How Does Your Food Budget Compare to the US Government Averages? A Home Ec 101 Ask the Audience

Heather says:

Food prices fluctuate all the time. How can the average American (sorry Canada and Europe, I don’t have a frame of reference for you) estimate what they will be spending on food from month to month? The USDA publishes a monthly food price index based on four spending levels: Thrifty, Low-Cost, Moderate, and Liberal. While there will always be some regional variations, this is a handy reference for analyzing your household’s food budget*.

The weekly special at The Prepared PantryWhat I really like about this tool is that it doesn’t just have adults and children, because we all know that children’s appetites vary widely based on age. Yes, I know that they can vary within these bounds as well, but this seems to have reasonable expectations.

For example in our household, we should expect to spend about $169 a week on the thrifty plan. Our actual weekly grocery budget is closer to $150. There are directions for calculating a family’s food budget and a couple of quick suggestions such as 2 adults with 2 children 5 and under and 2 adults with two school age children.

There are also separate tables for Alaska and Hawaii which would otherwise skew the averages.

Have you ever used this tool?

Do you feel it is an accurate reflection of what families in your area spend on food?

Knowing our family’s food budget falls below the thrifty level, while we maintain a generally healthful diet is encouraging.

Just for transparency’s sake, I wasn’t paid to mention these resources, I just thought they might come in handy for some families. Remember, here at Home Ec 101 we’re all about meeting people wherever they are on their nutritional journey. Any step in the right direction is progress.

*If you are going through a separation or divorce and are having trouble with the food and clothing part of the budget worksheets and estimations, I’ve found a super handy tool from the IRS that gives a good guideline through their national standard deduction. I’m not a lawyer, check with yours, I found it very helpful at the time. Best of luck.

Menu planning saves time, energy, and money. You don't have to wait until you are an accomplished cook to start. This is the couch 2 5k of feeding yourself healthy, budget conscious food.

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  1. Kally on March 17, 2015 at 10:51 pm

    Cool to see and inspiring that folks can shop and cook for so little! We are in the thrifty category for 2 30-ish adults, including Nathan that eats like 3 dudes! It took a year of effort to get there though. That year was work and time but now it is minimal effort. We kept a spreadsheet price book for the year and tracked expenses. It was amazing how overpriced some items were in comparison. I also ended up learning how to make most things from scratch. Much more delicious and pretty easy now that I’ve done it for the year. It was worth it because now the food tastes better, has less questionable ingredients, and we have enough extra to buy mostly organic.

  2. Anastasia on March 15, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    Reading these posts has been beneficial. I have a $400.00 monthly budget for EVERYTHING household (food, cleaning, over the counter meds, special holiday treats, etc). Every month I fill in the spreadsheet (prices and all) then wince at each cut that has to be made in order to add that every-3-month-must-have item or some unexpected expense that has to be added. (Paper plates were deleted long ago.) I buy no junk food and the only processed food is a couple boxes of mac-n-cheese in case of emergencies. I can only afford to buy one round of fresh fruits and veggies and organics are infinately more expensive than my budget can support. ALDI is my primary store. I clip no coupons (they're all for processed junk anyway) and shop at traditional grocery stores only for those things on sale "with card" It's tough but good to know that other families are just as frugal as mine!

  3. Mrs. Nic on November 14, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    We fall between the "moderate" and "low-cost" plans. We'd be even lower, but within the past two months or so I started buying one or two "treats" – something we would not typically buy (fruit we've never tried before, specialty jam, prepared food, doughnuts, etc.) – every time I go grocery shopping. It feels so luxurious – maybe too much so! I'll have to cut back to one per trip, or only once or twice a month.

  4. Andrea on November 8, 2010 at 12:57 am

    We fall into the "Moderate" column, including eating out, trips to Starbucks, etc. Apparently we spend a lot more than most people who have commented! But, we live in CA (more expensive than a lot of places), eat mostly organic, and the types of items we buy rarely allow for the use of coupons. Also sometimes I wonder if people really keep track of all the money they spend on food or if they are just guesstimating. I'm one of those accounting types who tracks keeps track of every penny so I know my numbers are good.

    • Lucy on November 15, 2010 at 8:06 am

      I'm betting that a higher-than-average number of readers/commenters here track their sprending quite carefully. As for me, there is nowhere for any unaccouted for spending money to come from, in addition to my tracking spending and adhering tightly to a written budget. My numbers include toiletries, (limited) cleaning supplies, and paper goods, but not medications or pet food.

  5. @notdiyheather on November 6, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    I don't know whether I should feel good that I stay below the "thrifty" level for a family of 3, or if I should use this as a petition for a larger food budget from Hubby. I buy whole foods, we hardly eat out and our budget is $25 below. Some weeks are tougher than others to stay on budget and still get the food we need. I could be cooking gourmet meals with an extra $25/week!

  6. sandy on November 5, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    I have been using this sight to udge my spending for about 15 years now. When I first started I was proud to see that I hit the thrifty mark. Now, I spend about 1/2 of the thrifty amount and we do not eat potatoes, regular rice, white flour, etc. We use whole wheat flour, special pasta, brown rice, etc. But, it's still fun to figure out where I stand with the government "experts".

