Food Budgets and Food Stamps

Every Sunday, Steve plugs in every expenditure into Quicken. He started keeping these records, when money was extremely tight years ago. Now, it’s a habit. But, it’s a handy habit, because we know exactly how much money we spent last year on clothes, transportation, and vacations. We also know how much we spend on food every month.

Last year, we spent about 1K per month on food. That 1K includes beer and wine, lunch meat, and Jonah’s frozen burritos. We have a teenager in the house, so it’s necessary to have a supply of quickie meals that he can nuke when he gets home from school. I don’t cut coupons. I do try to buy in bulk, when the supermarket has sales. Steve and the boys get a brown bag lunch four days per week, which is cheaper than hot lunches at school and at work, but it adds to our monthly food budget. My goal is simply to save money by cooking rather than settling for crappy and expensive convenience food.

Could we live on food stamps if we had to? According to the NJ, we would receive $632 per month. I think we could live within that budget, if I did a better job of food planning and stopped drinking wine at dinner time.

SNAP Reductions by Household Size Beginning November 1, 2013

Household Size

ARRA Maximum Benefits Through
Oct. 2013

Maximum Benefits Beginning
Nov. 2013

Monthly Decrease

1

$200

$189

-$11

2

$367

$347

-$20

3

$526

$497

-$29

4

$668

$632

-$36

It would be much harder to survive on the $189 of benefits for a single person. I’m not sure how a person could eat three meals a day for an entire month with only $189. I suppose a person could do it, if they bought meat in bulk and froze it, and if most of the meal was pasta. Still, it would be tough.

However, there’s something silly about middle class people figuring out food planning for others. People who are on food stamps do not necessarily have the time to plan these things out. Their lives might be too complicated to do the extreme planning that would be necessary to survive on $189. A spacious freezer would be key to this task, and they might not have one. They might not have a clean pantry — also a necessity.

Do you know how much you spend on food per month? Do you keep a budget? Could you survive on food stamps?

60 Thoughts on “Food Budgets and Food Stamps

  1. Laura said:

    “A spacious freezer would be key to this task, and they might not have one.”

    I always feel a bit queasy about seeing the freezer advice, as one good power outage could cost you a lot, especially if you freeze meat.

    A friend of mine lost a huge store of breast milk this last year after her husband accidentally unplugged their freezer before they went on a vacation.

    I am also not so gungho about storing too much food in a pantry, being the survivor of an Indian Meal Moth infestation that led to our having to throw out what must have been somewhere between $100 and $200 worth of groceries to get rid of all the yucky web-spinning worms. Ugh. And we could not really afford it at the time. Here’s another survivor’s story:

    http://www.alittlepregnant.com/alittlepregnant/2010/11/frass.html

    http://www.alittlepregnant.com/alittlepregnant/2010/11/sticks.html

  2. We spend more than a $1000, probably, though we don’t do the record-keeping. Just the fruit alone costs us a fortune. Since I don’t buy other sweets at all, I like to have enough fruit around to satisfy cravings, and I think it’s worth it to not only buy the cheap staple fruits.. But fresh blueberries can come into the house in copious, Costco-level quantities (three large Costco containers, one per child) and be eaten within an hour. Grape tomatoes too.

    I generally go to costco twice a month and my husband does the grocery story on the odd weeks. I easily spend 300-400 at Costco and we eat everything. With the snows this past month, I mean EVERYTHING. The fruit I buy at Costco every time I go: 2 bunches bananas, 9-pack mangoes, pineapple, either 9-pack apples or box of oranges, 2 large packs of grape tomatoes, 18 regular tomatoes, 3-4 packs of berries when they have the big packages, grapes, several melons. And it doesn’t last a week.

    My conclusion: if you don’t have calorie rich snacks around the house, children need to eat a lot more, and it costs a lot more. I think you have to count calorie for calorie when you assess food costs, not by meal, because most people are set to eat a certain amount of calories and will eat more when the food is less calorie rich. It would be much cheaper if I gave them oreos and chips. Yes, I could use frozen fruit and that might be cheaper, but it makes it that much harder to get children to eat healthier (and to force yourself to) when you cheap out. Frozen fruit is not as good. That’s the same reason we spend money to eat fish rather than inexpensive chicken or beans as people suggest for eating cheap and healthy. (ANd yes, we have addicted our children to sushi, which is why I’m thankful for my mother in law taking us out so frequently).

