How We Budget: Food


See also: 4 Tips for Spending Less at the Grocery Store (+ What We Spent in February)

When I posted my recap of 2015 in numbers, I shared a few numbers from our budget and got a few comments to the effect of, "How the heck do you spend so little on groceries every month?" It made me curious, and so I've spent some time going over my spreadsheets and am back to share my dorky findings with all of you lovely people! My apologies if this topic isn't interesting, but I know for a fact that my brother Austin will enjoy it, so, Austin, this one's for you.

To start, I need to share a few definitions.

1. Groceries = Food purchased from the grocery store for making meals at home.
2. Lunch = Food purchased at a restaurant during the lunch hour on a weekday.
3. Entertainment = Food purchased at a restaurant at night on a weekday or during the weekend. These meals were typically for date nights, outings with friends, or for things like ordering pizza or getting Chinese when I was too lazy/busy to cook something.

Note: no other items are included here. Food means food, so I don't count personal items, etc., in with any of these numbers.

In the past, I have always had our grocery budget include lunch, but I tried something new in 2015 because I wanted to see exactly how much we spent eating out for lunch, how much we spent on groceries, and how much we spent on eating out for dinner and on weekends. This might sound like way too much work, but it really wasn't. I simply put a star in my spreadsheet next to the receipts that were for lunch and it did the trick. I really feel like maybe in another life I should have been an accountant. I found it so interesting to crunch these numbers and see where our money went for food last year! (I'll be honest: I was a little scared too.)

Here were our 2015 monthly averages in each category:
Groceries = $277
Lunch = $80
Entertainment = $78

That's a total of $435 per month on food.

Um, that is a lot of money! However, looking at the statistics for the average American, I felt a bit better: the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics found that in 2013, the average American family spent $330 per month on groceries, with an additional $220 spent on eating out. That's $550 per month on food, so Jordan and I aren't actually doing too bad!

Of course, there are always ways to be better, and admittedly I am not all that thrifty when it comes to grocery shopping, so I'm sure some of you reading this have a number even lower than ours and the following points will not be new revelations. But I did want to share a bit about what we do to maybe encourage some of you who feel like you want to try and cut your food spending down in 2016!

1. Meal Plan

I've mentioned before that I meal plan, and I do think it helps cut back on spending, especially when it comes to eating fast food. If I know in advance what I am planning on making for dinner, there is no thought of, "Let's just run to such and such restaurant tonight." Meal planning also keeps me from having to go to the grocery story as often, which is great because I hate going to the grocery store and always end up grabbing random items that aren't on the list, thus costing me more money.

I found this small whiteboard at Target for $3 that I put on our fridge, and it's been working great for writing down our upcoming meals for the week! Plus Jordan always likes to know what's on the menu, so this saves him from constantly asking me.

2. Price Check

It's a pain in the butt, but I often will do my grocery shopping at multiple stores to try and get the best deal. Our local grocery store chain is very expensive, so I try not to shop there unless absolutely necessary. Walmart is pretty cheap but not my favorite. Recently we had a new Aldi built close to us, and so I go there for the staples. Their prices are great, but you can't get some name-brand items, so I will go to Aldi first for the majority and then head to a different store to get the few things that are left. (See also: #4)

3. Eat at Home

Duh. Okay. Eating at home is cheaper for the most part and obviously better for you. At the end of the month, Jordan and I often have to scrounge around the pantry to pull together a meal and use up some of things we have leftover, but that's better than paying money for us to eat somewhere.

3a. Eat Cheap

Obviously depending on your diet, this will work better for some people, but Jordan and I eat a lot of rice- and pasta-based dishes. (Carbs!) This chicken and rice bowl is one of our absolute favorite meals! It's easy, delicious, cheap, and can be customized very easily depending on what ingredients you have on hand. This is one of our favorite pasta dishes.

4. Buy Smarter

You can buy meat products cheaper when you buy in larger quantities and just freeze what you don't need. Then you have food on hand in a pinch. Instead of buying a one- or two-pound quantity of ground beef, go for the big 5-pound (or more!) selection! It's usually (at least in my experience) cheaper by the pound even though you are spending more to buy it. You can then either cook all of it and freeze the cooked meat in freezer bags or just separate the meat and freeze smaller (raw) amounts in freezer bags. Same goes for things like chicken breasts.

