Setting a Food Budget to Save Money

Keeping food costs low as you eat in and dine out.

Woman shops for produce at a grocery storeIn normal circumstances, the average family spends about 12.5% of their overall budget on food. More than half of that (56%) goes to cover groceries, while the rest is spent on dining out.[1] That means that how you manage your food budget can have a significant impact on your ability to spend effectively, and maintain a budget overall to avoid debt.

Of course, the current situation is anything but normal. Most families are eating at home more, even with expanded delivery services and curbside pickup. People are having to adjust their budgets and meal plans around everything from more meal at home, shortages, and delivery costs to losses in income.

If you’re facing a tough situation due to unemployment or a loss of income, there are resources that can help. Food banks, food pantries, and free distribution programs in your local community can be crucial in ensuring you can feed yourself and your family.

It’s important to get the help you need. Don’t let emotion override the need to put food on the table. This situation is beyond anyone’s control and you’re not alone in possibly needing help for the first time.

According to Feeding America, food banks are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of people in need of their support.

“Roughly 2 in every 5 people visiting a food bank are seeking help for the first time, as those who previously had a stable income are suddenly unable to put food on the table because of a job loss or a reduction of hours.”

If you are experiencing hardship now, find a local food bank or pantry. You can also check your city and county websites, which may have information about other local food distribution programs in your area.

This guide is designed to help you learn how to set an effective food budget. If you’re having trouble making ends meet, call 1-888-294-3130 for a free budget evaluation.

How much should you really spend on food?

Each month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture puts out an official USDA food plan monthly report. These plans detail how much you can expect to spend on a nutritious diet at four different cost levels, based on age, gender, or family size.

This recommendation offers some helpful guidance on how to set your food budget. All the plans are geared towards maintaining a healthy diet based on your budget limitations.

NOTE: All numbers have been rounded up to the nearest dollar and are based on the USDA’s March 2020 report.

Household Weekly Cost Monthly Cost
Single adult male, age 19-50 $44 $189
Single adult male, age 51-70 $40 $173
Single adult female, age 19-50 $40 $170
Single adult female, age 51-70 $40 $167
Family of 2 (male and female), age 19-50 $91 $392
Family of 2 (male and female), age 51-70 $90 $372
Family of 4, male and female age 19-50, with 2 kids age 2-3 and 4-5 $132 $572
Family of 4, male and female age 19-50, with 2 kids age 6-8 and 9-11 $152 $656

NOTE: All numbers have been rounded up to the nearest dollar and are based on the USDA’s March 2020 report.

Household Weekly Cost Monthly Cost
Single adult male, age 19-50 $57 $245
Single adult male, age 51-70 $54 $231
Single adult female, age 19-50 $49 $212
Single adult female, age 51-70 $54 $231
Family of 2 (male and female), age 19-50 $116 $502
Family of 2 (male and female), age 51-70 $111 $481
Family of 4, male and female age 19-50, with 2 kids age 2-3 and 4-5 $169 $730
Family of 4, male and female age 19-50, with 2 kids age 6-8 and 9-11 $199 $861

NOTE: All numbers have been rounded up to the nearest dollar and are based on the USDA’s March 2020 report.

Household Weekly Cost Monthly Cost
Single adult male, age 19-50 $71 $311
Single adult male, age 51-70 $67 $288
Single adult female, age 19-50 $60 $260
Single adult female, age 51-70 $60 $257
Family of 2 (male and female), age 19-50 $144 $621
Family of 2 (male and female), age 51-70 $139 $599
Family of 4, male and female age 19-50, with 2 kids age 2-3 and 4-5 $208 $900
Family of 4, male and female age 19-50, with 2 kids age 6-8 and 9-11 $248 $1,075

NOTE: All numbers have been rounded up to the nearest dollar and are based on the USDA’s March 2020 report.

Household Weekly Cost Monthly Cost
Single adult male, age 19-50 $87 $374
Single adult male, age 51-70 $81 $348
Single adult female, age 19-50 $77 $332
Single adult female, age 51-70 $72 $310
Family of 2 (male and female), age 19-50 $179 $776
Family of 2 (male and female), age 51-70 $167 $723
Family of 4, male and female age 19-50, with 2 kids age 2-3 and 4-5 $257 $1,112
Family of 4, male and female age 19-50, with 2 kids age 6-8 and 9-11 $331 $1,302

Setting up a weekly meal plan

Man cooking a meal at home to maintain a food budget

One of the best ways to ensure that you keep costs low and minimize food waste is to set up a weekly meal plan. This helps you organize a shopping list, so you only buy what you need.