    • Fresh, cheap (mostly free!) berries is something I really miss about living in Oregon. Another one of those ‘you don’t know how good you had it until it’s gone’ sort of things. We grew blue berries and raspberries, and wild blackberries were everywhere (unfortunately, since they’re a pest). We could go to the local school and pick enough for 2 pies in under an hour. Huckleberries (smaller, tarter, and more flavorful than blueberries) grew wild in the woods and every summer we’d pick gallons and gallons of them, and then freeze them for the rest of the year. Farmers sold berries at stands for a fraction of the supermarket price, and U-pick farms were even cheaper–around $1/lb for local strawberry varieties. I’m lucky that I sometimes can get relatively cheap strawberries where I live now, but they taste like wax compared to Oregon berries, even though they’re organic and supposedly better than normal supermarket berries.

      • Wild huckleberries are wonderful, but at least where I sometimes picked them, you had to keep in mind that bears also loved them. Still, a fresh huckleberry pie was worth risking bears.

      • Oh, yes.

        Blackberry pie is amazing.

    • “And it doesn’t last a week.”

      But by the same token, I bet you have very little wastage of your high-quality fresh fruit.

  3. Christiana on February 14, 2014 at 12:04 pm said:

    We do keep a budget, and groceries are our top expense after housing. We spend about $1100/month, more in a month with a major entertaining holiday. We eat out once a month, and all four of us take bag lunches 5 days a week. Most of the food budget goes to organic stuff: milk, eggs, ketchup, kale, etc. If we eat a lot of it, we get organic. If I lost my job, we’d go back to conventional asap, but I can’t bring myself to do that while we have the $ and the kids’ bodies are still developing.

  4. The maximum benefit for a family of 4 is $632, but the average is $489. (Single adults without children are not eligible for SNAP beyond a 3-month period, unless they are disabled, in which case they typically qualify for other programs, so I don’t think that “1″ number is used that much.) Storing quantities of food is impracticable in lots of areas—my freezer is tiny and needs to be defrosted every couple of months to get rid of the inches-thick layer of permafrost that builds up. At that time, I have to eat or throw away everything in there.

    The way lots of families survive is to buy a lot of their food at the dollar store, which features people-pleasing, mostly low-quality knockoffs. In my neighborhood, people with SNAP cards get cartsful of groceries there—nothing is fresh but you can get lots of cookies, jelly, bread, knock-off-brand sugared cereal, canned goods, and cheap frozen food. I really have to wonder about a box of “fried chicken” that costs a dollar…

    • Anonymous on February 17, 2014 at 1:23 pm said:

      My disabled son and I share $300/month in SNAP benefits. We buy lots of dried beans, rice, canned and frozen veggies and chicken. It’s amazing the stink eyes and indignant sniffs I get in the checkout line when I buy fresh fruit and veggies and someone notices my card. Forget strawberries or blueberries. One time when I bought tem, the old lady behind me told the cashier she should’ve made me put them back!

      • You should have spit on her shoe.

      • Because strawberries and blueberries are perceived as luxuries, like when children in the depression relished their one orange of the year? I read the complaints about people buying doritos, but am clueless enough that I’d not even imagined censure over fresh fruit. I wish I’d been there to say something, since I’m guessing that’s a privilege, too.

      • I’m really sorry. That shouldn’t happen.

  5. Suze, I was going to call and ask you how much you spend as a single person. Since you’re in here in the comment section, I’ll ask you here.

  6. In grad school I lived on $126 a month, which covered my groceries and any entertainment. Usually that meant once a month I’d spend $10 on going out to eat somewhere inexpensive, like vietnamese for pho, or on a few rounds of bowling. I’d spend $25-30 per week, and my biggest expense was cheese (I wasn’t eating meat at the time). I ate a lot of peppers and beans in tortillas or alone, and basically was incredibly careful with food. This was the mid 90s in upstate NY.

    I spend $400 a month now for me and my two children (under 10). It takes planning, but I still buy organic dairy and meat. Mostly it means not ever spending on pre-packaged or convenience foods, having the more expensive fruits as treats, and not throwing things out. In addition to chicken or beef, my biggest expense is organic apples which I spend about $12/week on. I try to aim for $80 grocery shopping trips, so that I have a little more left over for the Target run for toilet paper and toiletries.

  7. We spend about $1000 a month for our family of four including restaurant meals. I’ve long wanted to reduce that amount but I’ve finally resigned myself to accepting that I’m not willing to put in the extra work (coupons, meal planning, mostly from scratch cooking) that it would take to keep our grocery bill lower on a consistent basis. We would adapt to a $400-600 bill and I think the biggest change would be that we would get less enjoyment out of food (maybe that’s not a bad thing?). I’ve found as I’ve gotten older that if I can’t have what I want to eat then I’d rather just not eat at all.

