce and meat department at Whole Foods buy there, but look for other ingredients at cheaper stores.
7. Sign Up For Loyalty Reward Programs
Most stores have a loyalty program. Sign up for them using your phone number to get extra discounts.
If you buy food at Whole Foods, consider signing up for the Chase Amazon Prime card, which offers 5% cashback on all purchases there. It also gives you access to lower prices online and in-store.
8. Ignore Multi-Product Pricing
Don’t be fooled by multi-product pricing. If a sale reads, “buy ten items for $10”. You don’t have to buy ten things to get that deal. You also don’t have to buy 3 for $5.00.
Buy one item, and you’ll pay just $1.67 for it. You don’t need to load the other two into your cart to get the deal.
9. Throw Brand Loyalty Out the Window
Throw brand loyalty own the window when you can. Some things taste better when you buy the brand name. For example, my kids won’t eat anything but name brand General Mills Cheerios.
But don’t pass by all store brands just because you aren’t familiar with them. Basics like butter, baking soda, baking powder, flour, and other staples won’t taste any different if you use the store brand. You can save a significant amount on seasonings and spices too.
We’ve tried various store brands and found that we like some better than the more expensive, brand name versions.
10. Swap Fresh Ingredients for Frozen Ones
Consider canned goods and frozen foods for some recipes. They have roughly the same nutritional value for a fraction of the cost. Plus, you can store these in your house and don’t have to worry if you don’t get around to eating them.
Sure canned fruit isn’t as tasty as munching on a ripe, delicious apple, but you can substitute canned or frozen vegetables in soups and stews. Using a variety of fresh and frozen vegetables also does the trick. The fresh ingredients help pep up the frozen ones.
11. Keep Stock of Your Food Supply
My dad loves ketchup. He eats it on everything, so he and my mom always take note when the ketchup bottle is running low. If he knows he’s half-way to running out, he can put it on a shopping list and start searching for a sale price.
Please don’t wait until you are out of a product to purchase it at full price. If you see a sale, buy an extra bottle and put it on the shelf.
Don’t go crazy with this approach, though. You don’t need to buy ten bottles every time. If you use this technique, don’t stop until you take inventory of what you already have in the fridge and pantry.
12. Learn to Love Leftovers
Learn to love leftovers, but here’s a trick don’t eat the same thing two times in a row.
Make a meal, eat it, then set aside the leftovers in the fridge for one day. Make something else the next night and then return to those leftovers a day later. This has been a go-to plan for my family and me. It’s tough to eat the same meal twice, but separating the days makes it much more palatable.
Use leftovers on those nights when you would be tempted to pick up food from a restaurant. Plan to cook on the night you don’t have activities, so you can heat leftovers on the night you do.
Place your leftovers eye level in the fridge rather than shoved in the back where you will forget about them.
13. Cook the Right Portions
On the flip side, don’t make extra if you won’t eat it. Learn how to portion your meals so that you eat everything in one sitting.
It seems silly but think about exactly how much protein you eat at dinner each night. Do you eat a whole chicken breast or just half of one? Do you need a 6 ounce burger or an 8 ounce one?
Figure out how much you typically eat and prepare just that amount. If you still feel hungry, make yourself a small side salad or vegetable or eat a cup of fruit after dinner to tide you over until you eat breakfast the next day.
14. Stop Wasting Food
Be aware of food waste. Pay attention to how much food you throw out each week.
Food waste is a massive problem in the United States. If an apple is bruised, cut out the bruised part and eat around it. Wash fruit when you bring it home so you’ll eat it.
Keep your fridge clean, so you know what’s inside of it.
15. Save on Spices
If you need spices that you don’t use very often head to supermarkets that allow you to buy it in tiny amounts. Whole Foods has a spice section where you can measure out exactly the amount you need and not a drop more.
If you don’t live near one, search for Asian or Indian markets. They often offer spices at a fraction of the price at a typical grocery store.
How Much Do You Spend on Food Each Month?
So, now I turn to you dear readers. How much do you think I should spend on groceries for a family of four? How much do you spend each month? Are you okay with that amount?