Cost of Groceries per Person per Month

supermarket-pixabayI have received many, much-appreciated emails from readers and educators alike wondering about my suggestion from as far back as our 2011 budgeting presentation and a 2010 blog that households should try to spend between $75 and $125 per person per month in their household on groceries. Many of these emails express concerns that the suggested budget amount appears extraordinarily low, especially when compared to the suggested figures released by the federal government (upwards of $200 to $400 per person per month – see USDA 2017 Cost of Food report).

As with most all consumer goods, prices do go up. In the years subsequent to my earlier post, I have tended to raise the figure, though not to what many still feel is reasonable. Most disagreeing parties either cite their own household grocery budgets, the IRS’ allowable living expenses national standards for food (see example here), or the USDA’s Food Plan as proof that I’m off my rocker. After all, my suggested monthly grocery allowance per person is usually half that of the federal government’s suggestion. Even then, I know from personal experience and from other sources that it is possible to spend even less per month – as little as 25% of the IRS guidelines – and still eat nutritious and satisfying meals.

The first point to make is that the IRS guidelines are not suggestions nor even averages. These are amounts below which related expenses claimed on our taxes are not questioned by the IRS. Additionally, the USDA’s food plans are based on the assumption that most all American families can conform to one of their food plans: 1) thrifty, 2) low-cost, 3) moderate-cost and 4) liberal. If I were involved (and there’s a good reason I am not), the names of these plans would instead have been: 1) reasonable, 2) dial it back, 3) lap of luxury and 4) Alaska (yes, food is sky high expensive there).

I know from my experience in teaching, as well as my own family of six expenses (including 2 teenagers), that the $50 to $150 per person per month is a reasonable range for food for many (if not most) American households.

Is it easy? No.

Is it convenient? Certainly not.

Stacked Soda cansAt $125 per person per month, you would have to eliminate most of the grocery store budget busters that add nothing to our diets but do add inches to our waistlines, such as bags of chips, expensive brand name breakfast cereals, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages.

A $125 per person per month grocery budget means that dinners are not served from convenient, but expensive, heat-and-serve containers or pre-chopped bags and boxes. Rather, dinners are likely prepared, if not from scratch, at least from several basic ingredients. Expensive meats are likely not an everyday affair on the dinner tables of households living on a $125 per person per month grocery budget.

A Brown bag LunchA $125 per person per month grocery budget means brown bag lunches for all family members in school and at work. However, according to 2012 data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ website, essentially ONE-HALF of all American schoolchildren are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches at schools.

A $125 per person per month grocery budget also probably means buying store brand rather than name brand products.

With all of these probabilities, you may be wondering what’s left to eat: crackers, peanut butter and the occasional water on the rocks?

Actually, in our household, where my amazingly resourceful wife regularly hits $50 per person per month (including our older teens). Such frugal budgets often require an extra hour or two per week of research on the Internet and circulars for special deals. There was a time when our grocery shopping habits included the extensive usage of doubled-value coupons, buy-one-get-one-free coupons and the like. However, now, grocery shopping trips typically include two trips a month to a warehouse (e.g. Costco), a weekly run to the supermarket, an occasion visit to the local grocery store for milk, and a monthly trip to the bakery outlet for half-priced (or better) bread. When our local grocery store has special deals (aka “case lot sales”), we usually stock up on many of the staples available at great prices.

Delicious Crepes with Strawberries

But our $125 per person per month grocery budget also includes healthy and tasty breakfast cereals (hot and cold), organic deli meats for sandwiches a couple times per week, some convenience foods, but mostly healthy and delicious meals (including affordable, in-season fresh fruits and vegetables). Plus, we have our occasional – 1 to 4 times per month, or more often if I’m lucky – home made crepes with Nutella and fresh strawberries (that’s our splurge).

The truth is, a $125 per person per month grocery budget may seem like a farce to a household currently spending $300 per person per month, but it’s actually quite achievable. In single-parent homes or homes where both parents work full time and non-work time is spent hauling kids from one activity to another, grocery planning and shopping time are likely difficult to come by or not prioritized. For such families, spending $125 per person per month is not an impossibility, but it may be a casualty of the realities of life.

I do recognize that there are many communities and neighborhoods around this country that do not have grocery stores nearby but rather convenience stores or corner markets whose prices are higher than grocery stores. Coupled with the fact that many households lack sufficient transportation to carry more than a few bags of groceries at a time, and the strategies described above may be irrelevant.

Following a ChecklistRegardless, here are the basic principles of minimizing grocery costs in every household:

  1. Plan and prepare for each grocery trip
    1. Be a little flexible in your meal planning options, since what is on sale may not match what you are craving for dinner that week
  2. Don’t pay full price unless absolutely necessary
    1. Take advantage of periodic sales on staples that have a long shelf-life
    2. Buy meat when it’s on sale and store in the freezer
    3. Use store coupons especially when items are on sale
    4. Check store ads and take advantage of store policies that match other stores’ low prices
  3. Leave the credit card and possibly even the debit card at home if you know that you are tempted to overspend using plastic

Keep in mind that I always say in my classes that the $125 per person per month grocery budget is a target, not an inviolable law. The reality is that the grocery bill is one of the easiest of all household bills to save money on with a little extra effort. So that makes it a great place to start when it comes to improving the household finances.

Good luck, and please feel free to share your successes (and your frustrations) in reducing your monthly grocery bill.

This article was updated May, 4th 2017 to reflect current grocery spending standards.

Todd Christensen, Author of Everyday Money for Everyday People

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Todd Christensen
Director of Education – Debt Reduction Servinces Inc.

Best wishes on your endeavors to take control of your finances!