  8. How much does a school lunch cost these days? The last time I knew was years ago- it was about $1.50 when I was in high school for a standard (fairly gross) lunch. I knew because I really wanted cable TV (mostly to watch pro wresting, amusingly enough) and was able to convince my mother that I’d take a home-made lunch that I’d make myself every day if she’d used the money she would have otherwise given me for lunch to pay for cable. It worked out to be about the same amount at the time, though I suppose we, as a family, came out slightly behind. (Since I thought the school lunches were mostly gross anyway, I personally came out way ahead.)

    • $2.25 around here, and sometimes my son gets two (growing boy). But I tell you, these new healthy lunch guidelines mean that he eats better at school than he does at home. He’ll eat fruit at school, but if I try to offer him a delicious orange (already peeled! I am a nice mama!), he turns up his nose.

      No idea how much we spend on food. Neither my husband and I have the patience with that level of detail.

      • We allot about $55 a month for two kids to get about 1.5 hot meals a week at school (they get burnt out on lunch-making) and a milk card. It’s all brought in from local fast food and quick service places. The hot meals tend to run about $3 or $4 each (not including the milk).

  9. I don’t know how much I spend on food. For me I like to maximize value for money and buy on sale or in season. Unless I know there’s a big quality difference, I always get store brand. I also always buy first and then decide what to cook based on available ingredients, rather than plan a recipe ahead of time. I’ll also substitute cheaper ingredients (bacon instead of pancetta). I only buy meat if I can get to Trader Joe’s or a normal grocery store, since it’s too expensive at my local one (never less than $5/lb, more generally $10-$15/lb). I do eat a lot of cheese and eggs as protein and I only buy bakery bread, since normal bread is too sweet for me. My partner is Italian and has very different shopping habits than I do, generally going for absolute quality over value for money. We often shop separately so we can each do our thing and he can ignore that I buy the cheap pasta and parmesan cheese* and I can ignore that he buys very expensive granola.

    I absolutely hate waste, and this is something I am working on. Sometimes I buy too much at once and then don’t use something. I have yellow-ish brussel sprouts I have to cook for lunch, and I’m going to finish a leftover week-old tofu scramble I accidentally left in my bag overnight. Hopefully I won’t get food poisoning.

    *until cooking, when it’s too late to do anything >:)

  10. I never save much money by eating home prepared food, probably because my non-home prepared food so often involves the dollar menu at fast food places. It does help me lose weight.

  11. Our school lunch, which isn’t public school, but is done by a local company which uses a lot of fresh foods, is $4.50/day.

    We spend on the order of $2800/month, including restaurants, according to Mint (online spending tracking site, another example of freely giving up privacy for the utility & content), which doesn’t catch everything (leaves out cash, but we use credit cards for practically everything). We eat out a lot, and, I guess, at not inexpensive places. We grocery shop casually, don’t bulk buy (it doesn’t make sense for us, since we eat out so much and don’t plan), don’t use coupons.

    Interesting to see who does and doesn’t keep track of the spending. I think I’d thought everyone used Mint. But, I understand that not everyone is willing to give up their privacy so lightly. We’ve used Quicken to track expenses for ages and ages.

    I do not know how we would buy food on a food stamps budget. We have money to spend, and, there’s no point in earning if you don’t use it for the things that are important to you (including building stability, which means not spending). But we would try, if we have to. We try to keep our budget flexible so that our expenses can be significantly reduced if needed.

    • I think I’d thought everyone used Mint.

      I’ve never even heard of it, I’ll admit. My wife and I spend a fair amount on food, but she grew up during the end of the Soviet Union and the often even worse early post-Soviet days, and so isn’t eager to skimp on food if we can afford it, as we can now. In general, there are other things I’d rather save on.

      • When I was budgeting as a Peace Corps volunteer, I tried to eat no more than 100,000 rubles a month ($20). It was kind of a shocking diet (very starchy, some protein, occasional fruit, pretty much no veggies), but it didn’t kill me. It was supplemented by the fact that I got my potatoes, jam, and pickles and pickled tomatoes free from students’ families.

        If I had to do it over again, I would work harder to introduce veggies and be more consistent about protein and fruit. Part of the problem was that the medical officers scared the socks of all of us during training with regard to diarrheal illnesses, so I was afraid to eat fresh fruit and veggies there without running boiling water over them or putting them through a chlorine solution bath, so I generally didn’t bother.

        At the time, I just had way more interesting things to do with my money than buy veggies. I lost a fair amount of weight on that diet.

    • scantee on February 14, 2014 at 2:01 pm said:

      I’ve tried almost all of the popular personal software packages out there and I always go back to using my own spreadsheets. We have kind of a complicated financial set up (two jobs, multiple checking and saving accounts, money being moved between accounts regularly) and nothing I’ve tried is really able to easily capture what’s going on for us financially.

