How Much Should You Spend On Groceries?
Because food is the third largest expenditure in Americans’ budgets, it’s often the target for personal finance crusaders who seem to think that all you need to do to make space in your budget is to start buying oatmeal in bulk.
The reality, however, is much more complicated. Food is such a personal, individualized thing that it’s hard to give advice about how to save money on it that applies to everyone.
So, what can we say about how much a person should be spending on their groceries? There are resources and guidelines that can give us a good starting point, but beyond that, it’s up to individuals to decide what makes sense for themselves and their families.
To help you create a grocery budget, we’ve broken down exactly what the guidelines say and how you can use them to help you make the best decisions for your household, from the produce department to the frozen food aisle.
What Are The Official Guidelines?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture creates the official recommendations for what households should be spending on food at home, called the USDA Food Plans. It updates these guidelines each month with budget recommendations that depend on the age and sex of each member of a household. You can find the most recent monthly Cost of Food Report on the USDA website.
These reports are broken down into each of the USDA’s four Food Plan categories: Thrifty, Low-Cost, Moderate-Cost and Liberal. These plans were developed by the USDA as a guideline for what a nutritious diet looks like at different budget levels.
You can use the USDA Food Plans and Cost of Food Reports to give you a general idea of what individuals and families should be spending each month. Not sure which one you should be looking at? Here’s a quick breakdown:
- Thrifty: This plan, the lowest-cost plan, “shows how a nutritious diet may be achieved with limited resources,” according to the USDA. It’s used as the basis for maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program On this plan, an individual between the ages of 19 – 50 will spend $166 – $187 per month on groceries. A family of four (the USDA defines this as two adults – one male and one female – and two children) will spend $568 – $651 per month.
- Low-Cost: This plan represents food costs for the second-lowest quartile of food spending, according to the USDA. On this plan, an individual will spend $210 – $242 per month, while a family of four will spend $726 – $855.
- Moderate-Cost: This plan represents the second from the top quartile of food spending. On this plan, an individual will spend $257 – $303 per month, while a family of four will spend $894 – $1,068 per month.
- Liberal: This plan represents the top quartile of food spending. On the Liberal plan, an individual will spend $330 – $370 per month, and a family of four will spend $1,106 – $1,296.
A good way to figure out which plan is best for you is to look at what your current food budget is and compare it to the USDA recommendations.
Then, you can check out the USDA publications (there’s two: one for the Thrifty plan and one for the other three) that include specific recommendations for each plan. They break down each plan by food category and tell you how many pounds of each food type is recommended based on an individual’s age and sex.
However, there are limits to these plans, as there really is no standard when it comes to an individual household’s needs and eating patterns. These plans don’t factor in individual dietary restrictions or health needs. Use the information that is helpful to you while factoring in your own needs.
What Are People Spending On Food?
Of course, there’s a difference between food spending guidelines and what people actually end up spending. To figure out how much American consumers are shelling out for food each year, look to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual Consumer Expenditures survey, which reports how much people are spending on various consumer goods.
Food Spending Through The Years
Food spending, in line with all other spending, has generally risen steadily through the years. According to the Consumer Price Index, which measures price changes for consumer goods, food price increases were closely in line with overall inflation from 2013 – 2017.
In 2017, the average household spent $7,729 on food. How does that compare to what people spent 10, 20 or even 30 years ago? In 2007, the average household spent $6,133 on food. In 1997, this figure was $4,801. And in 1987, it was $3,664.
Of course, incomes have also risen throughout the years to keep up with inflation. In 1987, when households were spending an average of $3,664 on food, their average pre-tax income was $27,326 compared to 2017’s average household income of $73,573.
Going off these numbers, households in 2017 actually spent a smaller share of their incomes on food than the 1987 households, with the average 1987 household spending 13% of its gross income on food versus the 2017 household’s 11%.
In 2017, the average household spent $7,729 of its $73,573 pretax income on food, making it the third largest line item in its budget behind housing and transportation. Of that, $4,363 was spent eating at home, while $3,365 was spent eating out.
However, average expenditures don’t really tell you a whole lot. This Consumer Expenditures survey includes combined household incomes from less than $15,000 to more than $200,000. Diving further into the data, you can see how different income levels allocate spending differently.
