The Grocery Budget

I’m going to continue forcing the discussion of money by focusing on the grocery budget today.  We all have to eat, so food is a necessary expense for everybody, right up there with housing and clothing.  Some families manage to survive by what seems like magick to me, on very little money, clipping coupons and growing food in their yards.  Others think nothing of not only buying all of their food, but buying it local, organic, free-range, etc., at their local Whole Foods or farmer’s market or food co-op.  The differences in food budgets from household to household can be staggering, and what feels like being cash-strapped to one household can feel like luxury to another.

I want folks to share their grocery budgets here, along with the things they value and any tips they have.  I want to see specific numbers so that I can have an idea of where I stand in the grand scheme of things, and I want to see all the ideas that are out there for reducing what I spend, even if they are things that may not be practical for me at this time. I want this to be a judgement-free zone, with everybody understanding that we all have different circumstances, different priorities, even different dietary needs.  This is for sharing ideas.

I will start us off with my numbers and information, without imposing any judgement on myself.

The United States government Department of Agriculture puts out its own estimates of what each family should be spending based on the cost of various items across the country.  These numbers only include food for humans; they do not include toiletries, house or kitchen accessories, cleaners, pet care items, or medicine.  According to its charts, as of January of this year my family should be spending anywhere from $1245.50 (thrifty) to $2427.70 (liberal) each month on groceries.  Our actual average over the past twelve months has been $1734.83.  For my own ease in budgeting and tracking, this includes anything I would be able to buy at a typical grocery store, so it also includes things like cat food, bunny litter, tin foil and plastic bags, dishwasher and laundry detergent, vitamins, toothpaste, hair conditioner, all of that.  Every once in a while, I wonder what our actual food budget is, but trying to break it down is always more trouble than I care for.  In addition to including non-food items, our spending includes a fair amount of gluten-free processed foods and spelt breads, flour, and pasta, as I try to keep wheat out of my diet.

The single biggest impact on our grocery bill has probably come from meal planning.  I have never been able to actually sit down and plan a whole week’s worth of meals on my own.  Instead, I subscribe to a menu service such as Menu-Mailer or eMeals.  The small monthly cost of these has been more than outweighed by the amount it saves me on the grocery bill. Left to our own devices, we’re liable to get to dinnertime and order pizza, grab boxed meal kits or frozen dinners from the store, or otherwise find a fast, tasty dinner.  When I shop ahead, even 2 or 3 meals at a time, knowing that food is in the fridge and having the instructions to prepare it makes it much more likely that I will cook and that we will eat things like…vegetables.

Beyond menu planning, mostly I try to practice being frugal with our food.  I serve people small portions to start.  I save leftovers, I eat them for lunch, and I will refuse to cook dinner if there are enough leftovers to eat dinner.  I have tried harder and harder every year to throw away less food.  Sometimes my fridge will be nearly empty, and right after a new menu shopping trip it will be overflowing.

I also shop in bulk whenever possible, which is a more feasible strategy for my family of eight than it would be for a household of only 1 or 2.  I can buy enough milk, eggs, toilet paper, etc., at Sams Club (or Costco, if you have one; I don’t) to more than pay for the membership fee.  Other things I get cheaper there are butter, sugar, salad, onions, paper towels, parchment paper, aluminum foil, salt for cleaning, vinegar, baking soda, dried cherries…all sorts of things.  The key to shopping at Sams for me is to stay the hell out of the middle aisles, no matter how tempting it looks, and to focus on buying ingredients, not pre-processed foods.

I have tried clipping coupons in the past, and I am trying again now.  Previously, I subscribed to the Grocery Game and picked up the Detroit Free Press at the gas station (the Lansing State Journal has only a small fraction of the coupons).  I went nuts at first, shopping all the stores for all the deals I thought we would ever possibly use.  Needless to say, I did not save any money. (I filled up the pantry with cleaning products and smelly candles, though!)  Then I switched to no coupons, only buying “stockpile” deals without coupons.  This was okay, but I petered out after a couple of years and cancelled the subscription.

