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Just How Much Should You Spend on Groceries?

What you spend on groceries can be one of the most flexible line items in your budget. How do you decide just how much you should spend?

How Much Should You Spend on Groceries? | Good Cheap Eats

A few weeks ago when I was cleaning out our family library, I came across my accounting book from my junior year in France. I kept track of every centime and franc that I spent in 1993, including what I spent on groceries during those months I lived alone and did my grocery geeking in another country.

Apparently, tracking what I spend on groceries has been a lifelong endeavor. When we were newlyweds I didn’t do a great job curbing that spending, but once we decided to live on one income, I paid better attention. I remember when cans of chiles and olives cost a quarter! It’s curious to look back and see how much prices have changed.

I remember when I could regularly buy meat for less than $1/pound….

Eventually, creating a firm grocery budget helped us get out of debt. Since groceries are one of the most flexible line items in your monthly spending, it’s good to consider if you’re on track, if you can cut back, or if you have some flexibility to splurge. It could make a big impact on your bigger financial picture.

Just How Much Should You Spend on Groceries?

Obviously, this is going to be dependent on a particular household’s size, income, dietary needs, and food preferences. There really isn’t a one-size-fits all answer, but there are some general things to consider.

It’s helpful to compare notes with others, particularly those who live in the same region and/or enjoy a similar diet, so that you can see if you’re on track. I think that’s part of why the Grocery Geek feature is so popular here on Good Cheap Eats.

Consider these questions to figure out your own budget for groceries:

How Much Should You Spend on Groceries? | Good Cheap Eats

What are you spending now?

If you’re new to setting a grocery budget, it might be hard to know where to start, especially if you’re also getting out of debt or trying to save for the first time. How much curbing is necessary?

Knowing what you spend currently will at least give you a starting place for budgeting. Keep track of receipts for a month or two so you know. Also, track all that eating out. That is still part of your general budget and needs to be accounted for. Cooking more at home can reduce your take-out spending multi-fold.

What can you afford?

Obviously, the money you have at your disposal will dictate what you should spend. Once you pay for housing, utilities, and other inflexible bills, you’ve (hopefully) got discretionary funds to spend on food, clothing, etc. To stay in the black, you have to give up certain luxuries somewhere.

For us, we’re happy to go without cable, new cars, and fancy clothes, in order to spend money in other areas, like ample groceries, dinners out, or family trips.

What does the government say about food costs for your type of household?

Not that the government is the authority on all things grocery related, but our tax dollars do pay for someone to track food costs nationwide. This is a good reference point to compare to. The last I heard the thrifty plan is considered “a food stamp budget.” Check out the USDA Food Cost reports to see how your household adds up.

According to the May 2016 report, it should cost me $1325.80 to feed my family all our meals at home along the lowest-price point, the thrifty plan. That means we’re right on track with our current $1200/month groceries budget.

(In years previous, I’ve been able to stay several hundred dollars under the thrifty plan, but as you’ll see later, times have changed around here.)

How can you make all these numbers jive?

You’ve got three numbers: what food costs, what you’re spending, what you can afford. In a perfect world, these numbers should all match up. You should be spending only what you can afford and you should be able to afford what food costs.

Unfortunately, things do not always match up. For years Mr. Stark, the dad of a friend, prepared our taxes for free, in part because he couldn’t understand how we were able to feed everyone on how little we made. Those were scary times, and he was scared for us.

Thankfully, it is possible to make some tweaks to help the numbers jive better. Auditing your grocery spending is a great place to start.

How Much Should You Spend on Groceries? | Good Cheap Eats

Groceries in the Good Cheap Eats Kitchen

Every once in awhile, someone will write via comment or email to tell me that I should spend less on our groceries or that they’re appalled that we spend so much. I’ll be honest, it’s hard not to get defensive. Somedays I feel like I’m operating at maximum capacity and barely surviving. To add the challenge of lowering our grocery bill seems like it just might break me.

I totally get Crystal’s hesitancy to share how they doubled what they were spending on groceries because it’s such a subjective thing. One person’s “cheap” is another’s extravagance. Despite raising our grocery budget over the years, my husband assures me that I still haven’t lost my cheapness. Ha!

