It’s a real problem that never seems to fully be solved – how much should you spend on your groceries?
Unless you’re on a fixed income and have a set routine where you buy the same meals every week, the dollar amount you spend at the supermarket is probably going to vary, possibly by a lot. If you shop when you’re hungry, you may overspend. If you’re ambitious with your recipes, you might be spend more than usual. If you’re simply not paying attention and buying whatever looks good, you can overspend. You can underspend, too, which can then lead to having to do more grocery shopping sooner than you planned, leading you to overspend on the next trip.
Supermarket budgeting can be a mess.
So if you’re looking for tips on how to keep from overspending at the grocery store, we may be able to help you. If you’re looking for tips on how to keep from overeating what you buy at the grocery story … well, we can’t help you there.
How Much to Budget for Groceries
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent figures, in 2018, Americans spent an average of 9.7% of their disposable personal incomes on food. Interestingly, 5% was at the supermarket and 4.7% was at restaurants. Those numbers likely shifted once the pandemic changed everything, but still, if you’re spending around 10% of your budget on food, you’re probably doing OK.
If you want even more specific numbers, the USDA publishes a food budget each month suggesting how much people should budget when it comes to meals at home.
The USDA offers an estimate for your monthly and weekly cost, splitting it up into what it calls a “thrifty plan,” a “low-cost plan,” a “moderate-cost plan” and a “liberal plan.”
You could spend all day looking at the numbers, but if it helps, a moderate budget for a family of four, with kids from age 6 to 8 and 9 to 11, would be $254.10 a week on groceries or $1,101.10 a month.
How to Stay Within Your Grocery Budget
Really, it isn’t that coming up with a number to spend on food is hard. It’s staying within a budget that is tricky.
Fortunately, Eileen Roth, an organizing expert in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the author of “Organizing for Dummies,” has some ideas.
Create shopping lists. Yes, everyone says that and does that, but Roth suggests some tips for making your shopping list better. For instance, if you’re looking at your refrigerator and pantry before you go to the supermarket, put items on the list when they are two-thirds gone.
So if you often have mayonnaise, buy it when the jar is two-thirds empty, and get into that habit. Then you’ll always have a refill ready.
“You can also add items to the list when there is only one can left – for example, one last can of corn or chicken noodle soup,” Roth says.
Create a meal routine. “Another way to watch your budget is to plan your meals,” Roth says. “Every Wednesday is spaghetti night. Every Friday is fish night. Every Sunday is chicken. Every Monday is steak night, etc.”
Do that, and “you have a fairly good idea what you need to buy weekly,” Roth says. That, of course, will help anyone keep their food budget within a predictable range.
Create a grocery shopping routine. “If you shop on the same day each week, at the same grocery store, you will know what they carry and where it is – saving you time as well as money,” Roth says.
How to Budget for Restaurants and Dining Out
Again, how much you spend is a judgment call, but if you’re going to go with the USDA’s numbers, you wouldn’t want to spend more than 5% of your monthly income on food at a restaurant.
You also may want to tally up how many restaurants, including carryout, you’ve purchased from in the last month. Knowing what you’ve been spending on restaurants should help you determine if you want to keep your restaurant budget pretty much the same – or if you need to cut back.
Tips to Spend Less on Groceries
There are a number of strategies you should consider, including:
Order online instead of going to the store. Jessica Randhawa is the owner, recipe creator and head chef at The Forked Spoon, a website featuring many family-friendly recipes. She says that she has been using Whole Foods delivery with the Amazon app to get her grocery shopping done. She was doing that even before the pandemic made it a popular choice for many shoppers.
It’s far more convenient, according to Randhawa.
“Instead of managing a grocery list, I can simply add items to my cart when planning recipes, or simply add items to my cart if I notice I am about to run out of an ingredient,” she says. “The reduction in time spent driving, waiting (in line) and wandering isles, coupled with the lack of impulse buying, has been a huge saver of my time and money.”
You can also take your time with online shopping, coming back to the website periodically, carefully looking for cheap foods and so on. Not that shopping online is always perfect – if you pick up your deliveries, you may wait in a line of cars for a while – but it does have its advantages.
Use coupons. “I know I sound old saying that, but it’s true. Coupons can really help,” says Audrey Del Prete, a fitness instructor and health and wellness coach in San Jose, California.
Del Prete says to look in the mail for coupon deals, and online for digital coupons.
“If you use the store’s app, it can save you a decent amount of money as long as you use them for things you are already buying. Don’t buy something you don’t really need just because you have a coupon for it. That will end up costing you more money in the end,” she says.
Make a list. “Whether you use paper and pen or make a list on your phone, the No. 1 thing you can do prior to grocery shopping is to make a list with only your immediate needs and stick to it,” Del Prete says. “Don’t buy anything not on the list because you don’t need it. I use the app Any.do for all of my lists.”
Utilize store rewards programs. This is another classic strategy for saving money at the grocery store. “If you shop at a major retailer, the store most likely has a customer rewards program that gives you automatic discounts on most items. Definitely sign up for it,” Del Prete advises. “You will save a lot each time you shop.”
And if you do all of this, will you finally solve that problem of how much you should spend on your groceries? Maybe. But your main goal, rather than finding the perfect dollar amount for your budget, is to spend less money on groceries than you have been. Do that, and you can start wrestling with the question of how to not eat an entire bag of cheese puffs in one sitting.