One question I see time and again is “How much should I spend on groceries for my family of four ?” — or three, five, etc.
When you’re making a household budget, it’s easy to know how much you need to include for most of your living expenses, like utilities, student loans, and even fuel. But when it comes to your average grocery bill, how much should you expect?
As much as I wish there were a simple answer, a family’s grocery budget will be different for every household. There’s no right or wrong number, but finding yours is key to keeping your grocery spending in check.
Here’s a guide to help you figure out how much you should spend on food each month.
WHY YOU NEED A GROCERY BUDGET
It may sound like it should go without saying, but you need a food budget because it will force you to think about money when you’re grocery shopping. After all, your income is a certain amount, and that means you only have a certain amount of money you can spend on food for your family.
The other reason you need a frugal food budget is to make sure you don’t spend too much money for the food your family needs (and to save money by not buying food you don’t need). You become smarter about your spending and think twice before adding impulse purchases to your shopping cart.
HOW MUCH TO BUDGET FOR FOOD
It can be tough to figure out how much you *should* budget for food vs. what you’re currently spending on your meals. There is not a right or a wrong number, but you must find the right amount so you don’t overspend.
Here are some tricks you can try to help you figure out exactly how much to spend on food per month.
Budgeting Hack 1: Use the National Average
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average household spends about 6% of its income on groceries each month. However, the study also shows that the average American also spends 5% of his or her disposable income on dining out. That makes your food budget 11% of your overall income — a significant expense!
If you want to keep things simple and use the national average to calculate your monthly grocery budget, then plan on spending 6% for groceries and an additional 5% for dining out.
Here is an example: If your take-home pay is $3,000 a month, you will budget around $180 for groceries and $150 for dining out. Of course, if $180 won’t cover your needs, then you need to commit to a more thrifty plan: Scale back on eating out and use any additional money toward your grocery needs.
Budgeting Hack 2: Use Your Actual Spending
A more realistic way to figure out how much to budget for groceries is to look at your current grocery spending. An easy way to do this is by completing a spending form.
Here’s how it works. Review all your purchases over several pay periods. You should include food spending, fuel, dining out, entertainment — everything. Having all the numbers in front of you will help you calculate the average of how much you’re spending on groceries (and all your other budget categories!) every week.
If you think your expenses for food add up to too much money, you can try to reduce your spending. Just keep in mind that your family will have to adjust the way you eat.
Budgeting Hack 3: Use a Grocery Calculator
Sometimes, you want to get specific help when figuring out how much to budget for food. There is a simple to use, online grocery budget calculator; you can use it for free.
Fill out the information for all of your family members, then hit calculate. It will return an average you should plan on budgeting for your family.
I ran this report for my family, and the result said we should plan on $219.35 for an average grocery budget for our family of five. That is more than we spend. On average, I spend $125 – $150 per week on everything our family needs.
While using a budget calculator can be helpful, it might end up doing the same thing for you: Suggest an amount that is higher than what you know you spend — or is higher than what you can afford. Use this calculator as a guide, but not the only factor when determining your budget.
Budgeting Hack 4: Look at the U.S. Average
Another way to reach a grocery budget amount is to look at the plans created by the USDA. The most recent plans are on their website. They provide the weekly cost for a thrifty, low-cost, moderate-cost and liberal plan on a weekly and monthly basis. The amounts are broken down by gender and age. You will need to total the numbers listed for the people in your family.
For example, the average grocery budget for a family of four is about $871, per this report. The amounts will be lower, of course for a family of three or higher if you need to budget for a family of five.
Once again, these numbers should be a guide. Once you start grocery shopping for your family, you may find that you spend much less – or even more – than what the average family spends on groceries.
Don’t Forget Special Dietary Needs
If you have a family member who cannot eat gluten or who has other dietary restrictions, these can affect your budget. Make sure you keep these foods in mind when developing your budget as they can cost much more than average foods or require trips to a specialty grocery store.
TRICKS TO MAKING A MONTHLY FOOD BUDGET
There is no magic formula or grocery budget app that will pull the numbers together for you. The key is to make sure that you put forth the effort in the right manner to make it work for you. Keep the following in mind when figuring your monthly food budget:
1. Consider Your Current Spending
Before you can make any changes, you have to know where you are starting. That way, you can see what you currently spend on your groceries so you can start cutting back.
Need help figuring our your average grocery bill?
You can use the Spending Worksheet and go back to find your spending on food over the past 8 weeks. Look at every transaction in your bank statement and total it. Then, divide that amount by two. You know have an average your family spends on food every month.
The next step is going to be finding a way to not only spend that amount going forward but try to find ways to spend even less if you can.
2. Put It in Writing
The next things you need to when creating your budget for food is to put it in writing. Once written down, you are more willing to commit to the process. Make sure your spouse or partner is also on board so you can work together to ensure you don’t overspend.