That said, there is a method to my madness. I have reasons why our grocery budget is currently set at $1200, whether or not everyone else thinks they’re valid ones. 😉

How my spending on groceries has evolved since 2008

Eight years ago when I entered the world of blogging, we were deep in debt. This blog grew out of our efforts to make ends meet and still eat well.

In order to get out of debt, we cut back as far as we possibly could. At the time we had five children; I was pregnant with our sixth. Our grocery budget was $400/month. We were able to make that grocery budget work because I spent 10 to 12 hours a week couponing. At one point, we figured I was earning $25/hour by collecting, clipping, and organizing coupons as well as by planning my shopping trips to make the most of those coupons. I had more time than money.

Once we moved to California, coupons didn’t reap as big a reward. Grocery stores had different coupon rules and higher prices than they had in Kansas. I also found that my schedule didn’t allow me to devote 12 hours of my week to the pursuit of groceries and hot deals.

My grocery spending today

Homeschooling, writing, and recipe development now take more of my attention. Thanks to getting out of debt and living very frugally in other areas, we have been able to enlarge our budget for groceries, first to $600, $800, $1000, and now $1200/month — for most of our meals eaten at home.

Today I shop to feed our family of 8 a healthy, mostly homemade diet. Though I still call my babies “littles”, no one is really little any longer. They pretty much all eat like adults, five of our party eat like male adults. It’s not the same as feeding six little kids with finicky appetites. At least three of us currently have health issues that have to be accommodated for in the food we buy.

I also shop with recipe development in mind. With few exceptions, the groceries that I report each month include ingredient purchases that go toward experimentation. Some experiments are worthy; some are not. If I had a different profession, I could probably lower our bill dramatically. But, that’s not the life we’ve chosen.

Regardless, I think a regular grocery audit is a good thing. Sometimes you find out that your time is more valuable than running all over town for the best deals. Other times you realize that baking your own bread can reap you a much needed $10/week in savings.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing my grocery audit as well as if and how we can cut back this school year.

More food for thought:

Here are some of the books that have helped me think better about groceries, finances, and better budgeting:

This post contains affiliate links. When you make a purchase through those links, I am paid a small amount in advertising fees. Thanks for your support. I really appreciate it.

How do YOU decide what to spend on groceries?

How Much Should You Spend on Groceries? | Good Cheap Eats

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Comments

  1. My gorcery budget includes only food, health and beauty aides, paper products, cleaning items. It doesn’t include any pet expenses. That said, I have a $100/person budget. We are currently a 3 person household.

  2. I love this post!

    I can absolutely relate. I used to have lots of time for hours of couponing, shopping multiple stores, and planning extensive hauls. That all changed when we bought a house, had a kid, and started a business. I spent a while sort of beating myself up because we weren’t saving as much as we used to.

    You’re right that it’s all about your priorities and what kind of lifestyle you want. If spending a little more and saving a little less means more family time, more time with the hubby, and more time to relax (or sleep!), I’m more than happy with that trade-off for us.

    Good for you for finding the right balance! 🙂 Your honesty is refreshing and inspiring.

  3. Katie C. says:

    I find that checking the store flyers, knowing what I have in the freezer and THEN meal planning for the week makes a huge difference in how much I spend. I also keep items on my list that are starting to run low. If they are on sale and/or I have a coupon, I buy them, otherwise I wait a bit. It depends on the running total I keep while shopping. A lot of store are also using electronic coupons specific to the store. You should check the store’s web site.

    On a funny note, I was buying dill pickles at TJ’s and ended up covered in pickle juice because one jar was cracked. They gifted me two jars. Not bad for smelling like a pickle and being a bit soggy!

  4. Alice E says:

    Nice article and full of thoughtful questions and suggestions.

    We are a family of two older adults so our spending is much lower than yours. I have been tracking the last few months and we come in under the thrifty plan. Mainly by buying basics, meat and frozen vegetables on sale and eating primarily from the freezer and pantry. As a result my spending can vary widely from week to week depending on how good the sales are and whether I need what is on sale.

    I never found couponing to be helpful. Primarily because the coupons were rarely for things I buy. We are buying more fresh produce in the last year or two, but we can afford it. I saves money to bake our bread, but with the heat this summer I haven’t been doing so recently.

