Grocery budget guidelines

21 Jun

One of the first questions that people ask when they’re setting up a kitchen or a household is “how much should I allot for my grocery budget?” From the USDA to the Simple Dollar to the Dollar Stretcher, everyone has his or her own opinion on how much a family should spend on its good. Since I’m not one to let my opinion be discounted, here’s my opinion on a family’s grocery budget: it depends on the family. 

Yup, it depends on the family. That’s my professional opinion (using a very loose interpretation of professional) and I’m sticking to it. There are so many variations in family diets and circumstances that it’s hard to nail down an exact amount for what a family should be spending on groceries. For instance, a family of 7 is going to spend more than a family of 2; a family of vegetarians is going to spend less than a family of meat-eaters; and a family that grows its own vegetables and livestock will most likely spend less than a family that purchases everything in a grocery store.  How do you tell all these different families with completely different circumstances that they should all spend the same amount on food?

The truth is, you can’t. Grocery budgets are not something that fit squarely in a box but there can be guidelines. A range, if you will. A range will help out anyone just beginning to establish a budget determine where his or her family should fit. The following is my proposal for grocery budget guidelines. They are based solely on my experience based on shopping for 1, 2 and 3. They should be taken as suggestions only; please feel free to apply them according to your own family circumstances (if you feed a family of 4 or more, I would love to hear from you!). These guidelines also assume a basic understanding of cooking, such as boiling water, properly cooking meat, and pan frying. They do not assume more sophisticated cooking skills like baking bread or sauteing. They also allow for 1-2 restaurant meals per week, no food assistance, the use of leftovers for lunches or more than 1 dinner and a weekly grocery shopping trip at a traditional supermarket:

  • $35-$50–this should feed a family of 1, possibly 2, for a week. This is a tight budget and takes careful planning, as well as a ton of cooking from scratch, but if you are on a limited or small income, it’s totally doable. I know because for the first 9 months after my daughter was born, this was our budget. A great resource: Cheap. Fast. Good! by Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross. I found this book in our library and it got us through many months on a small budget. It is also one of the reasons I can to cook.
  • $50-$75–this should feed a family of 2 or 3 comfortably for a week. This type of budget also needs menu planning and careful shopping since it’s still not a tremendous amount of money. To make this money go a bit farther, make sure you follow these smart shopping suggestions. I don’t have a cookbook suggestion for this budget but All Recipes is always great, no matter what the budget. We didn’t spend much time in this range but I remember the day we figured out we could spend $60 per week on food. We felt like royalty!
  • $75-$100–this is what I use for my family of 3, but it can also easily feed a family of 4. It may seem like a lot of money, and when we moved up from $35, it really was. But if I don’t carefully menu plan and watch the price of every single item I buy, this can easily exceed the $100.  I have to say that I’ve become a lot more lax with our budget and I’m not always as price conscious as I should be; if your budget is in this range, act like it’s in the $35 range. Your money will go a lot farther.

The ranges that I have listed are probably pretty generous to many.  I know there are lots out there who can feed a family of 8 on $40 a week and I am in awe of those people. Most of us just cannot do that. But I think these guidelines are pretty realistic. They are reflective of modern grocery prices at a traditional supermarket, capture what a family might eat on a weekly basis and budget for foods that are not Ramen, peanut butter sandwiches or macaroni and cheese. They are not rooted in any fact other than my own experience. However, I hope that they are helpful in providing a baseline for your grocery budget.

It’s OK if you mess up. It’s OK if you go over budget once in a while. Grocery budgeting is hard and it’s not a perfect science. It takes a lot of planning, discipline and self-control. Just remember that you can do it!

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2 Responses to “Grocery budget guidelines”

  1. Jen E June 22, 2010 at 5:38 pm #

    I feed a family of 5 on around $140 a week. That’s including things like paper towels, shampoo, and whatnot. That’s two adults, two teenage boys, and one little girl. We very rarely eat out and I do a good portion of my shopping at Aldi’s. My husband is a chef and I’m a pretty good (if I do say so myself) home cook. I also live in a place with a relatively low cost of living. I hope some of that helps 🙂

    I found your blog about 2 months ago and it has become one of the first ones I check every morning. I especially liked reading about your Aldi experiment. I try to hit Aldis once a week or so, not only because the prices are good but also because I can sometimes find unusual things that are not normally seen here in the culinary wasteland that I live in. It keeps the cooking interesting 😉

    • theemptykitchen June 22, 2010 at 7:50 pm #

      i like that…culinary wasteland! thanks for sharing your strategies. having a husband who’s a chef must make for some interesting meals!

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