3. Start Using Cash
If you really want to stick to a tight budget, you need to use cash. Each payday, get cash from your bank for the amount you’ll need at the grocery store. That is all you have to spend until the next payday. No cheating! That means you can’t whip out your debit card if you run out of money.
You’ll quickly learn better ways to be smart and strategic when figuring your budget and sticking to it. (Read more about how to start using a cash envelope budget ).
4. Commit to Using Your Budget
You can have the greatest intent to use a budget, but if you aren’t ready to do so, it will never work. It is just like dieting. You may know you want to shed pounds, but if you are not willing to put in the effort, the weight will never come off.
Once you know the amount you have to spend at the grocery store, you need to stick to it (this is another reason to use cash). You have to make the conscious decision that you want to budget and then do all you can to make it work.
Your spouse or partner needs to be on board, too. It will never work if one of you is committed to making your grocery budget work and the other is not. Have a long heart to heart talk and make sure you are on the same page.
Read more: How to talk to your spouse about money
GROCERY SHOPPING ON A BUDGET
If you’ve tried all these ideas and still need to save money on groceries, here are some simple tricks you can try.
Reduce Your Dining Out Budget
Stop eating as many restaurant meals. That’s an easy way to find money to add to your grocery shopping budget, especially if this means you’re cutting back on alcohol spending at restaurants.
While they are not for everyone, coupons are the simplest way to save money on the items you need. Even if coupons aren’t available for the grocery items you need, you can find them for household products you use, like toilet paper and laundry detergent, thereby reducing your spending and increasing the money you can spend on the foods you want.
Stick to Your List
Never shop without a list and only purchase the items on your list. Put in writing or use a grocery list app and don’t be tempted to add extra items to the cart.
Make a Meal Plan
Create a meal plan before you grocery shop. That way, you have a plan for the week not only to know what you will eat but also to make sure the ingredients will be on hand when it’s time for meal prep (reducing those frequent drive-thru meals). Meal planning saves you time, money, and the stress of figuring out “Mom, what’s for dinner?” without resorting to frozen pizza.
Keep a Price Book
Start watching the sales cycles at your grocery store and you’ll learn when it is time to stock up on your pantry staples, so you always pay the lowest price. Keep track of the prices in a price book for every item your family needs. (Bonus: When you get good at identifying your store’s food cost cycles, you can plan a meal or two around the fresh foods on sale in any given week.)
Add a Meatless Meal
One item that can quickly increase your grocery bill is meat. Try having a meal without meat every week (like Meatless Mondays), and you’ll find that you spend less.
Vegetables are cheaper than meat and can be just as filling. Having vegetables for your main course at dinner is not only healthy but can also help with saving money. Try loaded sweet potatoes, pasta with veggie sauce, or cheese and vegetable pizza for a delicious meal.
If veggies are a hard sell for your family, try fruit salads or breakfast for dinner — pancakes and French toast are cheap and fast!
Buying fresh fruit and vegetables that are in-season can help you save even more on your monthly grocery bill. And frozen vegetables and fruit are often cheaper (and tastier) than “fresh” produce that’s not in-season.
- Pro tip: When you’re buying meat, remember that cuts like chicken thighs are often significantly cheaper than chicken breasts, and they have more flavor. Get more tips on saving money on meat, produce, and dairy products.
There’s an App for That
There are many grocery savings apps that can help you keep tabs on food prices and create a smarter shopping list. What is great about an app is that you always have it with you on your phone, so no worry that you left a coupon at home or in your car.
Steer Clear of Mistakes at the Grocery Store
When you grocery shop, there are temptations around every corner (and I don’t just mean the ice cream and chocolate chip cookies). There are sales on the end caps, fancy signs and different tricks stores use to make you spend more money. Learn about the ways grocery stores get you to spend more money so you can avoid them.
Avoid Haste and Waste
One of the biggest ways people waste money when it comes to food is through waste. People often buy food that goes bad before they get around to eating it.
You might also waste money buying convenience foods. (That frozen meal might seem like a deal when you’re running low on time, but you’ll save more if you prepare big batches of homemade, healthy food and freeze some leftover portions for later.)
These are two ways you are killing your grocery budget. Study your habits and find ways to make changes so you aren’t wasting money on food.
- Pro tip: One convenience food I occasionally give into is a rotisserie chicken. It’s ready to eat when I get home from the store, and you can use it in a few other meals during the week.
NOW GO SAVE MONEY ON YOUR GROCERIES!
Take the time to create a grocery budget that is both frugal and feasible for your family. Don’t try to make the dollar amount so low that it is unrealistic, or it will fail month after month. But if you pay attention while you’re shopping and keep an eye on how long the food lasts your family, you’ll soon discover that having a realistic grocery budget is the tastiest way to save money!