You can also arrange meals throughout the week to ensure you use all the ingredients you buy. This is especially useful if you are cooking with raw ingredients, particularly produce, which is also a useful way to reduce costs.

Cooking meals from scratch is almost always more cost-effective than buying pre-packaged meals that are put together for you.

These tips can help you ensure that you set a practical weekly meal plan that you can stick to throughout the week.

  • Only try new recipes on days off when you have extra time to cook.
  • For workdays, use recipes that are easy to make, such as 15- to 30-minute meals that you’ve tried before.
  • Make recipes easier as your workweek progresses. This will ensure you don’t end up going through a drive-thru or ordering takeout because you’re tired after a long week.
  • Do prep on weekends or days off. Components for dishes and whole meals (soups and casseroles) can be made in advance and refrigerated or frozen.
  • Plan portions for leftovers to eat for lunch. Make more than you and your family need for one dinner so you can use the leftovers for lunches that you can heat up the next day.
  • Once you have your meal plan, make a shopping list. Don’t keep things in your head. Write out a list, use a note on your smartphone or get a grocery list app.
  • Only shop for what’s on your list. Make sure to take your list with you and stick to it as you shop. Avoid shopping hungry or tired, which can lead to more impulse purchases.

Using cost-saving tools without getting extreme

Augmented reality grocery app for saving moneyPeople often think that you must be an extreme couponer and spend hours clipping coupons and sending in rebates to save money. However, you don’t need to go to extremes to save a little cash.

What’s more, smartphone apps and email programs make it easier than ever to find and use coupons and redeem rebate offers. In many cases, it’s automatic!

Coupon apps and websites

Manufacturer’s coupons are easily found through websites and apps like Coupons.com and CouponCabin.com. These are coupons offered by your favorite brands, offering money off a purchase or special deals like bogo (buy one, get one).

You can either search the website from your desktop and print coupons to take to the store, or you can use the app and scan your smartphone at checkout.

In-store coupons, offers and bogo deals

Most grocery stores offer their own discounts, in addition to manufacturer coupons. Long gone are the days of flipping through a printed circular to find deals.

You can sign up for email newsletters from your grocer or many stores now have their own apps.

The best thing about in-store deals is that they stack with manufacturer coupons. If your favorite brand of chips has a coupon for $2 off and your grocery store offers a bogo on the same chips, you can use both. You get a $2 discount on the product you pay for, then you get a second item for free.

Price-matching

Make sure to also check if your grocer offers price matching, where they are willing to match a coupon offer from a different store. If so, keep your eyes out for coupons and deals from other stores and take advantage of price matching where you shop.

Price matching can keep you from having to go to multiple stores to get the best deals.

Rebates

Rebates are offers from a manufacturer where they give you money back once you provide proof of purchase. In pre-technology days, this involved physically mailing in part of the packaging into the company.

Now, there are rebate apps, like iBotta, which make it easy to redeem rebates. Some apps work by selecting the rebates you want to redeem and taking a picture of your receipt to show proof of purchase.

More recent updates to apps like iBotta will integrate with your smartphone. When you pay for your purchases through the app using your smartphone, it applies the rebates automatically.

Rebate apps will then give you cashback that you can transfer to your bank account.

The more you do, the more you save

If you use all these money-saving apps together, then you can get the benefit of extreme couponing without going to extreme lengths. Armed with your smartphone, most of the money-saving becomes automatic.

You can save with a coupon from the manufacturer, save with in-store deals, and then redeem rebates for cashback.

The right way to dine out (or do delivery and curbside pickup)

Man paying dinner in a restaurant with a rewards credit cardIn general, eating at home and making meals at home to take to lunch or school is more cost-effective. But sometimes, you just want someone to cook a meal for you.

There’s nothing wrong with eating out – or in the current situation, doing delivery or curbside pickup. You can treat yourself to a meal you didn’t have to cook for special occasions or even just to have a night off from cooking.