    I am amazed at how low your budget is while feeding teenage boys the quality of food you buy along with the cost of purchases for recipe development. To me it seems presumptuous for others to criticize your spending. “Should” is a bit of an arbitrary and moral word sometimes it seems to me and needs to be determined by the people doing the spending based on what money is available. We spend less than we could because I/we want the money for other purposes. That said, health and nutrition are major factors in what value we place on the groceries we buy and the time we spend preparing them. You do a very good job of getting lots of ‘bang for your buck’ with quality food and an occasional necessary treat. Thank you for the time and effort you spend sharing with us.

  5. Alice E says:

    Just an additional thought, I suspect 4 of your family eat like teenage boys, not adult men. In my experience that means they eat a good deal more than adult men especially if they are involved in sports activities. The USDA doesn’t break it down that way, but it was certainly true of my sons and nephews. Also they are growing, so the quality of the calories they get is important. Pat yourself on the back for your emphasis and healthy and nutritious food.

  6. We are a 4 – person, 1 income household, digging out of debt. I generally have about $40-60 a week for groceries. I seriously Thank God for Aldi’s because It really allows us to buy ample food and even some decent nutritious options for a small amount of money, and I don’t have to spend hours couponing. I do like the ibotta app, as they sometimes have deals on fresh produce and dairy products. I dream of a larger food budget lol….but for now this is where we are.

    • Good for you! Live like no one else… so you can live like no one else. Your scrimping and saving will pay off. Stick to your guns!

    • Please tell me how you do this. We are a family of 4 and spend around $1,000 a month. I am on a NO carb lifestyle change and cant seem to spend less than $250 a week. its driving me nuts. I have an 11 (almost 12)year old girl and a 16 (almost 17) year old boy and they both eat like there is no tomorrow. I would love to be able to lower my cost of groceries. by maybe $60 a week. But since I have started this no carb lifestyle change its been really tough. I will take any and all input. no carbs mean no bread, rice, pasta, potatoes or any other carb related veggies.

      PLEASE HELP!!!

  7. Looking forward to your grocery audit. I think we need one around here as well.

    I’m always amazed at how well you do. Feeding your brood is a full-time job in itself! 🙂

  8. Jillbert says:

    We rarely eat out and I love to cook. I make 3 homemade meals/day (and packed lunches during the school year). Because of all the cooking I do, I have no guilt about splurging on special ingredients (pine nuts, good olive oil, etc) or, my weakness, kitchen gadgets (mostly bought at the thrift store) — whatever it takes to keep the cooking fun and interesting to me. We fall in the “thrifty” meal plan arena with 3 kids (18, 15 & 13) and two adults.

  9. My situation is similar but we’re just 2 adults. I never use coupons or watch sales (unless I see something too good to pass up while I’m in store). In fact, we basically eat whatever we’re in the mood for and still fall under the thrifty category. Yahoo! What I DO do is cook breakfast, pack our lunches, and make dinner M-F. Add to that things like making my own iced coffee, pizza, etc. Food is such an easy thing to save on w/o feeling like we’re missing out!

  10. karen b says:

    I figured ours & we are way below the thrifty plan. It says 206 a week for our family consisting of 3 males ages 45, 20, 15 & 2 females ages 47 & 18. We spend about 700 on all household expenses including tolitries, pets, paper, cleaning, etc. We do eat very well, I do some canning & freezing from our garden every year so that helps alot.

  11. Melissa M. says:

    My grocery budget is similar to yours. I used to coupon with the best of them, but couponing has changed so much in the last few years. I coupon very little now. I do a lot of price matching at Walmart (my Walmart still does this). Last time I checked at the beginning of the year, the USDA says I should be spending $1,500/mo. for the thrifty plan for my family. If I add in the grass fed cow we buy every year, we are still coming in under that number per month. We eat almost all of our snacks & meals at home. So I’d say we’re doing fine when I compare myself against the government, but food is our largest expense outside of our mortgage. We are a family of food lovers and good food makes everyone here happy. So there’s a psychological benefit as well. I’ve been following you for years, Jessica and frankly, with all you have on your plate, I’m surprised you’re grocery bill isn’t higher. Great job!

  12. I have decided to start a pantry challenge on my blog, you may want to know. I have linked to you here, I hope you don’t mind! Thanks for all you do to inspire me to do what I can!