Another thing is cheese. Cheese in a block that you shred yourself goes so much further than shredded cheese in the bag. Plus, have you ever thought about why shredded cheese in the bag doesn't clump together while freshly shredded cheese does? WAX. Yes, shredded cheese in the bag has wax on it to keep it from sticking. Gross. We buy blocks of cheese and shred it ourselves. Trust me: an 8-oz block of cheese goes so much further than an 8-oz bag of cheese. Sure, it's more time consuming but we are saving money and not eating wax! Winning.

5. Pack a Lunch

There is a guy in my office who eats out literally every single day for lunch. To each his own, but DUMB. Don't do this. Pack a sandwich or a salad and bring your lunch to work, people. Jordan and I have one lunch meal each included the budget. Anything above that gets taken out of our individual "blow money" amounts to keep it fair.

6. Stop Eating When You're Full

This is kind of a funny one, but it's still true. Often if I make a really delicious meal, I want to keep eating it just because it tastes so good. But think: if you stop when you're full, you will have more leftovers for the next day! Don't go back for seconds if you're done eating. Stop while you're ahead. This applies to eating out food as well, because you can bag that up and take it home for your next meal! Money saved. Of course, I'm not saying starve yourself, but just don't eat any more if you are legitimately full.

Now that I've shared some of our food habits, I'm curious to hear from you! 

Do you track your monthly food spending? Is it higher or lower than ours? 
Any tips I missed for how to keep your food budget low?

p.s. Check out some of our favorite recipes here.
See more budgeting posts here.
Anonymous said...

I've been feeling like my husband and I could cut back on grocery spending, so these are great insights for us! Also, can I just say that I like that you wrote an entire paragraph on cheese? :)

The Lady Okie said...

Ha! Bet you didn't know I'm so passionate about not eating wax cheese! ;)

shelleystirs said...

My tip would be to shop the ads. Look at what's on sale before you go shopping, and make your meal plan accordingly.
I would say that on average, our family of five eats for about $500 each month. I do think that where you live certainly factors in how much money you spend on groceries.

The Girl who Loved to Write said...

My mom started shredding her own cheese last year and I noticed it tasted so much more flavorful than shredded cheese...once you find out that's because of the wax, there's no going back.

The Lady Okie said...

YES. I found out about the wax like four years ago now and since then can't bring myself to buy a bag of cheese!

Kari said...

Love this! Add those grocery rebate apps in there and you'll be spending even less! My husband and I only eat out on gift cards or freebies, so our monthly food budget was right at $250 this month. We ate out maybe 2 times total. This is a subject I'm totally passionate about! :)

Unknown said...

I am also passionate about shredding my own cheese! I use my food processor to shred it and it gets every last bit done and it only takes me about five minutes to shred a pound! One thing I have found that saves us on the food bill each week is if Fredrik eats oatmeal for breakfast, yes only him as I find it to be the worst thing on the planet but he loves it and a bag of oatmeal is cheaper than a loaf of bread and last for months!

Ashley Lillis said...

We're not super hard core budgeters, but one of the easiest ways for us to cut back on spending (and calories!) is to bring our lunches everyday and meal plan! I remember the first time that I started working downtown and had to pay for parking, it didn't take me long to figure out that after paying $10/day for parking and $10/day for lunch, I was spending $100/week or $400/month on eating and parking downtown! Nope, definitely not for me!

Erin LFF said...

I love this post and your tips! I will admit that I really NEED to start buying the block cheese and shredding my own- I've just been too lazy. I'll make that my goal in February ;) Seriously. Meal planning definitely saves us from too many pizza or Chipotle nights out!

Ali said...

Ugh. I follow just about all of your tips and we still spend at least twice what you do at the grocery store. The only thing I don't do is eat cheap - like hot dogs and spaghetti. Ok, spaghetti & meatballs is fine for every once in awhile, but we definitely don't eat hot dogs as a dinner. No offense! I just don't like them. I try to eat vegetarian meals a few times a week to save on the meat costs, and we've been freezing leftovers lately - like casseroles. Most of the time the 3 of us only eat half of it anyway, so the other half is saved for a later date!

Brandi said...

We do a lot of these (although I sure wish I could get other family members to stop eating when they are full...). One thing I am getting better at is planned meals for the day after--salmon potpie the day after I serve the fillet, or pork fried rice with the remains of a roast (which combines meal planning and buying meat in bulk). But now that our family has grown, and as those in the family grow...I'm fighting for anything left over period. Our food bill is immense though. I don't want to eat the carbs, but I should probably give the kids buttered noodles and broccoli more often.

The Lady Okie said...

