We’ve been grocery budgeting since 1998. We were newly arrived in Germany, all the bills had finally caught up with us, and the credit card game was over. When everything was tallied up, we owed in excess of $30,000. And we’d accumulated this whopping debt in only three years of marriage! Go us!
But we did pay it all off in the three years we lived overseas. Every last cent. $30,000 in debt paid off in only three years, while living in Europe with two, then three, small children on a military paycheck. Go us, for real!
One of the first major changes we made, besides not using the credit cards anymore, was cutting the grocery bill. It’s easy to think, “Well, it’s food, and we need food, so it doesn’t matter how much it costs!” But it does. I think, when we started, we were spending $700-$800 dollars a month on food for a family of four, one of whom was an infant and another a picky toddler. I bought one of those magazines at the checkout one day, the ones with headlines like, “Feed Your Family of Eight for $50 a Week!” After much discussion, we set our first grocery budget at $400 a month, or $100 a week, broken down to $75 a week for food and $25 for non-foods, which I purchased on a rotating schedule so my budget was never overwhelmed. (My categories were laundry, bathroom, cleaning, and household, which was things like aluminum foil, sandwich baggies, and batteries.)
This week, I’m reevaluating the grocery budget. I’m going to be reevaluating lots of things, but for now, let’s talk groceries.
Nowadays, my grocery budget is less straightforward than it used to be, since we raise quite a lot of our own food. We are lousy gardeners, but we’re very good with livestock, so we’re producing mostly meat and dairy products, which are the most expensive items at the grocery. I can keep ten of us in fresh fruits and vegetables for around $40 a week, but a $9 roasting chicken isn’t going to get us through even one Sunday dinner, so our high-value produce is really helping a lot.
But the first thing to do is to figure out what is actually a reasonable amount to be spending on food. To this end, I like to check out the USDA’s food budget plans. I find it amusing, at least, and it gives me an outside figure. Here’s a copy of their most recent cost plan. Just add up the dollar amounts for each person in your family, and voila! Instant grocery budget. Maybe.
For my family of ten, the USDA allows us $1436 for four weeks on the thrifty plan. (I always had a four week budget and just floated along for the last 2-3 days of the month.) But that doesn’t even include non-food items!
I’d like to propose a different method. I used to figure our grocery budget based on $2 per person for dinner and $1 per person each for breakfast and lunch. That’s $4 per day per person, but it won’t all be spent on food. We’ll still have to buy toilet paper and laundry detergent and whatnot! Over the same four weeks, that drops my proposed grocery budget to $1120 per month for a family of ten hungry people. (Hard work = big appetites!)
Is that too high? It seems high. Let me figure out how much we spend now.
My costs are a little tricky, but I’ve figured out that we spend approximately $700 dollars a month feeding livestock, paying the butcher to kill the livestock, and occasional vet bills. I didn’t charge for my labor. I take in about $350 a month providing foodstuffs to other people, so that knocks my out-of-pocket costs down to $350. I start the month with $800 cash, so my actual grocery budget is around $1150 for the month. Much lower than the thrifty plan, but slightly over my $4 per person per day budget plan.
To recap: The USDA thinks I can keep it below $1400 a month, but my personal cap is $1100. In reality, though, I’d like to get under $900 in May, with an actual goal of staying within an $800 budget. Subtracting the $350 which is feeding the livestock that are feeding us, I’m hoping to spend just $550 in May, or $137 a week. For ten people!
Next time: Three things we need to do to stay in our budget, and one more thing that helps a lot!
For the record: We are not actually eating on the thrifty plan. Our diet is heavy on meat and dairy products, because we have them. Lots of cream and butter. And it’s all free-range and organic, too. We also buy organic grains and sugars in bulk. We eat a lot of fresh fruits and veggies, too, some of which are organic, but not a lot. We are able to purchase local honey and real maple syrup. Basically, every grocery dollar I’ve been able to free up has been reinvested in better quality foods. Here’s another link to how the plans were developed and what they entail, if you are as nerdy as I about the numbers! Based on our actual diet, we’d probably fall somewhere between the USDA’s moderate and liberal range ($2306-$2808 per month!) but who can afford that? The trick is to eat like kings on a pauper’s budget.