      Seven years ago, pre-kids, I started tracking our net worth on a monthly basis and I think that information is best indicator of the change in our financial picture over time. Sometimes i like to click through each month and look for trends in our spending that can be applied to improve our current financial picture. Other than that, I monitor our accounts online, checking the balances almost daily.

      • I also have a spreadsheet, which now tracks our accounts fairly consistently for 15 years. The quicken, macintax, Mint accounts don’t have that historical data because versions of programs have died with technology, and Mint doesn’t store data beyond a couple of years or so (I think, though it might depend on how long it’s existed).

        I love my spreadsheet, which, as scantee points out, gives me the number that I think is most important, which is whether our expenses match our earnings (and what we want to save). Month by month isn’t meaningful for us for a variety of reasons, but year over year is very informative. I do have to be careful not to let stock market bubbles impact the bottom line (i.e. spend capital gains). I don’t include fluctuations in the value of our house, so real estate bubbles don’t provide a false sense of security.

        (So, I understand the spreadsheet, which lets you control the inputs in a way that makes the data useful to you).

    • I signed up for Mint, but decided I didn’t want to give over all my banking information. I am thinking about buying Quicken, but I haven’t decided whether I want to spend the money. I’ve thought about doing excel spreadsheets, but that seems like the difficult way of doing it when there are other options.

  12. I don’t keep close track of my food budget now, though I did a few years ago when I was in grad school. But I still keep fairly frugal habits, balanced against health and food quality concerns, because when you’re self-employed you never quite know how things are going to shape up, though it’s going well. For me, this means taking advantage of sales, making most meals from scratch using economical ingredients, buying a lot of store brands, buying fruits and vegetables in season (especially if I get to the greenmarket), trying to use everything I buy. I don’t do the coupon thing, because in most cases it’s a false economy—I wouldn’t normally buy the things that manufacturers offer coupons for. I would guess that I spend between $50 and $60 a week, most weeks. It would probably be a little more, but my parents give me a lot of coffee (they live in the MD burbs)—which, with triple coupons on senior day, or whatever, costs them 99 cents a can. (And I owe you a phone call—been too long!)

  13. Special K on February 14, 2014 at 2:15 pm said:

    We spend ~$400/month at the grocery store (We’re a family of 4, but my kids are only 2 and 4). That $400 includes diapers and TP and Kleenx. We also spend ~$80/month eating out. I buy lots of in season produce and cook from scratch. I buy organic either when the quality of the produce is visibly better or when the cost is similar to conventional. When I have time, I bake whole grain bread from scratch. We eat really good, healthy food, but the planning and cooking takes a lot of *time*.

    As a SAHM, eating economically helps me justify staying home. It also helps us pay for airplane tickets, since we live far away from both sets of grandparents.

  14. We shop at the big Korean grocery store/food mart in our area a lot and I am always amazed at the cuts of meat which I see there, as well as the fish. Here my sense is that for most of our American history, if you were a poor family, then you generally ate parts of the animal that were cheaper and hoped that when you had more money you could eat better parts of the animal. We live down south and you can actually find things like pig’s ears and pig’s feet in the grocery stores, various types of haunches of animals. My sense is that many of the immigrant families that I see at the grocery store do exactly that — if they have food stamps, they stretch them by buying less choice cuts of meat. This is probably what food stamps were meant to do — and how people were perhaps able to make the budget work. If you bought really cheap cuts of meat and stretched your meals with rice, made soups, etc. you could probably get everybody fed, though it might not be as tasty. Judging from what I see at the Korean store, you would probably eat a lot of cabbage and cheaper root vegetables. However, I think it’s doubtful that a sixteen year old single mom would either have the expertise passed on down through her family or the skills developed while growing up to know how to stretch her food budget in this way. But your dollars could certainly buy a lot more kimchi than frozen meals –

  15. I could manage on the single-person’s $189; now I probably spend $300-400/month, though it’s a lot less if I’m just staying in town (where there are no good restaurants, so I hardly go out). (Lots of potlucks here as a result, which are more expensive per capita for single people, especially when you cook seriously as I often do.) I feel like I’m being frugal if I spend $50/week on groceries; $75-80 is probably the norm.

    In the summer my CSA share costs $50/month and I bet I could be quite happy on that plus $100/month for bread and cheese and maybe a little chicken or fish. Now that I have a sourdough starter good bread is less expensive, though I probably make up for it by buying tons of butter!

