Toward the end of 2009, I read something about the increasing cost of food that said the average American family of 3 was now spending $400 a month on groceries. That sounded high to me, but I immediately reminded myself that I’d stopped tracking expenses years ago (after taking my own advice for a decade, I became good enough at spending within my means that I decided not to spend the time on tracking anymore) so I didn’t really know how much we were spending on groceries. We often stock up at sales, and we make 3 payments for our farm share every year, so our monthly grocery spending can be much higher than the cost of food we ate that month. Maybe the total was larger than I thought!
Each month during 2010, I used one of the extra blank “days” on my calendar page to record the amounts we spent on groceries. I was a little bit lazy with this, just writing down the totals from receipts that were mostly groceries, ignoring the occasional carton of milk purchased in an otherwise non-food shopping. Food that we ultimately donated to the food bank is included; food that other people gave us is not included. Restaurant meals are not included–in a typical week, the 3 of us eat one meal in a restaurant, and Daniel and I each go out to lunch twice. Until June, Nicholas was attending a preschool that provided lunch, although we had to substitute a veggie burger for their scary meat about 3 times a week; since then, his lunches have been made from our groceries. Food and milk that I bought on my way to work to use at work are included. The $50 renewal of our Costco membership is included because we buy mostly food there.
Here is our total spending, by month:
- January $233.02
- February $284.85
- March $298.61
- April $263.71
- May $278.09
- June $348.49
- July $444.88
- August $403.04
- September $419.34
- October $143.61
- November $328.50
- December $404.71
Our average spending per month was $320.90. That’s a lot more than the $150 per month we were typically spending a decade ago when there were 2 of us, but it is less than $400. (October was so low because our renovation drove us to go out to eat more often than usual, and when we did cook at home, we were frantically using up farm share vegetables we’d paid for in June and August.) I’m not sure if food prices rose during the year or I did more stocking-up in the later months or we’re seeing the effect of providing weekday lunches for Nicholas.
Yet these official figures from the United States Department of Agriculture indicate that, in 2008, a five-year-old child and two parents in their thirties could expect to spend $422.10 per month if they’re “thrifty”. We saved over $100 a month! How can that be?! We buy a lot of organic and natural foods that are more expensive than the alternatives. While we somewhat avoid highly processed convenience foods, we do have corn chips (organic ones, yet!), frozen veggie burgers, and breakfast cereals on hand routinely. We buy things like bread, yogurt, tortillas, crackers, jam, and salsa that might be less expensive if we made them from scratch. Except for lentils, we use canned beans rather than the much-cheaper dry beans. Our pantry is close to full most of the time, we all eat hearty snacks as well as meals, we make lots of food to share with friends as well as donating to the food pantry, and we’re generally very happy with our diet and don’t feel we’re scrimping. How do we do it on so low a budget?
I guess I’ll need to write up a detailed account of my grocery-shopping strategy! For now, here are a few money-savers that come to mind:
- We don’t buy any meat except fish, and that’s usually canned salmon, not expensive fresh fish.
- We avoid wasting food.
- We live in Pittsburgh, where the cost of living is supposed to be lower than in other parts of the country. Pennsylvania has no sales tax on groceries.
- We buy huge amounts of non-perishable foods when we find a good deal on something we eat regularly. We also stock up on vegetables and fruits at a low price and freeze them–although we only have an ordinary refrigerator-freezer, so there’s a limit on how much frozen stuff we can have.
- We buy different foods at different stores to get the best prices.
- We buy some foods using repurposed containers instead of paying for packaging. This is a big savings for certain spices and organic foods.
- I plan meals around what we have already and what’s on sale and/or has a coupon at the moment, rather than buy specific ingredients regardless of price. Sometimes we substitute a similar food for one that’s more expensive, for instance tortillas instead of pita bread or pumpkin instead of sweet potato.
- I keep a mental “price point” for our staple foods. For example, if Grape-nuts cereal is $2 a box or less, I buy as much as I can carry! If it’s $2.50, I buy two boxes, because both Nicholas and I love Grape-nuts. If it’s more than $2.50, we just have to wait until the next sale or coupon.
Happy new year! Here’s to smart shopping in 2011!