It’s a popular question – almost as popular as “How do I afford organic food on a budget?”
But it’s a legitimate question, especially when you’re first transitioning to eating real food and are new to budgeting.
Before I answer though, I need to make something clear:
You should not compare your own grocery budget to someone else’s.
This is important, because I don’t want you to think that just because my grocery budget is $330/month that yours should be too.
Or when you see a Facebook update that “this family of 10 feeds their family on $100/month” or whatever, you think you should be doing that too.
Comparing yourself to how others are doing will only lead to feeling defeated and inadequate.
Ignore those comments and focus on your family and your budget instead. Your goal should always be to do the best that you can do with what you have.
Your food budget will be unique to YOUR family and YOUR situation and YOUR dietary needs and where YOU live and the stores close to YOU and the types of food that YOU like to buy.
Just like every snowflake is different, every grocery budget is different. Embrace YOURS.
With that said, let me share some of our history…
When we first created a grocery budget, our income was $55,000 for a family of four. After taxes and insurance, we brought home approximately $3250 each month. Here were some of our expenses at the time:
- rent: $975 for an 800 sqft apartment
- electricity: $60
- water: $20
- gas: $200
- car payment: $330 (we were on the last few months of paying it off)
- car insurance: $100
- buffer: $80 (this covered anything “fun” like dinner out or coffee, plus miscellaneous purchases like an oil change)
- food/toiletries/diapers: $400
We had paid off our debt (minus the car) at this point, so the rest of our income was divided between tithing and savings. When we were in pay-off-debt mode, a very large portion of what was left went to that.
Coming up with our $400 grocery budget wasn’t some stroke of genius. We simply tallied up what we normally spent on food and said we wouldn’t go any higher.
This is just one way to create a budget though, and it might not be the best way for you to create one. Use the scenarios below as guidelines to help determine how much YOU should spend on food.
How much should I spend on food?
Note: These scenarios are based on the assumption that all meals and snacks are prepared at home. It does NOT include the cost of eating out.
Scenario 1: Per Month
Every month the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) publishes a report with what they think the average cost of food is for families of various ages and sizes. They break it down into four plans: Thrifty Plan, Low-cost Plan, Moderate-cost Plan and Liberal Plan.
Here’s a short summary for the average family of four as of this posting:
2 adults + 2 kids (ages 5 and under):
- Thrifty Plan: $562.30
- Low-cost Plan: $717.40
- Moderate-cost Plan: $888.00
- Liberal Plan: $1101.00
2 adults + 2 kids (ages 6-11):
- Thrifty Plan: $646.70
- Low-cost Plan: $850.10
- Moderate-cost Plan: $1059.30
- Liberal Plan: $1287.00
If your family has less than or more than 4 people, or if you want to know specifics for ages and genders, the report gets pretty granular. Use the most recent report to get specifics for your family.
Scenario 2: Percentage of Spending
Several major reports and studies found that the average American spends between 7.5% and 10% of their household income on food (according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics and Gemblous Agricultural University in Belgium, respectively).
To find the percentage of money you spend on food at home:
- (One Month Post-tax Income) – (Grocery Spending in One Month)
- Divide by One Month Post-tax Income
- Minus 1
- Multiply by 100 and ignore the negative sign
Scenario 3: Your Own Income
Of all the scenarios, this one is the most important because your food budget depends on how much money you make.
A blogging colleague once said that the food you buy does not determine your grocery budget and I couldn’t agree more.
If our grocery budget is based on the quality of food we buy, we have it backwards.
It’s entirely contradictory to the basic rules of budgeting. It’s like saying because you want to buy a nice big new house, you need to have a bigger paycheck.
But that’s not how it works. We start with the paycheck first, and THEN we see what kind of house we can afford.
The same goes for grocery budgeting. We start with the money we have, and THEN see what quality of food we can afford.
If you don’t like the answer and want to be able to spend more money on quality food, then find ways to save money elsewhere and put more funds towards your grocery budget.
I would love to buy 100% organic and grass-fed all the time, but my budget doesn’t allow me to. Instead, I buy the best I can afford in the items that matter most to my family, and in the items we eat most often. Then I don’t worry about the rest.
Other Factors to Consider
Even when you think you have a general idea of how much you should spend on food, there are still other factors to consider:
- allergies (i.e. dairy-free or gluten-free)
- dietary restrictions (i.e. no pork, undergoing a healing diet like GAPS or when you have allergic-like reactions to specific foods)
- whether or not you garden, can or preserve
- the amount of processed food you eat vs. how much real food you eat
- access to certain types of foods
- how much you are able to cook from scratch
- growing kids (and their friends)
- hosting company (and whether or not that’s included in your food budget, or hospitality budget)
When we first created our grocery budget, I didn’t garden nor cook much from scratch. I shopped almost exclusively at Walmart, my oldest child wasn’t even 2 and my youngest was nursing.
I didn’t know anything about real food and distinctly remember buying 4 boxes of blueberry Eggo waffles at the beginning of every month for the next 4 weeks of daily breakfasts. All of these things contribute to our $400 budget at the time, which was about 12% of our take-home income, putting us in between the USDA’s thrifty and low-cost plan at the time.
Fast forward to today and we are blessed to not have any food allergies or restrictions. I don’t currently garden but I cook 99% of what we eat from scratch. I shop Aldi, Costco and Walmart on occasion, and buy certain things online when I know it’s the better deal. We also eat some organic foods, shop the farmers market and in the past, have been subscribed to a local CSA. My kids are currently 6 and 8 and while they’re not teenagers eating me out of house and home, they eat more than they did six years ago.
All these things contribute to our current grocery budget of $330/month, which is oddly less than what it used to be.
What comes next?
If you’re happy with what you spend on food and don’t want to change anything, then pat yourself on the back. That’s a great accomplishment!
If you’re not happy with what you spend on food, want to start spending less OR want to increase the budget so you can spend more money on quality food, it’s time to start trimming expenses elsewhere.
(And if you have no idea what you spend on food, start keeping your grocery receipts and revisit this idea in a couple of weeks.)
Some of the easiest ways to trim your budget immediately:
- be diligent about not wasting food
- try really hard to only buy what is on the meal plan
- eat less meat than most families (to keep the budget low)
- pay with cash
- keep a price book and know how much things cost
Remember that how much you spend on food now is not set in stone forever. You can work really hard to get it as low as possible so you can save for a house, a new car or boost your emergency fund. You might also have to increase it as your family grows or the needs of your family changes.
In either case, the starting point is knowing how much you should spend on food!