  16. I don’t have the kind of detailed budget Laura does, but we spend about $1000 a month for two, counting wine and beer with dinner, but not counting restaurant meals. (We don’t go to a restaurant every month, but when we do, a neighborhood restaurant is about $80 for two or about $120 if our daughter is with us.) Compared to others, I would say: we mostly have fancy cuts of meat and often fish which is very expensive; it isn’t possible when you live in an apartment to buy in bulk or freeze any considerable volume of food; and stores in NYC are somewhat pricier than outside the city, although there’s no gas consumed in going to and from the grocery store.

    I think we could probably get down to $347, by eliminating alcohol (or at least not counting it in the budget) and eating mostly pasta and quesadillas (which we do eat occasionally as it is). Maybe we could buy one package of chicken thighs per week, to be used sparingly in the quesadillas.

  17. Sharon Astyk has an excellent post here
    http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/2013/11/18/why-i-wont-do-the-food-stamp-challenge/
    about why middle class families pretending to eat on a food stamp budget is a silly game. We don’t have the kind of deprivations that poor families constantly exist with: lack of cooking facilities, lack of various pots, lack of time, lack of storage, lack of spices/flavorings, always starting behind.

    We spend about $500 a month for 2 adults and a 16yo boy, plus $2.50/day for school lunch (entree/fruit/milk) plus pizza once a week. Maybe one more meal out. We buy meat in bulk, but not a lot of beef, and no seafood (I live in Wisconsin). Eight months of the year we don’t eat a lot of fresh fruit other than apples, bananas, grapes, and citrus. I don’t use coupons or make bread, and the boy eats a LOT of sandwiches. I have a well-stocked pantry and zero fear of moths, maybe because different foods are stored in various places around the kitchen. I have 2 1/2 freezers and spend no time worrying about a massive freezer loss.

    What’s my luxury item? Probably good cheese.

    True, I work mostly from home (as does my husband, so lunches are usually last night’s leftovers) which makes it much easier to prep and plan meals from scratch. But spending thousands per month on food? I don’t know how you do it unless you eat out every day.

    • “lack of spices/flavorings”

      That is a very expensive start-up item.

      Years ago, my sister and her husband and toddler were a highly-mobile corporate consultant family, and they decided to invite a boss over to their temporary apartment for chili (or something of that sort). Of course, by the time my sister finished buying all the spices she needed, they might as well have taken the boss out to dinner.

  18. J Liedl on February 14, 2014 at 5:03 pm said:

    Our food, household items and personal items budgets went way down after I started seriously using coupons or loyalty programs and created a price guide for our staples. But I had to have time and resources to pull that all together, as well as room to store the 3 big packages of TP that I scored at 1,99/12 rolls or ten deodorants at .49 each. Even with that, there is no way we could survive on basic allowance, especially as we have four pets to feed.

  19. We spend about $1K as well. That includes alcohol, restaurants and fast food. I’d love for it to be less, but during the school year, I just don’t have the time to be frugal. In the summer, we travel more so the costs go up. Right now, I have a beef stew on, probably at a cost of $2/serving and we’ll likely get 6-8 servings out of it. So two meals for about $12. I can’t cook like that that often, though.

    Even though we’re spending a lot on food, I feel like we don’t eat fancy. We never buy steak, fish is rare, and there are a lot of tacos and spaghetti in our diets. I cringe when I buy steaks for a special occasion because it might be $30-40. That’s 1/3 of my grocery trip (I make 2/week). That would buy a ton of pasta!

    I think the costs will go down when Geeky Girl is gone. Even though Geeky Boy was a vegetarian, I’ve noticed we spend a little less, especially on snack foods, which Geeky Girl isn’t into as much.

  20. This is fascinating. I’m presuming that the $1000 and under budget doesn’t reflect deprivation, right? That people are buying the things they want to eat?

    So is $662 a reasonable budget? How much of a difference does careful shopping make? Has anyone done that experiment? Say, doing a shop at the local grocery and then comparing the bill to similar items bought more carefully?

    Are the people living on the “McDonald’s” budget eligible for food stamps in general (looks like <2000/mo for a family of 4 qualifies a family)?

  21. I shop and cook for my family of six (oldest kid is 12, so we aren’t into full-on teen mode yet). I grocery shop about once every ten days (that’s how long it takes us to get through three gallons of milk), and I spend about $180 per trip. That’s about $540 per month, plus probably at least $60 for extras when I pop into the market for random items. We eat out once or twice a month someplace fairly cheap, so add another $75.

