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
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?