It’s way too easy to overspend on food. In fact, according to the Motley Fool, “food” ranks as the fifth-largest expense in the average U.S. household budget (behind housing, transportation, taxes, and utilities).
This can be especially true if you’ve got a hungry family at home to feed. While you might feel like a couple of hundred dollars every week at the grocery store is well-justified, headlines like this one where some families have creatively slashed their food expenses down to $100 or less can leave you second-guessing.
In this post, we’re going to explore how much you should spend on groceries every month and what you can do to stretch those dollars a little further. We’re going to start by hearing some advice from probably the last person you’d think to ask: The U.S. government!
How Much You Should Spend On Groceries According To Uncle Sam
Believe it or not, the U.S.D.A. (United States Department of Agriculture) publishes an official recommendation of what the average American family should be spending each month on groceries.
Their recommendations are called the “U.S.D.A. Food Plans” and they are broken up into four main groups (from lowest to highest cost):
- Thrifty plan
- Low-Cost plan
- Liberal plan
Note that with each plan they assume you will be eating a nutritious diet. It’s just a question of how extravagant the meal will be based on how much money you have available.
So what does the government believe you should be spending on your groceries every month?
According to a recent publication, here are a few select examples (with the lowest price representing the thrifty plan and the highest price representing the liberal plan):
- A single man 19-50 years of age = $188.80 to $373.40
- A single woman 19-50 years of age = $167.30 to $331.80
- A married couple 19-50 years of age with no kids = $391.70 to $775.80
- A family of 4 consisting of two kids (6-8 and 9-11 years old) = $655.90 to $1301.10
How Much Do We Really Spend On Food?
According to the U.S.D.A., Americans spend an average of 9.7 percent of their disposable income on food. That number combines both money spent on groceries as well as at restaurants. When you look at just the amount of money that was spent on groceries, this number drops to 5.0 percent.
If you consider that the median U.S. household income is only $63,179 before taxes, this only leaves you with $54,208 in disposable income (assuming an average effective tax rate of 14.2%). So you could reasonably estimate that this 5.0 percent figure works out to approximately $2,710 per year or $226 per month.
Whoa! At first glance, it may seem like most of the U.S. is barely keeping up with the thrifty plan. But take those numbers with a grain of salt. That average figure of 5.0 percent includes both singles and families, where there is obviously a very large gap in spending needs. Also think about how the price of groceries in a place like New York can cost a lot more than other places such as a rural town in the mid-west. It’s all relative.
How To Maximize Your Food Budget
Regardless of what the government says you should be spending on food or how much people actually are, one thing is for sure: You should always only spend what YOU can afford and try to get the most bang for your buck possible.
To do that, here are some tips that will help you to spend less on groceries.
1-Plan Your Shopping Trip
The absolute best way to waste a bunch of money on food is to buy a bunch of stuff you don’t need.
To stay within budget, what you’ll want to do is stay laser-focused and buy only the things you need. The easiest way to do that is to make a list ahead of time. Decide up-front what meals you plan to cook for the week, and then jot down which items you’re missing. I guarantee when you do this you’ll be far less tempted to buy something that’s might never get used.
2-Never Go Shopping Hungry
We humans like to think of ourselves as being pretty smart. But when we get hungry, our decision-making abilities go out the window and we can become a lot more impulsive!
That’s why you should never go to the grocery store when you’re hungry. You’ll end up buying everything because your brain wants you to eat! Do yourself a favor and instead go shopping after you’ve at a full meal. You’ll be much apt to stick to your list and stay on budget.
3-Rock Some Coupons
Think coupons are just for little old ladies? If you’ve ever seen an episode of Extreme Couponing from TLC, then you’ll know that they can be a force to be reckoned with. On average, coupons can save the average consumer $1,560 to $2,600 per year. That’s not a bad return for combing through your weekly newspaper inserts. Some stores have even made this easier with online coupons via their app.
4- Don’t Be a Brand-Name Snob
Sometimes when you’re buying food from a well-known brand, you’re simply paying more for the label. Nearly every major grocery store has their own line of generic products. Give them a try and I’m sure you’ll find out: They’re really no different than the brand-name product. Save yourself a few bucks.
5- Skip Pre-Packaged Products
Although some products in the grocery store will seem convenient, the truth is that almost all of them can be made for cheaper (and probably healthier) if you just make them yourself. Think about products that are frozen and just need to be heated in the oven or microwaved.
6- Eat Lean Meats and More Veggies
Any budget-conscious shopper can tell you – meat will be by far one of the most expensive things you buy on your trip. But the good news is that it’s not all meats. Usually lean white meats like chicken or pork will cost much less than red meats like steak. If you can find a way to work in more veggies and salad into your meal planning, then you’ll reduce the amount of money you’ll be spending on meat every month.
7- Cook Big Meals for Leftovers
Though cooking a big meal might seem at first like a waste of food, it actually has some hidden benefits. The main one being that you could have leftovers for lunch or even dinner the next day, which may end up sparing you the expense of making a whole other meal.
You don’t have to spend all your money on food! Now you know how much you should spend on groceries and some great tips for maximizing your food budget. Looking for some other ways to manage your finances? You may enjoy our article on the best personal finance tools as well. Spend your money wisely.