Now I am trying again with Coupon Mom and home delivery of the Free Press.  Coupon Mom is free, and I am having the Press delivered because we had trouble remembering to get to the convenience store on Sunday mornings. (HabitRPG might be able to help with that now…)  I’m sticking to deals that are 50% off or better, that are things we regularly buy or that we would love to have as a treat, and that we are not already overstocked on.  I’m also not going out of my way to shop anywhere but my usual stores.  We’ll see how it goes.

My couponing is a bit limited.  I pull the circulars and keep them in date-labeled file folders.  Then I pull coupons one at a time as CouponMom lists the deals.  I tried clipping every coupon for a while, but I could not keep up with the effort.  I am also too controlling to let the kids do it; the very thought of a coupon I might want slipping through makes my shoulders go up past my ears.  Maybe one day I’ll get over it.

So, how does your grocery bill look?  What are your tips and tricks for making the most of your grocery dollar?

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About solinox

I am a Wiccan priestess, a libertarian mother of triplets plus three, a wife and homeschooling mom to blind and autistic children, a fiber artist, and a Jane of All Trades, always learning and seeking to help.

6 thoughts on “The Grocery Budget

  1. As a family of 3 we’ve been living off a (food stamp) budget of $330/month for groceries. That does not include non-food items, which we budget $20/week for, but rarely spend more than $10 of that. I normally divide the monthly budget into weekly amounts to help me keep track, so it comes out to between $84 and $66 per week depending on how many weeks there are in a month. That may seem like a tiny amount, but most weeks we actually stay under budget. It took us a while to learn how to do it, but now it seems like second nature to eat healthy and within this tight of a budget. Here are some of our tricks: 1. We don’t drink sodas and are very sparing in our juice consumption. 2. We shop sales and managers specials for meats (we use the freezer a lot). 3. We use some coupons, but not many because we buy almost no processed food, with the exceptions of dressings, spreads, bread, and canned and frozen vegetables, and stick to the store brand for pretty much everything. 4. We do eat a lot of fresh vegetables and I’ll go out of my way to a farmer’s market to get a good deal on high quality veggies that will last us. 5. We save *everything* we can – all vegetable and meat scraps – to make our own soup stock that we then use to make a weekly soup (often out of leftovers) that stretches our food. 5. When we see a good sale of something we use often, we’ll re-figure our budget to stock up, but never so much that things would go bad. 6. We base our meals on what’s on sale, not the other way around – I’ve actually found it cheaper to go grocery shopping sans list, stay slightly under budget, then do meal planning when I get home, using the money I saved to go back and get anything we need to complete the meals. A final note: we could not do this if we hadn’t learned to be excellent recipe-less cooks. The money you save by being able to figure out how to make a healthy and tasty meal from a few tablespoons of flour, some milk, spices, and leftover veggies and grains is tremendous.

  2. We are a family of 6, with kids ranging from 5-11 years old. I use Mint to track spending, but since I buy all my household goods where I buy groceries, my numbers include cleaning supplies, toothpaste, shampoo etc.

    We spend $800-900 a month on groceries, and generally spend another $100 on eating out.

    Like Christina, I plan our meals around what is on sale, rather than buying ingredients to fit a meal plan. I think that is the single biggest money saver out there! Our ads come out on Wednesday and I check every week to see what is on sale where, then I go stock up. This also means I have to have a good sense of how much the same item costs at other stores- not always going to happen! So I have a couple rules of thumb: I try to pay less than $2/lb for boneless chicken breast and pork loin, less than $3/lb for lean ground beef, and less than $4/lb for beef steak. Sometimes I will splurge and pay a ton of money for a quality steak, but only sometimes. I buy a lot of my meat from the 50% off bin and save a ton of money that way. We have a Sprouts about 5 miles from here and I try to go every two weeks for fresh produce. I do not buy organic unless the price is within 10% of conventional, but we eat a ton of fresh fruits and veggies.

    For pantry items I stock up when there are good sales, and I also check the reduced item racks. Since most pantry items are non perishable, if I see something I use marked down I will buy it and store it. I have two big shelving units in the basement that I use for pantry items.

