Every month the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) puts out a report on the cost of food. This report outlines what Americans are spending on groceries for their families and as individuals.
As a foodie and a budget nerd, this report always intrigues me. I’ve worked hard to get my family’s grocery budget to hover between $450 and $600 per month. The report shows that those are, in fact, pretty frugal numbers for a family of five (my four kids and me).
I like to feed my family organic food, so I’ve got to work that into the budget as well. In this article I’ll outline what the average cost of food per month is for varying family sizes in the U.S.
Then I’ll share some tips on how you can lower your food budget. By following a few simple tips, you may be able to cut your grocery budget by 20 percent or more.
Average Cost of Food Per Month in the U.S.
The Cost of Food Report published by the USDA is fairly detailed. It shows how food expenditures differ depending on your gender, age, and size of family. Here is a brief summary of some of the most recent reported numbers.
The report outlines weekly and monthly costs for what they deem as four USDA food plans: The Thrifty Plan, the Low-Cost Plan, the Moderate Plan and the Liberal Plan.
I’ll give the range of numbers across the plans. If you want more details, you can visit the USDA Cost of Food Report page directly.
Food Costs for Individuals
The average cost of food per month for individuals is as follows:
- Males age 19–50 years spend $185.90–$368.30 per month.
- Females age 19–50 years spend $164.90–$327.30 per month.
- Males age 51–70 years spend $169.40–$341.20 per month.
- Females age 51–70 years spend $163.40–$306.30 per month.
- Males age 71+ years spend $170.30–$342.50 per month.
- Females age 71+ years spend $158.40–$300.60 per month.
I found it interesting that males aged 71+ spent more on food than their 51–70-year-old counterparts, while the numbers for women continued to decline as they got older.
Now onto family food numbers.
Food Costs for Families
- Families of two (one male, one female) aged 19–50 years spent $385.80–$765.20 per month.
- Families of two (one male, one female) aged 51–70 years spent $366.10–$712.30 per month.
There are no numbers reported for families of two over 70 years of age.
The next section of the report covers families of four (one male, one female and two kids).
- Families of four with kids aged 2–5 spent $562.40–$1096.40 per month.
- Families of four with kids aged 6–11 spent $644.40–$1284.30 per month.
There are no numbers for households with kids over 11 years of age.
Looking at these numbers, you can see why I’m fairly happy with our family’s grocery budget numbers. Our $450–$600 food budget falls near or below the government’s lowest numbers for a family of four nearly every month.
You can also see there is a large disparity between the low end of the spending range and the top end.
However, there are other factors to consider. We live in an area of the U.S. where grocery costs are low to moderate. If you live in an area where groceries are costlier you will likely be forced to spend more. The East Coast, for example, is one area where grocery costs are higher than in other parts of the U.S.
So don’t beat yourself up if you’re living in a higher cost-of-living area and are spending more on food. You likely don’t have much of a choice.
However, even if you live in an expensive area, the following tips can help you spend less. Read on to see if you can use some of these tricks to reign in your grocery budget.
Tips for Saving Money on Groceries
I’ve worked really hard over the last five or six years to cut down on grocery spending. However, I’ve also tried to balance the budget cuts with a healthy, sustainable diet.
After all, a family can’t survive long on a diet of Ramen and buttered noodles. Here are some tips on how to spend less on groceries but still eat fairly well.
Start with a Menu Plan
If you’ve read any of my other articles on saving on groceries, you’ve probably heard me mention a menu plan. The menu plan is the Holy Grail of grocery budgeting, in my humble opinion.
Here’s why. How many times have you looked in the cupboard to make a meal and found nothing usable? There’s plenty of food in the house, but nothing goes together to make a decent meal. So, you order takeout or head to a local restaurant so your family or you can have an acceptable meal.
Restaurant food is the arch enemy of a frugal grocery budget. Even if you’re hitting the local fast food drive thru you can spend less for a meal by eating at home.
A weekly menu plan will help you avoid being cornered into buying takeout unexpectedly. It’ll also help you curb those last-minute drive thru runs. Making a menu plan is simple. Here are the steps to an effective menu plan and coordinating grocery list.
Make a List of 7 Dinners for the Week
Start by making a list of seven dinners for the week. Or, for a two-week plan you can make a list of 14 meals
When I make my dinner menu plan I usually ask for input from the kids. I’ll ask them if there’s anything special they want for dinner that week.
Involving the kids in the menu plan can reduce complaints about the meal. As you make the list of meals, try to find a balance between cheap and expensive meal ideas.
For instance, if you have steak one night, maybe have buttered noodles and veggies the next. Personally, I work toward a $5 average expenditure per meal.
