Determining how much to spend on groceries and creating a budget is a challenge for many households. Nationally, the average annual cost of groceries for U.S. households is $4,643, according to 2019 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That puts the average monthly grocery bill at $387 a month. While that may sound about right for some households, for others it may be way off the mark.
Unless you’re on a fixed income or buy the same meals every week, the amount you spend at the grocery store will vary from week to week, possibly by a lot. If you shop when you’re hungry, for example, you may overspend. If you’re ambitious with recipes, you might also spend more than usual. But if you’re short on time or getting ready for a trip, you may spend much less.
Here are some rules of thumb to help guide your target grocery spending, as well as establish a grocery budget and rein in your spending.
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How Much to Budget for Groceries
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent figures, in 2019 Americans spent an average of 9.5% of their disposable personal income on food. Interestingly, 4.9% was at the grocery store and 4.6% was at restaurants. Those numbers likely shifted once the pandemic took hold, but still, if you’re spending around 10% of your budget on food, you’re probably doing OK.
If you want more specific numbers, the USDA publishes a food budget each month that offers an estimate for monthly and weekly spending, split up into a “thrifty plan,” a “low-cost plan,” a “moderate-cost plan” and a “liberal plan.”
For example, a moderate budget for a family of four (assuming your kids are within the ages 6 to 8 and 9 to 11) would be $256.70 a week for groceries or $1,112.20 a month.
The USDA offers lower numbers for a moderate budget if your kids are younger, but it doesn’t offer specific numbers for families with teenagers. Probably because when you have teenagers dictating grocery spending, all heck breaks loose.
Still, the USDA does offer some guidance for teenagers and people of all ages. For instance, a moderate budget for a teenage boy between ages 14 and 18 would be $74.50 in groceries a week (or $40.60 a week if you have what the USDA calls a thrifty budget and $86.10 a week for a liberal budget).
Not surprisingly, the USDA’s food budget allocates more of the grocery budget for teenage boys than it does for teenage girls, children or the adults in the household.
For instance, it suggests if you have a moderate budget, you plan to spend $59.40 a week on groceries for a teenage girl (approximately $15 less a week than for a teenage boy). An adult male from 19 to 50 years of age would be allocated $72.90 a week on a moderate food budget, and a 19- to 50-year-old woman would be allocated $61.90 a week.
How to Stay Within Your Grocery Budget
It isn’t that coming up with a number to spend on food is hard — it’s staying within a budget that is tricky.
Fortunately, Eileen Roth, an organizing expert in Scottsdale, Arizona, and author of “Organizing for Dummies,” has some ideas.
Create shopping lists. Yes, everyone says that and does that, but Roth suggests making your shopping list better. For instance, if you’re looking at your refrigerator and pantry before you go to the supermarket, put items on the list when they are two-thirds gone.
So if you aim to keep mayonnaise in stock, buy a new one when the jar is two-thirds empty, and get into that habit. Then you’ll always have a refill ready.
“You can also add items to the list when there is only one can left — for example, one last can of corn or chicken noodle soup,” Roth says.
Create a meal routine. “Another way to watch your budget is to plan your meals,” Roth says. “Every Wednesday is spaghetti night. Every Friday is fish night. Every Sunday is chicken. Every Monday is steak night, etc.”
Do that, and “you have a fairly good idea what you need to buy weekly,” Roth says. This, of course, will help anyone keep their food budget within a predictable range.
Create a grocery shopping routine. Patterns can open the door to savings. “If you shop on the same day each week, at the same grocery store, you will know what they carry and where it is — saving you time as well as money,” Roth says.
Be careful of coupons. Coupon apps and strategies can be useful, but be aware of your spending mindset. “Don’t just use them because you have a coupon,” Roth says. She also advises consumers not to get sucked into the idea that you should buy two items if a coupon is trying to entice you to do so, especially if it is a product or brand you’ve never tried before.
“It doesn’t help to have bought three to four boxes of something you don’t like. Now you waste money instead of saving money,” Roth says.
Shop on weekdays if you can. Roth suggests this strategy since stores are always more crowded on the weekends, and time is money.
Try to shop on sales days. Learn when your grocery store starts a new sales cycle. “Many stores have ads that come out on Wednesday, but grocery stores do differ,” Roth says. “Watch your newspaper ads and see if you notice a trend for sales too.”
She adds that a good time to save money is right after a big holiday. “Once a big sale is over — like a holiday sale, stores will discount the excess,” Roth says. “Valentine’s candy, the day after Valentine’s Day, and turkeys the day after Thanksgiving Day.”
How to Budget for Restaurants and Dining Out
The amount you spend eating out is a judgment call, of course, but if you’re going to stick with the USDA’s recommendation, you wouldn’t want to spend more than 5% of your monthly income on food from restaurants.
You also may want to tally up your restaurant spending, including carryout, over the past month. This should help you determine if you want to keep your restaurant budget the same or if you need to cut back.
Tips to Spend Less on Groceries
There are a number of strategies to cut your grocery bill, including:
Order online instead of shopping in the store. Jessica Randhawa is the owner, recipe creator and head chef at The Forked Spoon, a website featuring family-friendly recipes. She says she has been using Whole Foods delivery with the Amazon app for her grocery shopping, which she was doing even before the pandemic made it a popular choice for many shoppers.
It’s far more convenient than shopping in the store, according to Randhawa. “Instead of managing a grocery list, I can simply add items to my cart when planning recipes, or simply add items to my cart if I notice I am about to run out of an ingredient,” she says. “The reduction in time spent driving, waiting (in line) and wandering isles, coupled with the lack of impulse buying, has been a huge saver of my time and money.”
You can also take your time with online shopping, returning to the website periodically, carefully looking for cheap foods and so on.
Use coupons. “I know I sound old saying that, but it’s true. Coupons can really help,” says Audrey Del Prete, a fitness instructor and health and wellness coach in San Jose, California.
Del Prete says to look in the mail for coupon deals and online for digital coupons.
“If you use the store’s app, it can save you a decent amount of money as long as you use them for things you are already buying. Don’t buy something you don’t really need just because you have a coupon for it. That will end up costing you more money in the end,” she says.
[See: 35 Ways to Save Money.]
Make a list. To save money, avoid shopping without a plan. “Whether you use paper and pen or make a list on your phone, the No. 1 thing you can do prior to grocery shopping is to make a list with only your immediate needs and stick to it,” Del Prete says. “Don’t buy anything not on the list because you don’t need it. I use the app Any.do for all of my lists.”
Utilize store rewards programs. This is another classic strategy. “If you shop at a major retailer, the store most likely has a customer rewards program that gives you automatic discounts on most items. Definitely sign up for it,” Del Prete advises. “You will save a lot each time you shop.”
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Update 05/10/21: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.