I’m a failure.

Each month, my husband and I set aside $100 for eating out. By adhering to the $25 a week rule, we’re almost always able to stretch that money out for an entire month. Sometimes, we even have a little left over at the end of the month, which roll over into the next month’s food budget.

But last month… we-elllll… things didn’t go as planned.

Instead of sticking to our $100 budget, we spent – gird yourselves, people – $327.12 at restaurants last month. We blew our restaurant budget for the entire summer in 31 days.

See, I told you we were failures.

Pointing Fingers

My husband and I knew we were going (way, way) over budget half-way through the month. Despite this realization, we felt helpless to stop it. It was like a runaway train, but in this movie, there was no Superman to bring it to a grinding halt. The month was chaotic, for sure, with all sorts of scheduling anomalies:

  • Several last-minute real estate showings, which sent us scurrying out of the house around dinnertime
  • Out-of-town guests visiting us
  • A slew of warm days that had “ice cream stand” written all over them
  • Extra dance rehearsals ahead of my daughter’s ballet recital, which also sent us out of the house at mealtime

But as my husband and I examined our budget – and where we went so terribly off course – an idea started to coalesce in my mind. It wasn’t our dining out budget that was causing the chaos at all: it was our grocery budget.

We were dining out more and more because we simply didn’t have enough food in our house to prepare our meals. And, instead of going to the grocery store at 5:30 on a Thursday evening to shop, it was more convenient to head to the local diner. So that’s what we did.

Evaluating Our Grocery Budget

We’ve stuck to a $300 a month grocery budget for as long as I can remember. I’ve managed to do this by taking advantage of coupons and in-store promotions to buy even high-end items at low cost, by bulk-shopping when appropriate, and by always buying fruits and veggies that are in-season at our local farmers market. The $300 monthly budget breaks down to $75 a week, although one week I might spend $110 as I stock up my bulk reserves, while the next week I may only spend $40 to reload on shopping list essentials like milk, eggs, and bread.

I thought my grocery budget was fairly average… until a few of my friends got into a heated discussion about it on Facebook. The thread went something like this:

Friend A: “Just spent $500 at the grocery store. There goes my food budget for the entire month.”

Friend B: “Wait, you only budget $500 a month for groceries? That’s incredible! I spend at least $750.”

Friend C: “Yeah, I spend between $600-$700 a month, but even that’s not enough since Baby C started eating solid foods.”

Friend A: “I’m going to need to make my husband read your comments – he thinks I spend way too much at the grocery store already. I guess I’m doing pretty well!”

As I saw my friends openly admitting to spending double or more at the grocery store on a monthly basis than my own meager budget, I decided to do some research. I was shocked by what I found.

The “Average” Grocery Budget

The USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion tracks the average weekly and monthly grocery expenses of American families every month. In March 2012, the average American family of four spent between $544 and $1235 on groceries. That meant my family was spending – by conservative estimates – roughly half of even the most frugal grocery budget evaluated by the USDA.

I suddenly felt very, very deprived.

The USDA evaluates the cost of food based on four different meal plans: thrifty, low-cost, moderate, and liberal. It also breaks down costs based on a person’s age and gender. For example, here’s what the thrifty meal plan would look like for my family:

  • Me (30 year old female): $160.10/month
  • Husband (28 year old male): $180.20/month
  • Daughter (3 year old female): $100.40/month
  • Son (1 year old male): $91.90

Total? $532.60 a month. But do I really want my children on a frugal plan? NO! I want the healthiest foods on my shopping list: fresh fruit and veggies, lean protein, less processed foods. What should I expect to spend to up my family’s grocery budget to the moderate meal plan?

  • Me: $249.40/month
  • Husband: $291.10/month
  • Daughter: $152.90
  • Son: $138.40

The total in this case: $831.80. WOW.

Adjusting My Grocery Budget

In all honesty, there’s no way I could spend $831.80 a month at the grocery store. First of all, my frugal brain just wouldn’t let me. Not. A. Chance. Secondly, there’s only so much food a person can buy and eat in a month.

I did, however, decide to implement a change. Last week, I went to the grocery store with my shopping list in hand. I still looked at price tags – old habits die hard, and in this case, they don’t need to die at all – but I was also looking to increase the quantity of the high-quality foods that had been previously missing from my food budget. I stocked up on enough fresh fruit and produce to get me through the week, instead of simply buying what my budget told me I could afford. I bought high-quality, lean cuts of meat, instead of the cheapest stuff available.

I ended up spending $118.97. By the end of the week, I expect that most of what I purchased will be gone, and I’ll probably spend close to the same amount on my next weekly shopping trip. If I extrapolate that cost out over a month, I’ll spend just shy of $476 this month on groceries. Far more than my previous $300 grocery budget, but a necessary increase to meet my family’s nutritional needs.

And How Did It Impact Our Restaurant-Dependency?

There’s been an early financial silver lining to increasing our monthly grocery budget. Last week, we had so much good, high-quality, nutritious food in our house that we weren’t even tempted to go out to eat. We actually saved the $25 we normally would have spent eating out thanks to our new grocery budget.

Reader, how much do you spend every month at the grocery store? How does your grocery budget affect your dining out budget?




Libby Balke

Libby Balke