Sometimes I go over that number, but that’s my target price. Erin Chase, founder of the “$5 Dinner Mom Cookbook,” can help you with ideas. Check out our podcast interview with Erin here.
Using a balance of cheap and more expensive meals will help you keep your grocery budget low. After you’ve made your list of meals you can go to the next step.
Make a Shopping List of the Ingredients You Need
Next, you’ll make a shopping list of all of the ingredients you need for your seven dinner meals. Check your cupboards first to make sure you don’t already have some of the ingredients.
As I mentioned, if you’ve got everything in the house for the meals, you’ll be able to avoid last-minute takeout runs.
After you’ve made the grocery list for your dinners, you’ll add other items to the list.
Add Breakfast, Lunch and Snack Foods to the List
If you stock up on breakfast, lunch and snack foods you can avoid going out for meals during the day.
Buy breakfast foods such as granola bars, English muffins or oatmeal. Buy lunch foods such as soups or sandwich fixings. Or, plan on making bigger meals and bringing leftovers to work for lunch.
Just be sure to have enough in the house so that there’s no need to hit cafes or restaurant drive thrus. This menu plan should help ensure there’s enough food in the house for the week.
Now, here are some other tips for saving money on groceries.
Shop and Plan Around the Sales
Another way we save money on groceries is to shop around the sales. Hint: Know where the lowest grocery prices are first. Then you’ll be able to tell whether a sale is truly a sale.
Yes, some sales aren’t really sales at all. Costlier grocery stores might have an item on sale. But if your local Walmart or Aldi sells it cheaper every day, then it’s not really a sale.
And if it is on sale and you use it regularly, buy it! For instance, if chicken is on sale one week, I make several dinners with chicken. Or I freeze it to use later.
Whatever fruit is on sale during the week is what my kids will be eating for snacks. They don’t complain because they’re used to the routine. Your kids will get used to it too, eventually.
The more stuff you can buy on sale, the more money you save. Hint: If it’s something you wouldn’t normally buy, pass it by. Otherwise, you’re just spending more that you would usually spend.
Minimize Food Waste
It’s estimated that Americans waste 30–40 percent of the food supply. That’s a lot of money going out the window each month. Here are some tips for minimizing food waste in your home.
- Only buy (and make) what you know you’ll eat.
- Eat leftovers by bringing them to work or using them for other dinners.
- Freeze leftovers for later use if possible.
- Keep track of expiration dates and use food accordingly.
- Freeze fresh fruits and vegetables for later use if possible.
You can also give food away if you find food in your pantry or freezer that you won’t use. Give non-perishable items to your local food shelter. Give perishable items to neighbors or friends.
Minimizing or eliminating food waste in your family could save you hundreds of dollars per month.
Grow Your Own Fruits and Veggies
If you have a house with a yard, you could save money on food by growing a garden. Here are some tips for getting the most out of your time and money when you garden.
- Grow fruits and veggies that you and your family eat often.
- Make your garden size appropriate for the amount of time you have to spend tending it.
- Plant herbs in window sill pots.
- If you don’t have a yard, use pots on your deck or near the house to grow veggies.
- Participate in a community garden if you can’t plant at home.
Even if you live in a climate that doesn’t allow for year-round gardening you can save money all year. Simply can your fruits and vegetables using a hot water bath canning system. Or, freeze them in a zero-temp freezer.
Zero-temp freezers can keep veggies and fruits usable for up to a year. We freeze onions, carrots, celery and green peppers that we’ll use to put in casseroles and soups.
Or, we’ll freeze peeled and sliced apples for later use in pies and apple crisp. Growing your own food can save you hundreds of dollars per year on your grocery budget.
Cook from Scratch
Another way to save money on food is to avoid packaged foods and to cook from scratch. Just about anything you eat can be made from scratch. Here are some typical packaged foods we make from scratch at our house.
- Tortillas for tacos and fajitas
- Homemade pizza crust and pizza
- Homemade baked goods such as cookies, rolls, pies and cakes
- Spice mixes such as taco seasoning or grilling seasoning
- Soups such as chicken noodle, beef stew and chicken wild rice
- Snacks such as granola mixes
It does take a bit of work at first to learn how to make these items from scratch. However, the money savings are worth the effort.
Bonus: You’re eating healthier when you cook from scratch. Homemade foods are without the chemical preservatives required in many packaged foods.
Yes, food can be expensive. As you can see from the USDA food cost numbers, some families spend the equivalent of a mortgage payment on food.
However, with proper planning and some education you may be able to reduce your food costs.
How does your monthly grocery bill compare to the USDA food cost numbers? What are some of the ways you save money on groceries? Share your thoughts with us on social media.