    That seems incredibly cheap compared to what most of you are spending, and frankly I’m astounded. I’d never really compared notes with other families. We don’t drink at all, so that cuts out one category of expenses. We eat little meat — some ground beef for chili and stews, some chicken breast for soups and stir fry, and I try to serve fish two or three times a month. If we’re having company maybe I’ll buy a pot roast. But most meals are meatless, heavy on dry legumes and vegetable soups. I shop at ALDI, which has cheap staples. I buy a ton of fruits and vegetables, but only cheap standards (carrots, onions, potatoes) or produce specials — which means we eat seasonally and we keep our food-carbon miles down. I make about half of our bread. I do rudimentary dinner planning and cook dinner 7 nights a week. I hate wasting food and we waste virtually nothing. I make lunches for the kids, and my husband and I tend to eat leftovers for lunch. Other than that, I have no idea why I spend so much less on food.

    In answer to bj’s question — no, I don’t feel deprived and neither do my kids, because they’ve never known differently. I was raised on very simple homemade foods, so a dinner of fresh whole wheat bread and vegetable soup is completely satisfying to me. I’m glad my kids won’t have to feel deprived in college and grad school, because they know how to cook and eat inexpensive, simple meals.

    Like Laura, I’m a post-ac SAHM, so I have the time to cook (kinda— I have to run kids all over the place in the afternoon and evenings, so often I have to cook dinner in the early afternoon and feed my kids at 5:00 before they scatter for evening activities). My husband brings home a very solid salary as a research scientist at a major midwestern university, so we could afford to spend a lot more on food, but I’ve never wanted to. I think of my frugality (in food and also in clothing) as my own financial contribution to the household. We put away a lot of money every month in the kids’ college funds — nearly as much as we could if I were bringing home a salary, I think. Plus I can splurge for the most expensive music lessons in town for my kids without feeling guilty.

    (By the way, Laura, I tried your idea of serving chili over sweet potatoes and we all LOVED it. Definitley goes into the permanent repertoire.)

  22. I’m trying to work on my weight and keep a pudgy kid from blimping out, so I’m trying fairly consciously not to cheap out on food and to try to go for quality and taste over quantity. Back in the day, I used to have something like a can of soup or a peanut butter sandwich for lunch for me, but these days I work a lot harder on my lunch. It’s usually something like baby spinach, cherry tomatoes, an avocado, a little cheese, a hard boiled egg, salad dressing and a few crackers, which is obviously way more expensive than a peanut butter sandwich, but also way more nutritious for the calories involved. Likewise, it’s more encouraging to the children to eat fruit and veggies if we get more interesting ones.

    It’s hard to say what our food budget is exactly, because a store receipt is going to contain stuff like light bulbs, batteries, paper towels, Valentines, post-its, shampoo, laundry detergent, air filters, baby wipes, diapers and lots of other non-food stuff. My budget sheet for this month (which is the plan, if not the reality) says HEB 980, meals out 200 (that includes Starbucks and vending machines), school lunch 55. Our cafeteria tab (we eat dinner there as often as we can) runs around 300 a month. However, there’s a certain amount of fudging going on in both directions, because the grocery budget is my general slush fund for unforeseen expenses, plus if there’s unspent money in other categories, it tends to get spent at the grocery store. So it’s hard to say, but a rough estimate would probably be $1,000-$1,300 (that works out to $200-$260 a head, which sounds right), including cafeteria and meals out. When I get to the end of our funds for the month, I stop spending. Or, in a pinch, I decide I can wait another week or two for my haircut or I can take the money out of our travel savings. (That’s the only savings category that I allow myself to touch when running out of grocery funds–savings categories such as home maintenance, car maintenance, summer camp, medical, and Christmas are sacrosanct.)

    We could spend less on food if we had to, but 1) we don’t need to and 2) we get a lot of bang for our buck from our grocery choices.

  23. Macaroni on February 14, 2014 at 11:56 pm said:

    Uh, I don’t even want to know what we spend on food. (Well, I do, but I don’t.) We live in NYC, double income no kids, foodies, local/organic types. We do a large TJ’s shop about once every 2-3 weeks spending about $200. And, then there’s the trips to the farmer’s market. Pesto (Husband) does this shopping and I haven’t a clue what he spends. I would estimate about $20-30 a week. My guess is at least $500 a month. We eat out a lot–and this is where our money get spent. Oh, and wine and beer? Oeuf! The upshot, is that we bring our lunches about 95% of the time and if we’re cooking at home, little to nothing is process–almost everything is from scratch. And, we started Eating Vegan Before 6 PM in Jan. 2014 so our meat purchases will likely decline. If we were meticulous I think I’d be embarrassed. Why? Because we spend a lot of money on food and spirits.