What you want to avoid is eating out for every meal. Going out to lunch with your coworkers one time a week is fine. Going out 5 days a week is expensive and likely to lead to credit card debt.

These tips can help you stay on budget.

Keep a separate budget for meals out

Separating your food budget into two categories can make it easier to stay within reason when it comes to dining out.

Groceries are a necessity. So, you set a weekly or monthly budget and a meal plan and shop accordingly. Dining out, takeout, and deliveries should be a luxury. It’s a discretionary expense that’s nice-to-have if you have the extra money for it.

Set a reasonable budget for dining out that works for your income, based on the overall budget that you set. This will set a limit for how much you should eat out or order delivery. One month, you may have one nice meal out for a family birthday. Then the next month, you have a night of delivery and lunch with coworkers and brunch with your family.

Check prices and look for deals

Make sure you know how expensive a restaurant is before you order. You don’t want to choose a place that’s pricey when you’re living on a limited budget.

You can also use apps like Groupon and Living Social to find deals on restaurants near you. You should also check debit and credit card cash-back offer programs. These may give you cash-back for eating at specific restaurants or restaurants in general.

Only dine out when you have the cash to cover the bill

Once you’ve reached the limit you set for dining out, then you need to stick to your budget and cook the rest of your meals at home. If you have extra cash that month, then it’s fine to treat yourself.

Even if you use a credit card to earn cash-back on the meal, you should have the funds to pay the meal off that month. Otherwise, the interest charges on your credit card will quickly offset the cashback you earned.

It may take more time to buy raw ingredients and cook from scratch. However, you generally end up saving money in the long run. This goes for everything from cookies and muffins to prepackaged dinners that you just heat up.

Even if you can just do semi-homemade, you can help keep your food budget low. Instead of buying a family-size chicken fettucine that you heat up in the oven, buy the chicken, pasta, sauce and vegetables and mix it yourself.

If you have a real passion for cooking, you can take it a step further and make the sauce yourself. But cook to your comfort level and keep in mind that the more, raw ingredients you buy, the more you’re likely to save.

Being a big meat-eater tends to be more expensive. If you’re only buying regular produce, beans, and starches, you can make your budget stretch further.  Things like rice, beans, and potatoes, in particular, are comparably cheap and can be highly filling.

That’s not to say that you should go vegetarian, but even just throwing sides like beans or vegetables in with a protein can help you stay on budget. You can use smaller portions of protein while still enjoying your meat, and cut costs at the same time.

Growing organic produce and producing organic meats is a more expensive process for farmers. That added cost translates to higher costs at the grocery store for consumers.

If you decide to eat organic, be prepared that your food budget will need to be higher. You may need to give up other luxuries to go organic.

Specialty diets also tend to be more expensive. For example, the flours you need to bake gluten-free bread and desserts are much higher than the cost if you’re just buying normal flours that contain gluten.

Vegan diets can be expensive too, as you generally need to buy products that substitute things like eggs. For example, vegan mayo is more expensive than its yolky traditional counterpart. Vegan cheese is also usually more expensive.

Find farmers’ markets and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) in your local area and shop there for fresh, locally grown produce. The cost tends to be lower than grocery store prices because you’re buying directly from the farmer producing the food.

With a CSA, you purchase a share of a farm’s products and then you basically have a “subscription.” Each week during the growing season, you receive a box of produce. You can find these types of local options through localharvest.org.

If you have a green thumb, you can also grow products that you use regularly at home. Even if you live in a condo or apartment, you can grow herbs inside.

If you have a yard, consider growing produce if you have the space for it. Just make sure to choose plants that work for your climate zone.

Leftovers are great for one or two meals, but eventually, you will get tired of eating the same thing day after day. Make sure to portion correctly for:

  • the size of the portion each personal will eat in a meal
  • the number of people eating
  • how many servings leftovers you can really stand eating

Portion control is particularly important at holidays and big family meals. People tend to cook more proteins, side dishes, and desserts than the gathering can possibly eat. It’s a waste of food.

When you do big meals at your home and host parties, don’t always assume that you need to take on the full cost yourself. Ask guests to bring side dishes, appetizers, and desserts. If you will be serving alcohol, sticks to beer and wine or provide mixers and ask guests to bring their own alcohol.

Written by :
Meghan Alard [email protected] Financial Literacy Specialist