Determining how much to spend on groceries and creating a budget is a challenge for many households.
Grocery budgeting has become even more difficult lately. According to the consumer price index, the cost of eating food at home has risen 10.8% over the past 12 months, the largest increase since 1980. The index for meats, poultry, fish and eggs has seen an even larger jump: 14.3% over the last year, the largest 12-month increase the country has seen since the period ending in May 1979.
“The world’s reaction to the pandemic has caused increases in costs at every point of the supply chain, from farm to fork,” Gansner says. “Not everyone is aware that these increases across the board ultimately result in higher costs in the grocery store or at the restaurant.”
Amid rising food prices, consumers should keep these budgeting benchmarks in mind to guide their grocery spending, establish a grocery budget and rein in spending.
How Much to Budget for Groceries
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent figures, in 2020 Americans spent an average of 8.6% of their disposable personal income on food.
The average annual cost of groceries for U.S. households is $4,942, according to 2020 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That puts the average monthly grocery bill at about $411 a month. While that may sound about right for some households, for others it may be way off the mark.
For specific guidelines on how much you should aim to spend on groceries, 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 of 6 to 8 and 9 to 11, and that the parents are somewhere between 19 and 50) would be $282.50 a week for groceries or $1,130 a month.
As your kids get older, your food budget will grow. For instance, a moderate budget for a teenage boy between ages 14 and 18 would be $82 in groceries a week (or $64.60 a week if you have what the USDA calls a “low-cost budget” and $95.10 a week for a “liberal budget”). A boy who is 9 to 11 years old, according to the USDA’s moderate budget, would eat $71.80 in food every week.
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 should plan to spend $65.40 a week on groceries for a teenage girl (approximately $17 less a week than for a teenage boy). An adult male from 19 to 50 years of age would account for $80.40 a week on a moderate food budget, and a 19- to 50-year-old woman would be allocated $68.20 a week.
How to Stay Within Your Grocery Budget
Coming up with a target amount to spend on food isn’t the hard part — it’s staying within a budget that’s tricky. Eileen Roth, an organizing expert in Scottsdale, Arizona, and author of “Organizing for Dummies,” has some ideas.
Create shopping lists. This is a common practice, but Roth suggests making your shopping lists better. For instance, if you’re scanning the contents of your refrigerator and pantry before you go to the grocery store, add items on your shopping list when they are two-thirds gone.
So if you aim to keep mayonnaise in stock, for example, get into the habit of buying a new jar when the current one is two-thirds empty, Roth recommends. This way, you’ll always have a refill ready and you’ll have more time to look for deals.
Create a meal routine. Routines make grocery shopping more predictable for your wallet, according to Roth. “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.”
Create a shopping routine. Patterns also 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 with 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 because you have a coupon, 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 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 following a 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 aiming to stick with the USDA’s recommendations, avoid spending more than about 4% to 5% of your monthly income on food from restaurants.
You may want to tally up your restaurant spending, including takeout food, over the past month. Knowing what you’ve been spending on food from restaurants should help you determine if you need to cut back.
There are other strategies to consider. For instance, if you’re loyal to certain eateries, download restaurant apps to join loyalty programs and get discounts for dining at particular places. You could also pick up food rather than have it delivered. Even with gas as high as it is, you’ll likely save money.
[SEE: 10 Best Money-Saving Apps.]
Tips to Spend Less on Groceries
Strategies to cut your grocery bill include:
Order online instead of shopping in the store. Jessica Randhawa, owner, recipe creator and head chef at The Forked Spoon, a website featuring family-friendly recipes, opts for Whole Foods grocery delivery with the Amazon app.
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 aisles, 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 and look for affordable foods.
Use coupons. This tried-and-true method endures. “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 Los Angeles.
Del Prete advises looking 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.
Make a list. 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 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.”
Buy store brands. Sometimes called generic products or “generics,” these brands are only sold by the store where you’re shopping. Generally, they’re cheaper than name brands and usually just as good, Gansner says.
“Most stores have systems and programs in place to help ensure their products are just as good as the major brands,” he says.
Shop more often, not less often. That sounds counterintuitive. If you shop more often, won’t you spend more? Maybe, but Gansner recommends more frequent trips to the supermarket and says you’ll probably spend less than if you do one mega-visit every week or two.
The idea: You’ll buy what you know you will consume in the next few days rather than purchase a lot of items you think you will be using in the next week or two. “This can help to avoid food waste, which is a common problem for many,” Gansner says.
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Update 05/12/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.