    In contrast, I know EXACTLY how much I spend on clothing. I have a $2500 yearly budget (for me), though I think last year I think I managed to keep it at $2,000. I keep receipts, and meticulously tract the items and how much it cost. More recently, I also include shoe/handbag purchases in this budget. After 40 I started having “foot issues” and now have to wear comfortable–and of course stylish–shoes. (I started track jewelery here too, but on the bottom of the list, and it’s not included in the total. Generally, I don’t buy much jewelry.)

  24. I went back and checked my numbers ’cause they seemed so off from others, and they’re accurate. Looking at my numbers, it looks like we eat out 1.2/day (so, eating out more than once a day — which doesn’t include the kids’ lunches, but does include coffee shops, ice cream, smoothies, . . .).

    My number includes entertaining (and we often order in or take people out when we entertain), including hosting Thanksgiving, feeding visitors when they are staying in our house, taking out the kids’ friends, buying treats likes cupcakes and donuts. Do other people’s numbers include those additional food expenses? Or are people estimating what it takes to feed their families and including the rest in other budgets (like entertaining)?

    Thinking about it, I realize how different my family’s attitude was when we were growing up — with eating out being a rare and unusual event. I guess I can’t imagine having asked my parents to stop by at Starbucks for $5 latte several times a week, but it’s truly something my kids don’t have second thoughts about. Makes me think of the conversation about what we’re trying to teach our kids (in my case that if you have money there’s nothing wrong with spending it, but to mistake wants for needs is dangerous).

    My question about “feeling deprived” was with the assumption that people don’t — so that it’s not onerous to be on food budgets of $1000 (or $600).

    • We allot extra grocery money for Thanksgiving and Christmas, as they are both at the end of the month, so it would be a very sad affair if we got to Thanksgiving or Christmas and we got to eat pantry leftovers. We generally do the same thing for birthdays–alloting a little extra for cake and party food. The Christmas savings fund is currently $60 a month, which covers gifts, festive groceries, gifts to cleaners and teachers and so forth. It doesn’t go super far.

      With Starbucks and similar, I’ve moved to a once a week rule for the kids (although I might volunteer an extra trip for a special occasion). Those visits run around $16 these days for me and the three kids, so the money goes pretty fast.

    • Special K on February 15, 2014 at 9:53 pm said:

      I’d say our $400 is pretty accurate to what we spend, although we tend to get about two weeks of free food when we go to Grandma’s house (usually once a year). We don’t do much entertaining, just friends over for dinner a few times a year or taking dinner over to friends who just had a baby or were sick or something. Thanksgiving is usually potluck. Most Christmas snacks and candy comes out of my husband’s monthly allowance. Meals out on vacation might come out of the vacation budget if we pass our $100/month restaurant budget. We don’t drink alcohol or coffee for religious reasons, so we don’t feel deprived…but it looks like we also save a lot of money too.

      • Oh yes, the random *** at Target issue. We have a similar issue of random *** from Amazon.com. We don’t go to Target very often, and it’s easy to start throwing in random pretty things as you walk through the store. We used to have the same issue at Baby’s R Us. Sometimes we enjoy the item (the light up Menorah, which brought back fond childhood memories). But often it’s the antithesis of mindful spending — spending on those things that give you real value (as opposed to cluttering up your house and, ultimately, annoying you).

        My take home from this discussion, and spending some time looking at my Mint shopping was to put myself on a Amazon ban for at least a month. Kind of like I imagine Lent to be, but starting right now. Actually, after getting another catalog in the mail, I decided I should put myself on an online buying ban for at least a month. In our case it isn’t really to save money, but to not clutter our lives with things from which we don’t gain true utility.

        I’m starting to think that there’s a value to depriving yourself a little bit, so that you think hard about what it is that’s really important to you (though I am not of what I imagine the puritan ethic to be, and value enjoyment and think it’s fine to spend on something you do really enjoy).

      • “I’m starting to think that there’s a value to depriving yourself a little bit, so that you think hard about what it is that’s really important to you (though I am not of what I imagine the puritan ethic to be, and value enjoyment and think it’s fine to spend on something you do really enjoy).”

        That’s my entire parenting philosophy. I don’t withhold shit from my kids for financial reasons. I withhold it because it’s good for them to want things badly. I did the same thing for myself and an iPhone. I could have had an iPhone years ago. But it was important to me to wait till Credo started to offer them, so I made myself wait. (My husband didn’t, but then he found he really needed it for work–not in terms of being reachable but because he does website management and needed to be more familiar with mobile usage of the website.)

      • I soooo agree to the “enforced deprivation”! And the temporary bans on Amazon. I don’t spend crazily on books at Amazon every month but it’s always more than I ever would have guessed.