  13. I feel like its not just the amount you spend, but what you do to manage that spending that matters too.

    Your pantry challenge helped me to work on a budget and do better meal planning. You also taught me to not beat myself up for going off track, splurge once in a while and when there are stress points in my life- so what- don’t stress… do take out for dinner and move on! Prior to this, I did meal planning, but didn’t have a food budget. I OVER spent all the time, wasting quite a bit of food. Im getting better.

    In Hawaii, our USDA rate- latest from 2015 is $1450/month for family of 5. We spend about $1200- this includes groceries, household, cleaning, etc. We shop the weekly sales and buy meat by the bulk. I tried couponing, but was purchasing items that were not right for my family’s diet and it took me more hours than I could spare. Now I use them when its a product that I normally buy. I shop at Target and a small mom-pop grocery store in my community for most of our items. I use Amazon,Groupon and Living Social when there are amazing deals. Thanks to you Jessica- I browse through your website to find some easy recipes that we can make at home- like taco seasoning, mix/match muffins, salsa (which we LOVE) and homemade spaghetti sauce. I cook some items in bulk and freeze them for quick meals during the week and month.

    thanks for the help along the way

    • I’m so glad to hear how you’re progressing. GREAT job! I know Hawaii is a hard place to save, so you’re doing awesome! I’m honored to have played a small part. yay!

  14. Thanks for sharing!

    I’ve wondered if that government guideline pertains to food only. For example, when it’s time to restock on paper towels, toilet paper and cleaning supplies, should I still expect myself to fit into whatever category is in the guidance, or do I give myself grace to go “over budget” to include those necessary items? Just curious. Thanks!

  15. I find it oddly interesting that if you add a single male from 19-50 range and a single female from same range, you get a thrifty rate of $350. The rate for a 2-person family comprised of a male and female in the 19-50 range is $385. Considering they could share items, I find it strange that it is a higher amount. (Sadly either one of them is significantly higher than my budget even though we both fall into that category, but we certainly have plenty to eat and we do have cable 🙂 )

    • Sandi,
      The individual amounts are based on a family of 4. If you’ll look at the footnotes (#3) you’ll see the adjustments for other size families. The family of 2 amount that you reference has been adjusted to add 10 percent to the individual amounts. Hope this clears up your confusion!

    • You excel at making a small budget work. I think a lot of it is that you and “the kid” both have great attitudes. Kudos to you for raising a good man.

  16. Katie Bee says:

    This is such a great post!

    We are now a family of 3 (yay, one flew the nest)! According to the low-cost USDA chart, we are basically at $700 a month. But of course, we’re closer to $500 simply because we buy fresh, mostly local, in-season food and stock up when we need to. I make a lot of meals or meal components ahead, which helps as well. That said, we do like to eat out a few times a week now, so we make up for the savings by enjoying a meal or two at our favorite places most weeks.

    The good part is that I now know where and what I can eliminate in order to save even more when I need to, and I am very grateful for your wisdom and insight on this regularly! Thanks, Jessica!

  17. heather says:

    I’m also a gardener and buy beef(450/yr) turkey ($25-40) and whole roasting chicken ($150/yr) locally in bulk. Typically we spend $80-100 and have 2 tween boys. They are giving $148/wk we have yet to even have enough money to spend that much on groceries. I have a 5 wk menu and we stock up on things that are on the menu when they are on sale.

    A few years back I did a $25/wk challenge for a month, it went ok until my dad got a cow that needed to be turned into ground beef and we took home $100 worth.

  18. Thanks for the USDA link. That was very helpful. We are a family of eight and my monthly budget is $1200 including paper products/toiletries. I thought that was high only to see that we are below the thrifty plan!! Crazy. Aldi really helps us tremendously.

  19. I love that you mention that part of your job is recipe testing, and if it wasn’t, your bill would be lower! That’s exactly how I feel these days! And I feel guilty about it. I don’t want to know how much I spend on baking ingredients. But it’s the life I’ve chosen and it makes me happy 🙂

    Love this post!

  20. I love Grocery Geek! Do you have any posts about what you budget for clothing and household supplies? We are getting ready to redo our monthly budget for year 2017 and your link to the USDA Food Cost page was helpful. I try to budget $600 for food but always go over, the USDA page gave the amount of $700.04 which is much closer to what I actually spend.

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