For example, the lowest income bracket spent, on average, $3,938 on food last year, while the highest income bracket spent an average of $16,309. What’s more, food costs made up 16% of the less-than-$15,000 bracket’s overall average expenditures, while those same costs made up only 10% of the $200,000-plus bracket’s spending.
This highlights why it’s so important to create a grocery budget based on your individual finances; someone who makes $15,000 per year and someone who makes $200,000 per year both require the same amount of food but are working with very different budgets.
By Size Of Household
Obviously, the more mouths there are to feed, the more money you’ll spend on food. Right?
Single-person households, naturally, spend the least on food: $4,425 in 2017. Two-person households spent $7,865.
Three-person households spent $9,019. Four-person households spent $10,995. Finally, five- or more-person households spent $10,962, which is actually $33 less than the four-person household.
How Much Does A Family of 2 Spend On Groceries
As the family grows, so does the average grocery spend. Two-person households spent $7,865 in 2017 on groceries.
How Much Does A Family of 3 Spend On Groceries
When you add another person to the household, grocery spending goes up to $9,019. The overall number is increasing, but not as significantly.
How Much Does A Family of 4 Spend On Groceries
Why did overall spending peak at four people? Average income actually appears to drop off once you move past four-person households, with the five- or more-person household averaging $89,585 compared to the four-person household’s $105,088.
So, five- or more-person households are actually spending a larger portion of their income on food costs than the four-person group.
When you compare United States’ food spending by region, the West spends the most followed by the Northeast, the Midwest and then the South.
Do your annual food expenditures match up with your region’s average? The average Northeasterner spent $8,059 on food in 2017, folks in the Midwest spent $7,249, Southerners spent $7,117 and those in the West spent $8,982.
Unsurprisingly, city dwellers seem to spend a bit more on food than everyone else. When looking at consumer units within urban areas versus those outside urban areas, the urbanites spent an average of $7,844 compared to $7,212 for outsiders.
What’s interesting is that food at home expenditures for both groups were nearly identical, with just a $20 difference. Food away from home is another story, with urban households spending $3,477 versus the nonurban group’s $2,865.
Households where the reference person (the person on the survey who is named as the owner or renter of the home) is under 25 years old spent the least on food in 2017, just $4,759. This was likely due to the fact that they were the lowest earners of all the age groups. They were followed by those in the 65 years and older bracket, who spent $6,818 in 2017.
The two highest-spending groups were 35 – 44 years old and 45 – 54 years old, spending $9,376 and $9,270 respectively. These groups also spend more dollars on food away from home than any other group.
|Spending||Under 25||25 - 34||35 - 44||45 - 54||55 - 64||65+|
However, as a share of overall food spending, the under-25 group gave the other groups a run for their money, spending almost half (49%) of their total food budgets on eating out. In comparison, the 25 – 34 group spent 46% of their food budget eating away from home, 35 – 44 and 45 – 54 both spent 45%, 55 – 64 spent 41% and 65+ spent 40%.
The Truth About Eating Out
Going to a restaurant is a lot of fun. It can be a great way to socialize and eat delicious food that you wouldn’t be able to make yourself. Eating out can also be very helpful and convenient for those who don’t have the time or energy to cook for themselves.
Unfortunately, eating out isn’t cheap. When you buy food at a restaurant, you aren’t just paying for the food, you’re paying for the service of having someone make food for you and everything that goes along with that.
Making your meals at home generally gives you more bang for your buck. While it’s OK to eat out occasionally if your budget allows for it, you may want to look at scaling back if you’re eating out multiple times throughout the week. Find some cuts that work for you, such as committing to brown-bagging lunch most days or only eating out on the weekends.
How Can I Save Money At The Grocery Store?
Now that you’ve looked at the data and have some reliable benchmarks to compare yourself to, it’s time to create a food budget that is uniquely yours. To help, we’ve provided advice based on a few different scenarios, with cost-saving tips that make sense for you. But before we get to that, let’s talk about some things you can do to identify areas where you might be overspending and how to cut back.
