It can often be incredibly difficult to determine exactly how much you should spend on groceries per month for your family. The grocery budget is often the easiest area to cut back, but also the easiest area to blow out of proportion.
The USDA periodically publishes Cost of Food Reports that have 4 different Food Plans–Thrifty, Low-Cost, Moderate-Cost, and Liberal. These certainly help to answer the question of how much you should spend on groceries.
However, my family and many others have found that we can still eat healthy on much less than the USDA’s recommended thrifty amount.
The USDA recommends a monthly amount per person based on age and gender. I added up their recommended amounts (on the thrifty plan) for my unique family (Myself, my husband, a 4 year old boy and a 1 year old boy). According to the USDA’s thrifty plan, my family should be spending a whopping $561.10 on groceries every month.
Instead, we spend $360 a month on groceries–only 64% of the USDA’s recommended amount. *Update August 2020: With growing boys, we’ve had to up our budget to $460 per month. This is still 20% less than the thrifty plan for our family!
Now, this is not a contest to see who can spend less–if you’re not eating a healthy, balanced diet, then spending less on groceries is not worth it.
But, I can assure you that we do eat a balanced diet. Our diet includes whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and protein. Because my boys need to be dairy-free, we are sure to include lots of spinach and leafy greens in our diet for the added calcium.
We even buy some processed foods. Pretzels, beef sticks, lunch meat, and the occasional bag of tortilla chips definitely make their way into my house. Even the occasional pint of dairy-free (read, expensive!) ice cream makes it’s way into my freezer.
I share all this to prove my point that you can most certainly eat well on a much lower grocery budget than the government recommends.
So now it’s time to take a look at your budget. Wherever your food costs are at right now, I want you to challenge yourself to spend less, without sacrificing a healthy diet.
How Many Pre-Made Items Are You Buying?
The biggest grocery budget killer is often the pre-made or processed items. Snack foods, cereal, soda, box mixes, and pre-chopped or bagged vegetables would all fall into this category.
Now, as I mentioned above, I’m not completely against buying anything pre-made. However, you do need to prioritize exactly what you’re buying and why.
Check Your Snack Appetites
Do you keep buying snacks because your kids keep devouring them? If so, stop.
I do my big grocery shopping trip and the beginning of the month, and I buy several pre-made snack options. I buy pretzels (which we dip in my homemade hummus), beef sticks (a great source of protein for the hungry toddler), bagels, and the occasional bag of chips.
But in my house, when the pre-made snacks are gone, they’re gone. I don’t buy any more until next month. My oldest is only four, but even he knows that when that snack is gone, it is gone for the foreseeable future–at least in his mind.
Now, does that mean that there’s absolutely no snacks left? No way! We can make hard-boiled eggs. We always have popcorn kernels on-hand, which we pop in a popcorn machine I picked up at Goodwill. My four-year-old might have a small bowl of strawberry overnight oats as a snack, or we might just have some toast.
Occasionally, I may make some banana bread, muffins, oatmeal cookies, or no-bake protein bites to eat as snacks. Or maybe we’ll grab some fruit out of the freezer and my toddler will help me make a smoothie.
My point is, there are lots of options.
So if your family is devouring snacks faster than you can buy them, I highly recommend instituting this rule in your own house. Limit the pre-made food you buy, and show them that it really doesn’t take much time at all to hard-boil eggs or pop some toast in the toaster.
Do You Need A Recipe Overhaul?
I’m not going to deny that every family needs some easy recipe options on-hand, and those recipes often include pre-made ingredients. Most people–myself included–simply don’t have time to cook from scratch all the time.
But, if you’re using pre-made ingredients in every other meal, then you probably need to cut back.
For example, there’s no need to buy packets or jars of pre-made seasoning mixes; they are super easy to make at home with spices you already have. There’s also no reason to buy pre-made broth when you can make your own for free from scraps that you would have thrown away.
I recommend only having 2 or 3 “easy” meals that include pre-made ingredients. Mine are spaghetti with jarred sauce, and slow cooker taco chicken bowls, and breakfast burritos (I scramble eggs, top with salsa, and load them into store-bought tortillas).
Now, that doesn’t mean those are the only super-easy recipes I have on-hand. It only means that the others are made with whole foods. I have many crockpot meals on-hand that only involve throwing ingredients in and letting it cook.
Other Methods to Spend Less On Groceries
I would argue that of all the methods in this section, meal planning is the most important.
