Food is a necessity. It’s also our largest variable cost each month. My family of 5 has been able to survive on one middle-class income by reducing how much we spend on food and other costs. We spend less than $100 per person per month on food, which is substantially lower than the national average. How do we do it? Here we provide numbers for average US households’ spending on food and break down my family’s grocery costs and meal plans.
Food is Our Highest Variable Expense
Per the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) Consumer Expenditure report, in 2017 US households spent an average of $7,729 on food. Of that, an average of $4,363 was spent on groceries and an additional $3,365 was spent on food away from home.
Food was the third highest expense after housing and transportation. Rent or mortgage and vehicle payments tend to be fixed costs. However, food is the largest variable cost for most of us.
Food Spending Based on Income and Age
There are differences in food spending according to age and income. According to the USDA, in 2017 American middle-class households spent an average of 14% of their income ($7,061.00 a year, or $588.42 a month) on food. The lowest income households spent less money on food ($4,070.00 a year, or $339.17 a month), but that represented nearly twice the percent (34%) of their income.
A Gallup poll from 2012 found that some people spend as much as $300 a week, while others spend less than $50; the average was $151 a week. The same poll found that young adults and those with higher incomes spent more on food ($173 and $180 per week, respectively). Those with minors at home spent an average of $30 more per week than adults without children under 18 years at home. And, per the BLS data, spending on food has only increased in recent years.
With food being both a necessity and our most expensive variable cost, many people are looking for ways to save money and eat healthy.
Enough Statistics, What Does This Look Like In Real Life?
Statistics are great. But how to they transplant into spending for real, middle-class families?
When I heard Jordan Page (mom of 6 and author of Fun Cheap or Free.com) say that her family spends $100 per person per month on groceries (not including going out to eat), my initial reaction was “How can that be possible?!” Then I took a look at my family’s finances and found we actually average less than that per month (including dining out).
My family of 5 includes 2 adults and 3 children (ages 10, 4, and 2 years old). The three oldest of us each work out nearly every day of the week, so we require enough fuel and nutrients. And don’t let the ages of my youngest two fool you – they eat non-stop throughout the day.
Our food budget also includes diapers and wipes, hygiene products (e.g., toothpaste, shampoo), household products (e.g., laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid), and food purchased from restaurants (unless we go someplace fancy for a birthday or celebration, which we include under the ‘gifts and entertainment’ category).
Food Spending Per Month for Family of 5 in 2019
|2019||Grocery Store||Dining Out||Total|
*In February of 2019, we committed to a vegetarian diet. While this substantially lowered our costs for eating out, this is change has not affected our grocery spending much. This year’s expenses is consistent with our monthly food spending in years past.
|Avg per month 2016||Avg per month 2017||Avg per month 2018|
Tips to Lower Spending On Food
Meal plan and stick to your list
Prepare most meals at home (there are lots of tricks to save time in the kitchen)
Eat real food (avoid boxed, premade, prepackaged, or frozen products)
Drink water (if you’re lucky enough to have clean, potable water then drink filtered tap water)
Make as much as you can yourself (e.g., taco seasoning, salsa, guacamole, soup broth, pasta sauce)
You don’t need most cleaning products (rubbing alcohol & water work wonders)
Replace single-use products with reusable ones
Consider eating less meat
Grow foods whenever possible (tomatoes and peppers are usually easy to grow in small spaces)
Look for BOGOs
Stock up on sale items you buy regularly
Avoid sale items if you wouldn’t buy the product for full price
Consider going out for drinks or dessert rather than going out to dinner (not only are these less expensive than meals, but this will also keep alcohol and all-too-temping ice cream out of the house and off our weekly grocery list)
My family’s weekly meals often include:
- Coffee brewed at home
- Filtered tap water
- Breaking my soda addiction and my husband’s iced tea habit was not easy, but it saved us hundreds of dollars (and thousands of empty calories)
- Cheerios and milk (we recently switched to Cashew milk)
- Toast with peanut butter and/or natural fruit spread
- Eggs, homemade home fries, and fruit (on weekends)
- PB & J sandwiches, fruit, and nuts
- Macaroni and cheese
- Grilled cheese sandwiches
- Veggie and cheese wraps
- Spinach-based salad, fruit, and nuts
- Meatless burgers (on weekends)
- Chips and homemade salsa or guacamole
- Carrots and hummus
- Apples with peanut butter
- Air-popped popcorn with salt
- Trail mix, Nuts, Almonds, Sunflower seeds
- Whole wheat pasta with veggies (e.g., Brussels Sprouts or Broccoli)
- Pizza with Cheese and Veggies
- Soup or Chili (with broth made for free from vegetable scraps)
- Quesadillas, Tacos, or Burritos
- Quinoa and Beans
Most Expensive Items
The most expensive items on our grocery lists are often
- Cheese (we consume a lot of cheese)
- Yogurt (the kids eat a lot of yogurt)
- Cereal (the kids go through a couple of boxes a week – I tell you they do not stop eating!)
- Nuts (we stock up when on sale)
- Meatless alternatives, such as chicken-less nuggets, ground crumbles for tacos and chili, soy-based burgers (we stock up when they are BOGO) – they are still less expensive than buying meat
People’s grocery hauls often include drinks (such as bottled water, soda, and juices), processed meals (such as frozen, canned, or boxed foods), non-food items (such as paper-towels, cleaning products), and unhealthy snacks (such as cookies, crackers, and chips). None of these items are necessary, and they may be adding as much as hundreds of dollars each month to your grocery bill.
When people say that eating healthy is expensive, I beg to differ. By removing unnecessary items and replacing them with fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, and filtered tap water, it’s possible to both eat healthier and save money.
How much does your family spend on food?