Grocery Budgeting 101

August 21, 2012 · 15 comments

The first time I had a grocery budget was during the summer of 1992. I was in summer school, living solo in a dreary on-campus dormitory. I had a mini-fridge, a microwave, and a set amount of cash in my bank account that had to last all summer. I would go to the grocery store on Sunday night, and buy my food for the week: my budget was $20. I remember apples, tuna fish, and bagels as regular items on a list that rarely changed due to its budgeting and belly-filling dependability.

A decade later, I had graduated to a full-sized refrigerator and started a family. It was a few years after I’d been managing the cooking, grocery-shopping, and most household budgeting that I realized one day: a college degree in home economics really does sound useful.

(I should admit to not previously having much respect for that line of study. I never even took Home Ec in school — to me, it was a semester of brownie-making and apron-sewing. And those things were so… simple. Who needed a class to learn how to make brownies when you can just follow instructions on the back of a box? said my 14-year old know-it-all self.)

But trying to keep a family fed with nourishing food that’s as high-quality and local as possible on a limited budget is really bleeping hard. It take time, knowledge, organizational skills, flexibility, and resourcefulness.

Anyone who says it is easy is lying through their teeth.

I did a little blurb at a cooking class last week, taught by my friends Alex & Sonja at A Couple Cooks. My assignment was to talk a bit about budgeting and feeding a family. Only a few of the almost 20 students actually had children — but many of the budgeting tips I offered could be helpful to anyone, not just those feeding larger households. This is a subject that comes up often in conversations with friends — how do we stay in our grocery budget and still eat well?

To have that conversation, we should start with a question: what’s a good amount to spend on groceries? In conversations with a random assortment of friends, I’ve discovered that families in what I would consider to be similar economic lifestyles have a vast range of grocery budgets. On the low end, a married mother of two has a budget of $450/month (that’s about $28/person a week, a good 20 years after my poor-college-student-summer budget of $20/week). And I have plenty of friends who spend $800/month or more for families of five.

Michael Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food, points out that, in 1960, Americans spent 17.5% of their income on food. Today, we spend just 9.9% (you can see the whole quote in this post, where I first publicly sighed over the ubiquitous grocery budget). As a culture, we expect to spend less and less on food, any yet we are also less and less healthy. The stats beg some questions, both culturally and individually: what should be our goal when it comes to providing food for our family? What should we sacrifice in order to eat well? In what battles do we stand firm and hold our ground (because we can’t win them all)?

Fully realizing that this is not a one-size-fits-all topic: over the next couple of months I plan to share a few of the practices we’ve put in place to get the most for our food money. But I would love for this to be a conversation that carries over to comments and Facebook — so think about your own grocery-buying habits, your budget if you have one, and your priorities when it comes to feeding yourself and those in your care. The more tricks we have up our sleeves, the better job we can all do when it comes to bringing home the (literal) bacon.

So today, I ask: what is your priority when it comes to setting your current food budget?
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Ready to tackle the basic steps that will help keep you in-budget? The next post in this series covers them!

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{ 13 comments }

kelly August 21, 2012 at 9:54 am

Well, I’m in the midst of thinking through this topic myself. All I can figure so far is that I need to go the bi-weekly Farmers’ Market with only a little cash in hand, b/c all I have to do is buy some milk, yogurt, and maple, and then it’s all gone. I’m thinking I should buy the vegetables first :)

katy August 21, 2012 at 7:29 pm

seriously — a limited cash flow at the Farmer’s Market is key!

Leslie August 21, 2012 at 10:01 am

It takes serious work in our family to stick to our budget both for our waistlines and our financial goals. But whenever I hit it, I feel like a total rock star. I have a meal planning worksheet that I use at the beginning of the week and that always makes the grocery shopping go easier and gets everyone involved.

katy August 21, 2012 at 7:30 pm

Rock star is right. The months I make budget (far less often than I’d like) are glorious months indeed.

Marie August 21, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Creating (and sticking to) a grocery budget is something I have been meaning to do for a long time. Since I’m single and only have to think about feeding myself, I typically stop by the grocery every couple days to pick up whatever sounds good.

Rebecca Martin August 21, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Priority: local meat, pasteured eggs, grass-fed dairy. Then . . . fitting everything else into our (pretty low) food budget.

katy August 21, 2012 at 7:30 pm

very similar to our priorities!

Angie @ Just Like The Number August 21, 2012 at 1:50 pm

Our priorities have less to do with the kind of food we purchase and more to do with how we use the food we purchase. Meaning, my priority when budgeting for food is to plan and purchase enough food to allow us to eat at home for the majority of the week. I know that this strategy keeps us eating healthier and spending less money in the long run.

katy August 21, 2012 at 7:31 pm

that’s a huge part of it — using what you buy. so much of our budgets can go down the toilet if we over-buy OR under-buy.

em August 22, 2012 at 4:05 pm

I can not wait for this subject to be broached. I feel like a complete crazy person by the end of the month trying to figure out what to feed my family that is healthy and inexpensive. I spend 14% of our monthly budget on groceries for our family of 4, I make two vegetarian meals a week and two chicken or fish meals a week and I NEVER buy red meat. this is the one budget that I feel the most responsibility in and the most stress… Katy She Cooks, help!!!!

katy August 24, 2012 at 8:23 am

I, too, am Crazy Woman by the end of the month. I get grumpy, and don’t know why, and realize it’s because I know I’ve got $25 to feed my family for a week.

All that to say: I think I do have some good tips in the arsenal, but putting them into practice is still very hard. But maybe we can all encourage each other in new ways in order to accomplish our budgeting goals!

Sara Croft August 23, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Katy!!! I’ve been thinking about this so much lately. I feel like we spend way too much on food, but because I LOVE food, it’s OK, right? RIGHT???

Anyways, for two adults, we spend about $100/week at the grocery store. Occassionally we spend additional money if we go out to eat. My priority is to buy higher-quality meat, produce and dairy (we drink a lot of milk). Everything else like cereal and snacks are not given as high of a priority.

katy August 24, 2012 at 8:20 am

Sara, I would spend so much money on food if I could get away with it ; ) That’s one reason I spend ridiculous amounts of time at thrift stores: sure, I love vintage (convenient) but really I need to save money for our groceries.

From my own experience, it definitely gets harder when you get more mouths to feed. Harder financially, but also practically — kids provide opportunity for near-constant battle, at varying times of their lives, over what they can/should eat. That somehow ends up making the budgeting part even more difficult. I would thoroughly enjoy this time in your life when you are able to eat well without too much damage to the pocketbook — that time may or may not last ; )

We’re similar on priorities — it seems for meat-eaters, high-quality meat is always high on the list!

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