It is so incredibly easy to get side tracked at the grocery store and only buy what feels good right now or buy foods for only a few days ahead, without planning for the long-term success of your grocery budget.
You’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t shop without a list. This is true! But how do you build a list of food that will truly feed you for the entire month? With a monthly meal plan!
I used to get so frustrated with weekly meal planning because I thought it was a waste of time. The week was over before I knew it, and then I had to do the whole chore over again?! I hated it.
Eventually, I moved to monthly meal planning and doing one large monthly shopping trip for everything on the meal plan. I also found I kept forgetting ingredients, so I created “Meal-Ingredient Quick-Glance Sheets” to help me build my grocery list.
If you’ve been having similar struggles with meal planning, check out my free Meal Planning Kit! It includes a monthly meal planner, my innovative Meal-Ingredient Quick-Glance Sheets, and a template for building your grocery list that allows you to track your totals while in-store. You’ll also be enrolled in my accompanying 3-Day Meal Planning Email Course as an added bonus!
Keep a Price Book
Price books can be time consuming, but they are incredibly valuable information to have when you run across a sale. Have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about?
Basically, a price book is where you record all the prices of the things you buy, so that you know when you find a great deal. It also helps you to know if it’s worth it to go to a different store for certain items. Different stores can have wildly different prices on the same items, so if there’s a $3 per pound difference, then you might want to get that item at the store that has it cheaper.
Now–I’ll admit, I’ve fallen out of the habit of keeping my price book up to date.
However, if you’re just getting your grocery budget in check or if you need to determine the best prices after moving to a new area, then I highly recommend you make time for recording prices.
Probably one of the easiest ways to do this is through an app. I personally prefer Price Cruncher. Unfortunately there is only an Android version–I don’t have an iPhone so I can’t speak to the best price comparison apps for Apple products.
With an app, you can enter prices and product sizes as you are strolling through the store. Or, you can buy what you have on your list and use your receipt to enter prices into your app afterwards.
Then, when you run across a sale and you’re not sure if it’s a great deal, you just check your price book. If it’s not a good deal, don’t buy. But if it’s a great deal, then stock up!
I love to buy in bulk. Bulk buys mean less trips to the store. I also love to buy in bulk, because how can you “shop the pantry” if there’s nothing in there?
Plus, if I have several bulk ingredients on hand, I have a cushion. Meaning, if we were to have an emergency that sucked up most of our funds, I know we could get by on a much lower grocery budget for a month since we have food on-hand.
For a long time I was really intimidated by buying bulk. I thought it would be insanely expensive to build up a “stash.” I thought it would be incredibly complicated to store bulk goods, especially when we lived in an apartment.
But the truth is, I only use an average of $10-$20 a month to stock up on certain foods. There are so many options for storing bulk food in a small space.
And ultimately, you don’t have to buy everything in bulk!
If you’ve never bought bulk anything before, start with something you know you’ll use–and won’t spoil. Start with a 15-lb bag of flour, or oats.
Eventually, you may find that this is an incredibly convenient way to shop. You may find yourself longing for a deep freezer (I may or may not have done a literal happy dance when we finally bought ours!) so that you can finally buy meat in bulk–when it’s on sale, of course!
The typical “meat and potatoes” dinner very rarely shows up on our table. Why? It’s expensive! We try to eat meals that only call for 2 large or 3 small chicken breasts, or a pound of ground meat. This helps us keep costs down, since meat is one of the most expensive components of a typical diet.
There is no denying that it is important to get enough protein every day. But what exactly are the recommended amounts?
WebMD states, “Babies need about 10 grams a day. School-age kids need 19-34 grams a day. Teenage boys need up to 52 grams a day. Teenage girls need 46 grams a day. Adult men need about 56 grams a day. Adult women need about 46 grams a day (71 grams, if pregnant or breastfeeding). You should get at least 10% of your daily calories, but not more than 35%, from protein, according to the Institute of Medicine.”
On average, one chicken breast contains 53 grams of protein, which is great. But there are many other sources of protein! Peanut butter, beans (and hummus!), eggs, and even oats all have a good amount of protein in them.
By the time you get to the dinner table, you shouldn’t need to eat an entire chicken breast to meet your protein requirements! Make sure your lunches, your snacks, and your breakfasts all have protein.
So, what exactly qualifies as a less-meat meal? Soups. Stir-fry. Fried Rice. Fajitas. Tacos. Spaghetti. Any meal where you can feed your family with a pound of ground meat or only 2-3 chicken breasts, cut up or shredded. And within these recipe categories, there is so much variety that you could easily eat “less-meat meals” for 95% of your dinners.