 

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    Hi Linda,
    Yes, these figures have been updated, as far as the USDA food plan ranges and our recommended ranges are concerned. When we’re counseling with clients who live alone, we understand that they will likely have grocery expenses even a bit higher than our recommended ranges. $200 a month, I think, would still be reasonable for a single person, though there is always room for improvement. Then, of course, there are areas of the country where groceries are much more expensive (I’m thinking about the entire states of Alaska and Hawaii). Additionally, special diets can create huge ranges in spending. We’ve worked with individuals battling severe illnesses with very strict diets and have seen their monthly grocery bills three or four times higher than our recommendations. These are exceptions, of course. Many homes where the primary shopper has an hour or two a week to organize and plan his or her spending for the household can still, in many places around this country, spend $75 to $125 per person per month for groceries.
    Thanks for the inquiry! All the best,
    Todd

    Reply

    Hi Todd…I saw your post from a few days ago, then read all the much older responses. Have you updated your numbers for 2017? I’m glad I found your site.

    Reply

    Found your site doing a Google search to see how off base my grocery budget is. I am struggling to keep it at $600 per month for just my husband and myself. It has been averaging closer to $700 per month. We eat a whole foods/locally grown/organic/grass-fed diet. I cook 90% of our food from scratch. I buy in bulk and watch prices so I can save on things we go through a lot. Coupons are no good because most of what I buy doesn’t have a bar code. We hardly eat out. I work full-time and spend hours in the kitchen as it is. We live in Southern California where healthy food is available in abundance but with a hefty price tag. Back when I used to eat a “Standard American Diet,” our grocery bill was still about $600, but I didn’t coupon, we ate a lot of junk, and spent about another $200 a month on eating out. You are so right that chips and juice and microwave dinners are expensive. It baffles me that we spend only slightly more on groceries as before, eat exponentially more healthy, and have almost eliminated our eating out budget. But wow – $75 – $125 per person per month…that is just impossible. At least where I live…

    Reply

    I created a free calculator that will calculate your monthly spend based on the USDA averages (without requiring the PDF lookups and complicated adjustments based on how many family members). It’s accurate and up to date with the most recent annual average posted (currently 2011).

    Reply

    Mary, it’s cruelly ironic that many healthy, unprocessed foods seem to be more expensive, no matter where you live, than a lot of the processed, pre-packaged, ready-to-eat fare. I’m glad to hear you’re aware of and are using the new USDA Plate recommendations to have half of each meal be composed of vegetables and fruits (www.ChooseMyPlate.gov – I’m just disappointed that Dark Chocolate didn’t end up with its own plate portion).

    Of course, depending upon where we live, we have different options as far as stores to shop at: local markets and small grocery (even if they are local chains) in urban markets tend to be less affordable than the regional and national grocery and discount chain stores found in the suburbs. The farmers markets springing up around the country can also range from the very affordable to the very expensive.

    And as you are probably already aware, eating fruits and vegetables that are in season can have a positive impact on our monthly bill. Additionally, the age, metabolism, and general food preferences of household members can significantly impact the weekly grocery bill.

    Being practical and careful, it also sounds like you already avoid many of the grocery shopping No No’s like shopping without a list, shopping when you’re hungry or stressed, going to the grocery store without knowing what the weekly budget is, and shopping with plastic (credit or debit) rather than cash.

    Here are a couple of links to some blogs with extensive grocery shopping suggestions:

    1. http://bit.ly/oEmJ1B – 15 Tips on GetRichSlowly
    2. http://bit.ly/qFD9Y3 – 45 Ways to Save on Groceries at FiveCentNickel.com

    Enjoy, and good luck!

    Todd

    Reply

    We spend about $250 per person per month on groceries, for 5 adults. We don’t buy much junk food and buy meat and produce on sale. We are very practical and careful with our spending. The USDA recommends half of the plate at each meal should be fruits and vegetables, which makes meals more expensive. We live in California, so possibly the cost of food is higher here.

    Reply

    Pat, it sounds like you’ve already been doing some extra work to control your grocery expenses. The additional demands on your grocery bill, due to the health-related issues you’re dealing with, do certainly make the budget more challenging. Also, if you are cooking for one, you’re not able to take advantage of the economy of scale that a larger household would have.

    The $75 per person per month would be the lower end of a reasonable grocery bill. As I refer to in the blog, for some households, $125 per person per month might be a little more realistic, and this may be the situation you’re in.

    Here are a few links to other checklists/tips for saving money on groceries:

    http://zenhabits.net/50-tips-for-grocery-shopping
    http://recipes.howstuffworks.com/fresh-ideas/easy-dinner-ideas/budget-grocery-shopping-tips.htm
    http://www.diy-home-tips.com/diy-money-saving-grocery-shopping-tips.html

    Best wishes, Pat!

    Todd

    Reply

    I sure would like to see a months menu for $75 per person. I can spend $8-10 a week on just fresh produce alone at an inexpensive produce store and I shop for 1 person-myself. I do not eat meat everyday. I am also a diabetic so I can not live on macaroni & cheese, cereal, rice, potatoes and pasta. I do eat more bread than I should because of sandwiches and I usually have toast for breakfast. I also can not eat whole eggs or cheese everyday because of my cholesterol. I must use soymilk because I can not tolerate milk. Most of my groceries are purchased at Aldi’s or Walmart-the 2 cheapest places to shop. The small amount of meat I buy is usually from Costco which I portion and freeze. I prefer to cook mostly from scratch but use canned fruit and canned and / or frozen veggies in some of my recipies. I even make my own pizza with dough and sauce made from scratch. Most of the meals I cook are simple and fast to prepare because I am disabled and can not stand for too long.

    Reply

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