    I do not coupon. I tried once and realized I was buying items I would never normally buy because it was “such a great deal!!!!!” I ended up spending more money and eating a ton more processed foods, so I stopped.

    We do have a Sam’s Club membership, and I use that for our convenience foods, paper products, shampoo, and occasionally meats. I buy the kids chicken nuggets and frozen pizza, cheese is way cheaper there, eggs, TP, etc. I buy good bread at the outlet store 3/$5, but when you spend $8 there you get a free loaf so I usually spend $10 and walk out with 7 loaves of Oroweat whole grain bread.

    I will say this has gotten harder since I went back to work. I don’t always feel like cooking or planning a meal when I get home- I do it, I just don’t enjoy it like I used to. So I am working on that and hoping I can start planning a day ahead. I also have less time to shop at four different stores, but I am finding ways to get it done.

    I looked at the USDA numbers and feel pretty good about how much we spend now. If we spent as much as they say we should we would eat like kings!

    • Wow, you just had to bring up the eating out!

      I miss the days when we could go to CiCi’s and they let all the triplets eat free. Or when we would go out to a nicer restaurant and somebody would take pity on us with the triplet stroller next to our table and buy our dinner. Now it’s pushing $75 just to take the family out to the cheap local “Chinese” buffet!

      I can’t admit yet to the amount we’ve been spending on restaurant food. We seem to be constantly overbudget in this category and are constantly trying to bring it down. I will say, though, that the whole family going anywhere is a once a month or less occasion. Most of it is pizza at Foster on co-op days, McDonald’s or other fast food in a pinch, or taking one or two kids out for a treat.

      • Oh, absolutely it is insanely expensive to go out. I brought it up because I’ve talked to people who say they spend $300 or so on groceries, but then admit they eat dinner out 3 times a week and buy lunch every day at work, and then I’m like well hell, that makes a huge difference! We go out for each of our birthdays and for our anniversary, but other than that it is maybe once a month that we get fast food or pizza for the kids. Sometimes my husband goes out with co workers so that gets added in there too. Over the course of the year it probably averages 100/month.

        And, yeah, I remember the free Cici’s days too! We had a punch card that gave us BOGO adult buffets, and that along with free littles made it so nice! 🙂

  3. We don’t really budget and food is something we need to work on controlling our spending on. We have a family of 4. The kids are 18 months and 5 yrs. My husband does the grocery shopping and menu planning. Usually we take lunches to work that are leftovers. The kids day care includes lunch. We eat out Friday night and Sunday night. We usually eat out at least one more meal on the weekends. We may eat out once during the week, but that isn’t too common. I was looking out our credit card year end statements recently. It looks like we spend about $370 at the grocery store per month. We probably spend about $320 per month at Costco. It looks like we’re averaging about $530 per month eating out. I know we could bring that down by being a bit more careful about where we ate out and trying to hit more “kids eat free” places. We don’t coupon except for Costco coupons – which are usually for things we would buy anyway. We get the local paper and don’t even open the coupon section. Most of the cooking we do at home is not pre-packaged but rather from a recipe. The numbers listed above also include the random non-food stuff we get at Costco, but most of our Costco spending is food.

  4. We spend probably $500-800 a month on groceries for our family of 4, children aged almost 3 and 6. I don’t find coupons very useful because I don’t buy a lot of processed stuff. I do shop at Sam’s for pull-ups, shampoo, soap, toothpaste, contact stuff, kids clothes, school lunch stuff, bulk produce (BLUEBERRIES!!!!!! I’m an addict), detergent, etc. I don’t get a whole lot of meat there. Lately, I’ve had enough stuff frozen (soup, mainly) that our weekly bill at the regular grocery has been under $100. I go to Sam’s every 2-3 weeks. We also joined a CSA through my work ($200 for 12 weeks) that brings the bags to work, and provides the recipes with most of the ingredients, including the spices. I’m loving that. It falls into the meal planning category. I do try to plan meals for the week, which works better at some times of the year than others…. I generally take my lunch to work, and pack the oldest daughter’s lunch. Hubby eats at home (leftovers) when he works from home, but eats out when at the office. That doesn’t generally get budgeted into the total above. We probably eat out once a week as a family.

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