Do An Audit Of Your Regular Spending
If you don’t know what you’re currently spending on food, it’s going to be hard to figure out whether there are areas where you could be saving. Take some time to go over your regular spending and get an idea of how much you spend each week and month at the grocery store. If you eat out at any restaurants, tally that as well.
It might be a good idea to look back over your past spending or take a few weeks or months to track your regular grocery spending. That way, you can get an accurate picture of what your spending habits are, what you tend to spend the biggest chunks of your grocery budget on and what areas you could be cutting back on.
As you go over your spending, think about categories you may be overspending in. Maybe you’re eating out a disproportionate amount of the time. Maybe you spend a little too much on junk food.
Only you can say what’s right for your budget, but it’s important to know what makes up your spending so you can make those decisions for yourself.
Create A Food Budget
When creating your new food budget, your goal should be to make the most of every dollar you spend, especially if you’re trying to cut back.
Identify some specific spending or saving goals that will make an impact on your bottom line. Write it down. Don’t just commit to spending a certain amount or spending less than what you are now. By having a specific budget laid out, you’re less likely to deviate and fall victim to budget-busting impulse buys.
Have A Plan
Going to the grocery store with a list will also help you curb impulse buys, provided you stick to it.
Avoid browsing the store and only go grocery shopping after you’ve eaten. As we all know, shopping while hungry is a recipe for disaster.
Though it’s not always feasible, it can also be helpful to go grocery shopping without the kids in tow. Kids are classic impulse buyers; they see a thing they like and they have to have it. If you can go while they’re in school or with another guardian, you’ll likely save a bit of cash on sugary cereals and other unhealthy treats.
If you’ve only got one mouth to feed – your own – you get to call all the shots. Remember the USDA Food Plan guidelines? For individuals, here’s what those guidelines say you should be spending each week on food (actual number depends on age and sex):
- Thrifty: $37 – $43
- Low-Cost: $47 – $56
- Moderate-Cost: $59 – $70
- Liberal: $70 – $86
Meal prepping can be helpful for individuals looking to cut down on food costs. If you don’t have a ton of time or just aren’t that organized, this can be as simple as making a big pot of something at the start of the week and having a portion of it for dinner every night (as long as you don’t mind eating the same thing over and over).
Make sure you’re buying only what you need and freezing what you won’t get through before the expiration date. Buying certain foods in larger packages (like family-sized packages of chicken) and freezing them in individual portions can help you save money while always having a convenient, single-serve meal ready to go.
Feeding Two Adults
Here are the USDA weekly grocery spending guidelines for households with one adult female and one adult male:
- Thrifty: $85 – $90
- Low-Cost: $110 – $115
- Moderate-Cost: $137 – $142
- Liberal: $166 – $178
Feeding two adults while adhering to a budget requires a little bit of collaboration and cooperation. If you’re able, set aside some time each week where you can both sit down and create a meal plan for the week ahead.
Take the opportunity to look at both of your spending habits. Do you frequently dine out? Do your work schedules make it difficult to find time to shop and cook? Would it be possible to trade off nights for cooking dinner, or are either of you able to you spend an evening during the weekend meal prepping? The key is to find something that will work with your schedules.
Feeding A Family
Adding kids to the mix can make an already tricky task – keeping your food spending within budget – even trickier.
Here’s what the USDA recommends per week for a family of four, defined by the USDA as a male and female 19 – 50 years old and two children 2 – 11 years old:
- Thrifty: $131 – $150
- Low-Cost: $167 – $197
- Moderate-Cost: $206 – $246
- Liberal: $255 – $299
Kids add a lot of variables into the mix. If you have a picky eater, they could end up wasting a lot of perfectly good food. They also require a lot of time and resources. With single-parent families or families where both parents work full-time, it can be difficult to find the time to shop for and prepare food while juggling work, childcare and other responsibilities.
Look for food that is versatile, convenient and cost-effective. Rotisserie chicken is a great example of this. You can serve chicken with a side of beans for dinner one day, throw a few pieces onto some greens for a protein-rich salad for lunch the next day, combine it with some mayonnaise for chicken salad sandwiches, and then, when you’re done picking it apart, throw it into a pot to make chicken stock. All that, and you don’t even have to cook the darn thing.