If you don’t have these recipes in your repertoire, add them! Eating meat as a main dish every night gets incredibly expensive. If you can cut back on the meat you use in your cooking, you will see big savings!
Gardening is also one great way to eat incredibly well on an extremely small budget. Now, I’m still a work in progress. My thumb is very much still brown with only a hint of green. But I’m learning! My goal is to have a giant garden by the time my boys are teens.
You can make your garden as large or as small as you want. A smaller garden is a more manageable starting point, great for someone who is just learning (like myself!) A larger garden could save you months of food costs between tomato sauce, canned vegetables, and root vegetables.
If you’re like me and still learning, or if you don’t know anything about gardening yet, there are plenty of free resources out there! Grab some books from your local library, connect with Master Gardeners at your local extension office, or simply tune into some gardening channels on YouTube.
Adjust Your Expectations
A wide-spread “rule” for a frugal grocery budget is to budget $100 per person, per month. So a family of 4 would budget $400 per month for groceries.
It’s easy to remember, and it generally works.
However, this is by no means a “one size fits all” approach. There are a couple different factors that you need to look at that may make the “$100 per person” rule pretty difficult.
Cost of Living
If you live in a high cost of living area, you will need to budget more for groceries. Exactly how much, though? That number will vary depending on where you live.
For example, if you live in one of the major cities of the Midwest, your groceries will be higher than the areas around you. But they will also be much lower than someone living in California. And if you live in California, your groceries are likely still cheaper than someone living in Alaska.
Exactly how much you need to increase your grocery budget can only be determined by you. For most households in a high cost of living area, you should add $50-$100 per month for a family of 4.
Of course, that will still be tight, but it’s totally doable!
If someone in your family has food allergies or needs to eat on a restricted diet, you may need to spend more on groceries.
However, I can tell you from experience that it is completely do-able to stay on a budget while eating a restricted diet. I have been dairy and soy free for over 4 years.
The trick is getting by with minimal substitute products. Do I still buy substitutes? Absolutely.
For myself, I consider almond milk, margarine, and coconut oil to be necessary substitutes. I also splurge on dairy-free ice cream fairly regularly. However, I very rarely buy dairy-free cheese, yogurt, or cream cheese.
For the person who is gluten free, you can keep costs down by buying a gluten free flour blend and make your own bread.
Only you can determine what are necessary substitutes and what are not. Cooking from whole foods is crucial. Play around with it and challenge yourself to spend as little as possible while still eating healthy, nutritious meals.
If you only have one or two restrictions, you may not need to spend more than the $100 per person, per month. However, the more restrictions you have, the more you’ll need to up the expectation. Every situation is different so you’ll need to determine how much for yourself.
How to Cut Back
So, now that you’ve made your way through all of these tips, take a detailed look at your own grocery budget.
If you don’t know how much you’re spending on food every month, or if you’re not sure where all the food money is going, then the first place to start is with tracking. Track all of your food purchases (eating out included!) for an entire month.
Once you have a total of how much you spend, you can start to cut back.
On the other hand, maybe you do know how much you spend every month. If so, are there techniques from this post that you can implement in your own home in order to cut your grocery budget down? Maybe you know snack foods are your nemesis, or perhaps you see where you can use less meat and more cheaper sources of protein.
But, how exactly do you cut back? There are two ways–gradually and cold turkey.
Cutting back gradually is, in many ways, easier than cutting back cold turkey. If you cut back the budget (and the unnecessary food purchases), you will meet less resistance from your family. You will also not be as tempted to blow the budget in order to satisfy your own cravings.
Depending on what your starting food costs were and where you’d like to end up, I recommend focusing on cutting back to your “goal grocery budget” within 3-6 months.
Now, this takes focus. Cutting back month after month is difficult. Try to focus on your end goal–why do you want to save that money? What will you be putting it towards? Focus on the prize and slowly wean yourself down from your large food budget.
Cutting back cold turkey means that in one month, you go from whatever you’re spending now, down to only spending about $100 per person, per month.
This can be hard, because we get used to eating the way we like to eat. If sugary cereals have always been in the house, it’s difficult to not have those. If you’re used to drinking sports drinks, then water might be hard to stomach for a few days.
Cutting back cold turkey often happens in one of two situations. Either, you’re just super determined to save money now, or something has come up that you need funds for ASAP– and your grocery budget is where you found those funds.
Neither way is wrong. Just be prepared to exercise a lot of willpower to get through that first month!
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