Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Groceries on a Shoestring: Setting A Grocery Budget

Welcome to the first post in my new Groceries on a Shoestring series!  Today I'm talking about how to set your grocery budget.

Photo Credit AMagill
Setting a grocery budget can be a challenge for any family.  If you're dealing with financial issues that mean you need to cut costs, it can be even harder.  Cutting costs can be a challenge while you're trying to maintain healthy foods.  As we get further into the series, we will be discussing ways to make your meals healthier while still keeping your costs down.

Before we go any further, let me make some disclosures.  I'm all about fairness, you know.  Here's some things you should know:

  • Our food budget for eight people is $125 per week.  In recent weeks, I have gone over budget-mainly, but not entirely, due to Christmas dinner and the kids being home for two weeks, which I did  not plan very well for.
  • I have a "bonus" budget of $15 per week.  This is to cover items I find on sale that are not in the sale ad.  I cannot exceed this amount.  However, if I don't spend all of it one week, it carries over.
  • This year, I'm adding $500 to the overall budget when we get our income tax refund.  This will allow us to stock up.  That puts my total regular budget for the year at $7000.  So I will go over the weekly grocery budget when we get our tax refund check, but I should not exceed the annual budget.
  • We do not eat organic.  For one, it's not available in three of the four stores that I shop regularly: Walmart, Safeway, Family Dollar and a small local market in the town nearest me.  Organic food is available at Safeway, but is generally cost prohibitive.  This is one reason why we wanted to move to a parcel of land large enough that we would be able to grow most of our own food.
  • This year we will probably be able to have layer chickens.  We will deduct the cost of purchasing them from the $500 that I'm adding from the tax refund, and the cost of their feed will come out of the grocery budget as it's purchased.  Since they probably won't begin to lay full sized eggs until the summer of 2013, this is going to mean a hit to our grocery budget.  Fortunately, much of the food we feed them will come in the form of garden scraps.

So, now you know that about how I manage my grocery budget.  Of course, the big question to answer is, how did I arrive at that amount?

Initially, I set our budget to be $15 per person, per week, just for food.  At that time, our older daughter was still at home with us, so we maxed out at $135 per week, for food only.  I also budgeted $12.50 per person, per week, for household consumables like paper goods, shampoo, diapers, etc., which was $112.50 per week when everyone was here.  Eventually, spending that amount of money became impossible for us.  Dropping almost $250 per week at the grocery store was just a bit much for our single income budget.  Of course, cutting our food budget meant I needed to use coupons more efficiently, cook more from scratch, and look for substitutions for pre-made products.  The by-product of cutting our grocery budget also meant that we are eating far healthier foods.

I think that the key to setting your grocery budget is to look at it on a larger scheme.  Instead of thinking about it as a weekly expenditure, think about it as a monthly or yearly expenditure.  This will help you get a better handle on what you should be spending.  For example, on my previous budget, $250 per week times four weeks = $1000/month on food and household consumables.  That's more than I've ever paid in rent, and even more than my mortgage.

Photo Credit:  jessica mullen
Many financial gurus advocate for setting any budget amount using the percentage method.  In other words, 35% of your income is for your mortgage, 10% is for entertainment, 6% for debt repayment, etc.  However, the trouble with this is that your percentage could be different than mine.  According to North Dakota State University's Family Economics Specialist Debra Pankow, the average family spends 12% of their take home income on food.  However, if Family A takes home $1000 per month, their food budget is $120 per month.  If Family B takes home $2000 per month, their food budget is $240 per month.  Depending on family size, Family A may need to allot a higher percentage of their income to their grocery budget.

I have one friend that set her budget by what the USDA guidelines for food stamps are.  These are numbers put together that say what you should be spending on food, determined by family size.  These guidelines show what a family, by size, should be spending per month on food.  They are based on poverty levels and other indicators that show what your grocery budget should be.  The goal of the food stamp (or SNAP) program is to get family up to that level by supplementing what their income provides with food stamps up to the amount they calculate that a family should be getting.  By scrolling down to the benefits tab, you can see that for the eight people in my household right now, I should be spending $1,202 (this is the maximum benefit amount that would be given to a family of eight with 0 income).  While our food budget could be bigger, that amount is more than twice what I'm currently spending.  On that amount of food, I would definitely be eating all organic.