        Back the to deprivation – the girl had some birthday money and wanted something badly. It’s not available in Canada in a bricks and mortar shop and although we could have purchased it online, we wait til we were in the US (about 6 weeks later). She also was a bit short of funds so designed and sold “temporary tattoos” to make up the difference. Finally, she had to keep her grades up in the meantime.

        Net net, when she purchased said item she was over the moon.

        Living in a small space helps cut down on the acquisition of “stuff” – we are in a tiny house with little storage. Something has to be recycled/sold before something new comes in.

    • scantee on February 16, 2014 at 9:43 am said:

      $1000 a month doesn’t feel like deprivation but I’m also aware that we’re not able to buy absolutely everything and anything we want within that budget. Mostly I’m fine with that because my eating habits are different than they were 5 to 10 years ago and I’m no longer interested in making complicated recipes and meals with lots of ingredients, which really bumps up the cost of food. Tonight we’re having another family over for dinner and are making lasagna and caesar salad with a total cost of around $30. In the past, I would have made something much more involved, usually a large piece of meat, everything from scratch. I don’t do that kind of cooking anymore and that has cut down our food bill quite a bit.

      I find the area of our budget where we really do spend too much is “random crap at Target.” It used to be that I would only allow myself to go to Target once a month for necessities to cut down on the amount of useless spending there but now that they’ve converted all of the Targets (at least in MN) to super Targets with grocery stores I do most of our weekly grocery shopping there. That makes it too easy to pick up a candle, or a pair of socks, or a new hair product and spend an additional $25-50 on each trip.

  25. My number ($1000 a month for two in NYC) doesn’t include entertaining, but we don’t do a huge amount of that–maybe two dinner parties and two or three less formal gatherings with family and friends each year. Each of those events runs a few hundred for food (like a roast) and sometimes a few hundred for a server. We used to have an annual cocktail party, which cost one to two thousand, but we stopped during the downturn and haven’t started again. Also we have a church fellowship group that meets at our house once or twice a month, and sometimes we have another couple or individual over for dinner, but those don’t really cost enough to notice.

  26. I definitely don’t feel deprived. I think I could cut my food bill by $200/month (possibly) by being careful and not drinking as much. $50-$100/month goes to alcohol. I do know that my grocery expenses have gone up since we moved to the NE. Yes, costs in general have increased, but the first thing I noticed when we moved here was that groceries are more expensive. We lived in the land of Wal-Mart and Sam’s so cheap food was easy to find. Here, I find chicken is ridiculously expensive. Cost per pound is around $3-4, at least double what we used to pay. Discount stores are also far away and our storage capacity is much smaller so buying in bulk is nearly impossible. I do use my store card and store coupons all the time, saving an average of $20-30 per trip. But I feel like I can’t choose steak over chicken on occasion because it’s all expensive. So we just go meatless a lot or eat meat only when it’s deeply discounted.

    I guess I sound a little deprived, but compared to so many people, I have many choices. It’s also true that college tuition ($1k/month) and private school tuition($800/month) are eating up a lot of available funds for eating out, good cuts of meat, etc. Not to mention various debts we have. I guess food budget is one thing I have some control over and something I have to deal with every couple of days, so I think about it a lot and feel the pinch there more than in other places.

  27. dave.s. on February 15, 2014 at 3:35 pm said:

    We spend about $1300/month plus about $50/month for school lunches for each kid, total $1450 or 1500. We buy a lot of things the kids like, and which are not low cost – they are very hot for cider just now, and it’s $6/gallon. High price bagels, etc. And the wine is hidden in there, that is probably $200 a month. We could do it for a lot less, and if we had to, we would. Yesterday I took the remains of the previous baked chicken and baked it up with a $1.50 pound of red beans, some cheese and bread crumbs on the top – this was sort of low rent cassoulet, and cost about $5, tops, for dinner. The kids are definitely an expensive taste!

    • At least in our area, Panera’s has a baker’s dozen of bagels for $6.99 on Tuesdays.

      I make the trip religiously and freeze them for the week.

  28. bj–

    My bizarrely low number does not include holidays and other special occasions, so that would definitely raise my average number if it were amortized through all twelve months. It also doesn’t include meals out when we travel, etc — so again, that would raise my monthly average. Perhaps I’m not as freakish an outlier as it seemed.

  29. Cranberry on February 15, 2014 at 8:20 pm said:

    Our grocery tally is larger than it could be, due to our various food intolerances. We don’t eat much pasta, nor a great deal of tomato sauce. Various members can’t eat certain fruits and most nuts.

    Our bill dropped noticeably while we were mostly vegetarian. If we were to use very litte meat, and drop the alcohol, we could make it–but the diet would be very limited if we only bought things everyone could eat.

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