Ha! No offense taken :) clearly your pallete is much more refined than mine. Lol.

Michelle said...

Yesss. I'm all over this. Our food budget is so much smaller now and we almost never eat out anymore. Eating healthy on a small budget has actually been a fun challenge. Lots of soups and chilis and stews and homemade bread. Filling, healthy, and cheap :)

Unknown said...

I find this topic so fascinating. Our food is budgeted into our "household" category, mostly because when I buy groceries I'm buying toilet paper and shampoo too. It's so fascinating because the area one lives definitely plays a roll in how much is spent. The type of food one buys also plays a roll. Cost of living where we live is crazy high and we also buy mostly (not all) organic animal products; beef, chicken, milk, eggs... which is stupid expensive, but I have a thing for eating happy healthy animals, haha. Everyones grocery budget, even when practicing the same principles, will look different. Fun topic! :)

Torrie said...

YES--meal planning makes the HUGEST difference (which is honestly one of the reasons our grocery bill has skyrocketed lately--well, that and the fact we're having to pay an arm and a leg for baby formula).

Back in the day when I was super savvy with saving (largely because I had to be since we had hardly any money, lol), I created a post on my tips. I'll post it below just in case you wanted to check it out.

Beka @ Sunshine to the Square Inch said...

I love budget posts! Especially with food. I'm a huge nerd because I love meal planning and setting a budget for food.

I think another way to save money is to tag along with a friend on their Costco / Sams trips. My friend says that she gets a discount on her membership for purchasing more so it helps them and saves money too.

Dave and I eat out a lot. I actually really enjoy eating at home but both of our families like to go out so we do that to spend time with them.

Unknown said...

We spend about $400 per month but that does not include our "shared fund" for going on dates, etc. So in all we probably spend about $500 per month.

Sarah @ Sometimes Photojenik said...

As always, I love your post! And I need to catch up on the rest of them! Our grocery number is a little lower (we're usually around $225 total, not including date night), and I feel bad about it sometimes so reading your budget actually made me feel better. The one thing Alex and I have going for us is that sometimes we barely get a lunch so eating out for lunch isn't really an option. As far as other tips I think you and me have the same ones :) We try not to buy a lot of snacky food (chips, ice cream etc.), so keeping that as a once in a while treat keeps the budget down.

Charlotte said...

I love budget posts. I swear I was an accountant in a previous life. I have all our household budget organized in a neat Excel sheet, so we know exactly how much we spend on everything per month and year, and it's honestly changed the way we spend our money.

We try to spend no more than £50 ($70) per week in food (groceries, takeaway and eating out included), trying to keep it at £200 ($290) per month. We used to spend even less in France, but everything's more expensive in the UK!

To stay under our budget, we actually have our food money in cash for the month, and once that's spent, no more food shopping! We sometimes go over the budget (more or less £50) but it's a great way to see where you're at. We also have our little "routine" when it comes to food shopping, which helps. The fact that we're not eating meat and we've been cutting down on cheese and avoiding processed food also makes a huge difference.

I know that doing your grocery shopping online can help too, since you can control exactly how much you're spending and you're less tempted to buy stuff that you would see down the aisle if you were at the supermarket, but since we're trying to keep the waste down in the kitchen, this option isn't for us (vegetables are always over-packaged when you order online!).

Sara Oss said...

Geography plays a huge role in grocery prices too, as we're learning right now. Food is expensive here! Likely that's because we're at the end of transportation lines and so far away from where anything is growing right now. (But lobsters were $5 this weekend, so it's not all bad.)

We comparison shop too; our two largest stores put their weekly flyers online which makes things much easier. We don't throw food away - we'll figure out a use before something goes bad. I'm cooking with a lot of frozen vegetables right now because fresh are so expensive. And bullion base is way cheaper than buying prepared stock and takes like two minutes to make. Liam's mom pointed it out to me (my mom had never heard of it) and I'm never buying stock again!

Laura Darling said...

What an interesting topic! I love your tips for eating on a budget! We spend about $80/week at the grocery store for two of us, and that counts cleaning supplies, etc if we need it. We also go to Sam's Club and stock up on meat there. We went this weekend and spent $80 on chicken, pork, ground beef, and bacon, which was a hit to the wallet but now we won't have to buy meat for hopefully two months, so our weekly grocery spending will go down a bit since we will just need fresh produce, dairy, etc. And packing a lunch is so key! I am totally jealous of that guy at your office who goes out every day because I love eating lunch out and hate packing it at night, but we would be so poor if we did that! It's maybe a once or twice a month treat!