The long and short of it is, there is no one solution to setting your grocery budget.  I love the concept of the 5DollarDinners site, and I believe that an average of $5.00 per meal is very do-able, even for larger families.  For example, here are the two meals I planned for today:

Breakfast:  Pancakes-Cost of home made Bisquick mix for the pancakes I made $.85.  Cost of syrup $.50 (not real maple syrup).  Cost of real butter $.30.  Total cost of meal that fed seven, plus a few leftovers for the freezer was $1.65.

Dinner:  Ham and Potato Soup-Cost of ham bone for soup base $0 (ham was budgeted for Christmas dinner; the ham bone is a bonus).  Cost of three pounds of potatoes $1.17 (bought in a ten pound bag for $3.99).  Cost of 2 cups of cheese $2.22.  Cost of 1 cup broccoli $.75.  Cost of 1 cup cauliflower $.75.  Cost of home made loaf of whole wheat sourdough bread $1.25.  Cost of butter for bread $.50.  Total cost of meal that fed 8, $6.64.

Please note, that the two meals I planned today did not include the amounts of fruits and vegetables that they should have.  Had I been able to get to the store, we would have served salad with dinner, and some kind of fruit with breakfast.

Lunch was not planned because the kids had school.  Mr. Sullivan took a lunch meat sandwich, yogurt and some snack crackers to work for lunch, and I ate leftovers.

My average cost per meal today was $4.15.  Adding a pancake to breakfast and a serving of salad to dinner would have increased the average to $5.40 per meal, which isn't bad considering off season purchases of produce.

As you can imagine, there's not much room in our grocery budget for eating out.  It's a rare occurence.  A pizza night can run us $40, and even fast food will run into that amount unless we all stick to the dollar menu.  That's not to say that we never do it, but it is rare.

Here's my weekly spending wrap up

Amount Spent:  $35.78 (Due to scheduling and holidays, we could not do a big shop, so we're eating mostly out of the pantry/freezer this week)
Amount Saved:  $0
2012 Budget Remaining:  $6964.22

If you're concerned about how to save more money on your grocery budget, and want to learn more techniques than just couponing, please consider signing up for my newsletter, Groceries on a Shoestring, where you'll get notified of every post that I do regarding cutting your grocery budget.  You can learn my methods for feeding my family on a very lean budget.


  1. Love this! I have a family of 5 (almost 6) and do daycare for up to 7 other kids a day (some of those are B/A school care). I try to keep our budget to $100/week so I'm really looking forward to reading more about this :)

    1. I have done daycare in the past and found that I didn't have a lot of time during the day to cook a healthy lunch, so I did a lot of pre-cooking then. $100/wk with the extra kiddoes is fantastic!

  2. Wow, Annie! You are so organized to do all of this planning on an annual basis! Excellent job. Love the notebooks--I have many myself. Lists and spreadsheets are the only way with so many kids.

    I budget by the month, with a built in "stock-up" shop that I do quarterly as Sam's Club for meats/cheeses, and other items that they have excellent prices on. Otherwise, I meal plan bi-weekly, cooking what I can source on sale. I was happy to see that our monthly food budget is in line with yours. That said, I am continuously developing/refining recipes, so our menu fluctuates quite a bit based on available ingredients & my culinary mood. Fortunately, I am able to purchase mainly organic produce, but I will only buy US grown, so often we do without some things. The spring/summer is my favorite time because I can shop a huge farmers market in town. Sadly, we live on sandy, deer infested property so nothing grows, and if it does, the deer eat it. I look forward to see what you are able to grow this summer, and live vicariously through your efforts.


  3. Kirsten,

    How neat to hear about how you do it. I have wanted to start going to Sam's Club, but the drive is so long, and it turns into a whole day affair.

    Our Farmer's Market isn't great, but it's not too bad. We live just a few hours away in two directions from major farming areas. This year I hope to be able to go and purchase what we weren't able to grow, or grow enough of, so that all of my produce purchases will be seasonal. Several of the farms there will let you glean after the harvesters go through, for little or no cost.

    What happens here if I try to buy a lot of produce, locally is that it's gone before I get there, or I pre-order it and it doesn't come in. Last week zucchini was on sale, so I planned both zucchini bread and spaghetti sauce, and they were out of zucchini!


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