Foods like rice, beans and eggs are fairly cheap and can help make your meals more filling. Since meat tends to be more expensive, think about making dishes where these other ingredients make up the largest portion of the dish with a smaller portion of meat for taste.
If you’re wary about buying healthy foods that are just going to slowly rot in your crisper drawer, try frozen and canned alternatives. The myth that canned or frozen fruits and veggies are less nutritious than their fresh counterparts is just that – a myth.
Where You Shop Matters
Depending on what’s in your area, you should do some shopping around for the grocery store that works best for your budget.
If you shop at a store that offers some sort of free rewards or membership card, sign up for it. For example, Kroger offers Kroger Plus cards, which allow shoppers to build fuel points they can use at Kroger gas stations for discounts on gas.
If you’re interested in shopping at a membership-only warehouse club like Sam’s Club or Costco, do some research into whether the cost of membership would be worth it.
If you have a discount supermarket like Aldi in your area, you could potentially save a significant amount of money by doing most of your shopping there, as they tend to offer lower prices than some of the bigger stores.
Of course, if you live in an area where there’s only one grocery store, that’s likely where you’ll end up doing all your grocery shopping. If that’s the case, keep an eye out for regular deals and discounts.
You can also try shopping online, though it’s not always cheaper. However, grocery shopping online does make it much easier to comparison shop because you can check out competing prices on an item with just a few clicks.
Savings By Food Group
Wondering what specific foods you could be saving your money on? Let’s look at the different food groups and how you can strategize your shopping in each one to maximize your food budget dollars.
Fruits And Veggies
If you want to buy fresh fruits and veggies, stick with what’s in season to get the best savings – and the best taste.
We mentioned this already, but it bears repeating: canned and frozen fruits and veggies aren’t actually less nutritious than fresh produce, contrary to the popular myth. In fact, it’s even possible for them to be more nutritious. This is because they’re packaged at peak freshness (therefore preserving their nutritional value) while fresh produce loses some of its nutritional value in the time it takes to ship to consumers.
This means you can buy fruits and veggies often at a lower cost without having to worry about waste, because you can thaw only what you know you’ll eat and save the rest.
Protein, while vital to a balanced diet, can be expensive. When shopping for meat, look for sales or bulk deals to cut down on costs. If your grocery store sells larger portions of meat for low prices, like chicken, take advantage of the sale and freeze what you don’t need right away.
And don’t be afraid to introduce other forms of protein into your diet, which can often be fairly cheap. Beans and eggs are versatile and inexpensive. Use them to make your meals more filling while keeping your per-meal cost low. You can also buy canned tuna for a cheap, protein-rich lunch.
Grains can be a great addition to any meal because they bulk up your meals and make you feel fuller while saving money on protein. Look to staples like rice and pasta if you’re looking to keep your grocery bill low without going hungry.
Avoid wandering into the snack aisles just to browse. If you need to have a few treats in your pantry, know exactly what you want to buy, grab that item and then walk away.
When you’re buying perishable products like milk, double-check the expiration date and don’t feel bad about looking around for the container with the furthest-out date on it.
You aren’t alone in your quest to build a better grocery budget. There are a ton of resources available to help you make the most of your money.
The USDA has a website called ChooseMyPlate.gov that has a lot of great advice for eating healthy on a budget, including how to plan out your meals, make a grocery list and find savings for every aisle in the grocery store.
If you need more than advice, there are plenty of programs that can help you out.
If your income is within a certain range, you may be eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. You can apply online or at your local state or county office.
Feeding America, the nation’s largest food bank network, offers assistance to those who need help with food. Use the food bank locator to find the facility that serves your area. They’ll be able to help you find local food pantries. The Feeding America website also provides resources that can help you locate other programs that can help people in your specific situation.
The Bottom Line
Though it’s tempting to try and prescribe one simple number for how much the average person should spend on groceries, the reality is a lot more complicated than that. When it comes to food, there is no “average” person.
When you’re working to create your own food budget, it’s best to think of these guidelines and averages as suggestions rather than hard and fast rules. Go in with realistic expectations and remember that when it comes to keeping yourself and your family fed, you’re the expert.
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