Rach said...

When we were paying off loans we spent less than $250/month on food. Including eating out. (Though something to note is that the cost of living is CHEAP in Memphis. I'm always shocked when I grocery shop in other cities). Since we paid off our last student loan a couple of years ago we have relaxed a TON on the amount we spend on food. For one thing, we actually eat out now which we did maaaybe once a month before. And we travel a ton which definitely racks up the $$ on eating out (though it actually comes from our travel budget not our food budget). These days we spend pretty close to what you guys do a month on food. Like you, I still shop at Aldi for a lot of staples and then Sprouts for my specialty items, but I'm not great at checking for sales anymore and I rarely buy meat in bulk to freeze these days. Those were definitely part of my routine before when we were really mindful of it. Reading this is good because it makes me think about what we're spending and how I could probably be spending less if I really were mindful of it. Thanks, friend!

Andrea H. said...

Great tips! When we started meal planning we saved a TON of money in the food category. We don't break it down as completely, but I would be curious to see our numbers so we might give it a shot this month! And I love the idea of including one lunch meal in the budget, but the others being taken out of the "individual" money. I am much better about taking leftovers for lunch than my husband - this would be a great way to keep things more balanced in that category! Thanks for sharing your process!!

Rachel said...

Simply avoiding the grocery store for as long as possible was a good strategy for us in the USA. We'd go once every two weeks, and I'd strategize so that any meals using fresh ingredients would be at the beginning of the period and then the last few meals before shopping would be using frozen veggies and stuff of that sort that doesn't expire quickly--sometimes we could even go a little longer than two weeks.

Fast food doesn't tempt me, but Angel enjoys it, so any random fast food costs would be for him. Other than that, we never decided to go out to eat because I didn't want to cook, more like because we wanted to have fun and have a date. Granted, we really like to date, but it was always a purposeful choice, not a random hey we don't have any yummy food in the house choice. Probably influenced by living in the middle of nowhere. A trip to a restaurant was not a quick trip.

Honestly, my biggest strategy for saving food money is being a really awesome cook who makes large meals. I have a husband with a huge appetite--but as long as there's plenty of delicious food at home, he won't go to restaurants. He loves leftovers. I make meals for us literally as big as I used to make for my entire family when I lived at home--there's always leftovers, and they always disappear quickly.

Lunchtime, though, both of us were very conservative. I'd bring a sandwich or salad or leftovers. Angel bought plain oatmeal to work for lunch for a year and a half...and at some point he started bringing frozen brocolli that he could just steam and eat plain. His coworkers were all under the impression he was a health nut but they didn't see what he ate at home. :P

Here--making healthy meals at home is significantly more expensive than eating delicious local food from the street stalls. We give in to the street stalls, but not too much, because we want to live. :P

Kristen @ See You In A Porridge said...

this is super interesting! i am not a big cheese eater except when i am (lol) and i really like the 'mexican blend'. i don't like wax though, so what block of cheese should i buy?! we never bought pre shredded cheese at home because i had a favourite cheese.. but here i don't. gosh. talk about first world problems.

anyway. we used to have a girl that ate out every single day as well. i used to eat out once or twice a week and it adds up so fast. last month, i didn't eat out ONCE (for lunch). high fives. this month i've already eaten out once and we are only 3 days in haha. i struggle with finding something yummy and filling that isn't jimmy johns.

i need to get better at meal planning. i know it will help. we are definitely the kind of people that will stop by the grocery on the way home and it turns into $50 every time and i hate it. i've tried meal planning several times and have almost succeeded each time but i really need to get better at it. i love that little white board (that would be helpful, KC always asks and sometimes i think things look better than they sound, like the other day i said 'pasta with beef and tomatoes' and he was like ew, but then he loved it.)

anyway. one question, because i'm a novice in the kitchen, KC got a huge thing of ground beef and put the whole thing in the freezer (normally we split it up for easier grab and cook) and now i don't know what to do with it. so you're saying i can thaw it all, cook it all, put it back in the freezer? really? i had no idea!

Unknown said...

eww. I did not know that about cheese. Consider me converted.

Paige @ Reasons to Come Home said...

Parking where I work is really, really bad and even though I work on a university campus and can walk, I only get 30 minutes so I bring my lunch almost every day. That can add up so, so fast! I don't know how people go out (especially to a sit down restaurant) every day for lunch!