Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Food Budgeting: Get Your Money Right

Last week, I had the pleasure of talking with several friends (some old, some new, some bloggers, some not) and the topic of food budgeting came up.  I thought about it even more after I caught the premiere of Extreme Couponing on TLC (which, by the way is a crazy show... check it out of you have cable).

Menu planning is the key to getting control of your food budget.  But before we even get to menu planning, do you even have a food budget?  I've learned to keep an old-school check ledger where I record every debit, cash, or check transaction (I don't use credit cards).  This gives me a quick view of my spending in all categories.  I have an unusual situation:  we spend more on fuel for our cars than on food.  E and I both have long commutes, so gas and tolls actually cost us more than groceries and dining out.  Every family is different, but here's a rundown of our situation in December, a month notorious for over-indulgence:

Groceries                          $ 225.54
Dining Out                        $ 164.62
Alcohol                             $  82.02
Total                                 $472.18

Groceries = all food items, not including dining out and alcohol purchases (liquor is not sold in grocery stores in Delaware)
Dining Out = everything from convenience store snacks to a four-course sit-down meal, including beverages
Alcohol = beer, wine, and spirits purchased at a liquor store

Every family is different.  You could be single, partnered, married or you could have one infant or five children.  Regardless, you should have a food budget.  Any realistic food budget will also count dining out because there are few people who can make it through the month without a little help from a restaurant.  I included an alcohol category in my budget because I recognize this is a non-essential expense and that many families don't consume any alcohol.  E and I enjoy pairing wine and beer with our meals, but we choose to drink at home where we can have high quality for a reasonable price.

Our December food budget breakdown (above) reflects the fact that we participated in a few office holiday parties (which required us to eat out for dinner) and that we also purchased some alcohol as Christmas gifts.  I feel comfortable with our total food expenditures being under $500 per month for two adults.  We could absolutely spend less, but this amount allows us to enjoy meals we love, complete with wine and beer pairings.

For January, consider tracking your food expenditures.  Will you be surprised by how much you spend?  Are there any opportunities for savings?  Here's how we got our food budget under control:

1.  We pack our lunches (and breakfasts).  We are often gone for 12 hours a day, but we pack meals 80% of the time.  Packing your lunch is a great way to use leftovers.  I use these containers for most of my lunches. 
2.  Whenever possible, we entertain at home instead of going out to a restaurant.  It saves us a huge restaurant tab, allows me to try out indulgent recipes, and provides a more relaxed atmosphere for our friends.
3.  I have a garden in the summer.  At least four months out of the year I'm eating produce grown in containers on my deck.  It tastes better and it's healthy.
4.  I stock up on staples.  We have a chest freezer in the basement and industrial-sized shelving units loaded with items like pasta, canned beans, rice, canned tomatoes, flour, sugar, and salt.  I buy chicken, pork loin, and ground turkey at Costco once every three months.  I load up on frozen vegetables when they are on sale.
5.  I don't buy convenience foods.  With few exceptions, I don't buy ready-made foods (canned soups, frozen entrees, rice mixes).  If I'm going to consume too many calories, I'm going to make my meal from scratch.  I save a lot of money and I know exactly what's in my food.

We're all busy, but I think everyone likes saving money.  Before we went on a budget smackdown, E and I could spend $100 on one restaurant dinner (and occasionally we still do).  We just got to the point where we refused to throw money away on unhealthy take-out meals because we were too lazy to plan and cook.  The next topic in this Food Budgeting series will be menu planning.  What steps are you taking to address your household budget?


  1. Sigh... the first year in our house is making me get sooo stressed out about budgeting. Fortunately, everything will be paid off (appliances and other home improvement items) in February. So ready to start fresh. Right now, I would give us a C-, but I really want to work toward getting an A in budgeting.

    Getting our food budget under control is the first step. And among the many reasons for me to breastfeed...avoiding paying for expensive (man-made) formula is one of them.

  2. You are spot on with this girlfriend. Especially as we watch the cost of food increase.

  3. For me, the biggest key in avoiding unneccesary grocery expenses is STAYING OUT OF THE STORE! We've all been go into the store intending to buy milk and bananas and leave with 5 bags of stuff. In my house, that stuff gets eaten, but still, it's money I didn't plan on spending, and it adds up.

    So I do menu plan, because I means I have what I need and avoid going back in the store. And I am so jealous of your chest freezer. We live in a Baltimore rowhome with 2 kids and a cat, which translates to unique, charming and sometimes quirky, but NO storage or extra space anywhere.

    Also top of the list for this year is quitting my heavy duty soda habit, because not only does it add up price wise, but it keeps me IN the store to buy more!

  4. @Latoya, We were in the same situation when we purchased our home. I was the queen of 12 Months No Interest, No Payments!

    @Kayris, I live in a 1300 SF townhome with a husband and two dogs. Our chest freezer is in teh basement next to the washing machine. I completely understand food storage challenges - that's an upcoming post.

  5. Now I'm jealous of your basement. We have a storage only basement accessible by a huge and heavy trapdoor in the floor. And my laundry room is a glorified closet on the second floor. Which I actually like, because I don't have to haul baskets up and down all the time (except in summer when I hang outside to dry) but I wish everything was a bit bigger.

  6. Thanks Keeley! After our conversation I went home and had a big talk with the hubby. We meal plan and bring lunch with us a lot but like i told you Whole foods was killing us. I dont think we will ever be able to get down to 225 a month in groceries BUT at least we are not spending that in a week anymore. We would spend 200-300 bucks a week running to whole foods, trader joes, and target. That included some things other than food but it was still way too much. For the past 2 weeks we have managed to come between 125-140 both times. I feel like its a step in the right direction

  7. Food budgeting is not an area I'm particularly too concerned with, though I know or dining out budget is much more than yours. During the week, we pack all our food for work. On the weekend, we usually go out to eat once or twice and we tend to eat the leftovers for lunch the following day. I think if we had other expenses (like gas or loans/credit card bills, gym memberships, etc...), fine tuning our food expense would be necessary. But since going out to eat is the only "luxury" we spend on, it's not of concern at the moment :)

  8. I buy fresh vegetables at costco - put some in the fridge for use before they go bad, then freeze the rest for later. Saves me from buying frozen veges (although I have a stash of those too).

    Also, I use the "off cuts" of celery (the leaves), carrots (the tops and bottoms we cut off), onions (the ends) etc - throw them in the freezer and pull them out when I make homemade broth. Saves using fresh "good" veges, and still gives the same flavor.

    We need to get some shelving in our garage (no basements in AZ), so I can access my stockpile of beans, rice, pasta and my home canned stuff.

    Yikes. I sound like my mother.

  9. Food budgeting is a wise way to spend and save money. It is also a great way to discover practical healthy dishes that our body needs. The brighter view with it is, you're saving a lot of money and you're still healthy.


Related Posts with Thumbnails