  7. Anna on November 5, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    It's high for us, too. I'm with Tinkerschnitzel, because we have two adults and four kids (8, 6, 4, and 1) and we spend about $150/wk.

  8. Tinkerschnitzel on November 5, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    We've got a family of 6 currently – 4 adults, 1 6yo and 1 18 mnth old. My weekly budget is $150, but this gives me a number of almost $200 on the thrifty end. Maybe if I show this to my husband he'll quit complaining about how much I spend on groceries!

  9. @idahojill on November 5, 2010 at 11:29 am

    I spend between 50-75/week for our family of 3. Normally closer to 50. I shop promotions and use coupons extensively, and it's fun because I treat it like a game.

  10. Melinda on November 5, 2010 at 10:50 am

    Wow. We do good. I budget about $150 a week for a family of four, 2 adults, one 5 year old and one 11 year old. It looks like thrifty for us would be about $127.90 and low cost would be about $163.80. But that's including all supplies like paper towels, dish soap, laundry soap, toilet paper and all that.

    • Melinda on November 5, 2010 at 10:54 am

      Oh yeah, I also started shopping at Save A Lot. But I'm like you Heather… "Some people can work magic with a grocery budget. I'm at an equilibrium where I'm happy with our output for the time and energy spent.
      Some would call it a convenience tax. :)"

  11. Ellen H. on November 5, 2010 at 8:42 am

    I agree with Anna B – my grocery list always includes stocking up on non-food supplies as well. If I take that into account, we're well within the "thrifty" range for our household. I stay away from convenience and processed foods and I spend more on good quality fruits, veggies and meats, and the occasional package of ice cream treats. We eat at home almost all the time.

  12. Anna B on November 5, 2010 at 7:57 am

    This is very interesting. Unlike most folks here, I'm well above the 'thrifty' level for a single gal. But then, I think families have certain benefits of scale. One person having to buy an 8oz container of sour cream for one meal is different than a family of 4 being able to split the cost of a 16oz container (which is not twice as much).

    The other issue I have with it is that my 'grocery' budget also includes light bulbs, trash bags, cleaning supplies, etc – so it's not really an accurate measure of what I spend on *food*. If I just took the food part, I'd probably be really low too.

  13. Lucy on November 5, 2010 at 6:56 am

    Wow, we are at about half the thrifty, and I know we eat well!

  14. Milehimama on November 4, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    I think that the numbers may be set a little high. Most food stamp recipients don't get the whole allotment, it's a sliding scale based on how much you make. One would only get the full allotment if they had nothing or very little income. Maybe it's weighted on purpose.

  15. Bree on November 4, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    It has us at $115/week for the thrifty plan. We usually spend about $80/week. I have a friend that says she can get 3 weeks of groceries for her family of four (2 adults, a 3-year-old, and a 1-year-old) for $115.

    • HeatherSolos on November 4, 2010 at 9:25 pm

      Some people can work magic with a grocery budget. I'm at an equilibrium where I'm happy with our output for the time and energy spent.
      Some would call it a convenience tax. 🙂

  16. Shanika@LifeisPichey on November 4, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    Right now I would say we pay about 300 a month. It's only 3 of us: Me, my husband and our little one. A lot of times I will plan a menu for the week and the food that I make will make enough for leftovers for the following day (therefore not having to spend extra on lunch items). Then there are times when we are both lazy and just want a good ole grill cheese. Plus, I am a huge couponer and the majority of the things I eat are from scratch that I make or are fruit and veggies so I just check the sales and when those things are on sale I stock up. Except for the fruit. Well, apples are an exception. They last a good while without spoiling.

  17. Carol Shive Mirek on November 4, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    Wow, we don't come close to any of those numbers for our family. 3 adults, a 7 year old and a 4 1/2 year old. I would say we spend about 400 – 500 a month, and that includes any take out or going out to dinner which we don't do often. We don't eat really eat organic, have any special diet concerns, but we don't live on processed food either. I guess we do pretty good in comparison to the the people surveyed.

  18. Nichole on November 4, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    We have two adults and two kids under age 6, and our weekly budget ranges from $80-120. That’s a pretty big range, and it’s because my husband travels frequently. We spend far less when it’s just the three of us!

  19. Sue on November 4, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    This was eye-opening. I always wondered where we stood. I budget $300 per month for hubby and I (which is $29 below the thrifty plan), but I actually thought I was doing better than that. But, we eat all meals except 1 breakfast a week at home, and we do eat very well-lots of fruits and veggies, organic beef and eggs. And, judging by the size of my hips, a bit too many desserts!

  20. SLL on November 4, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    There are two adults in our household, both over 50 and I feel like we eat very well, organic products, very little processed foods, etc. and we barely spend the amount allotted for Thrifty for a month. I feel like we eat very well on what we spend and was kind of shocked at the Liberal amount. I also went back to the tables in 1994 when there were two adults and two girls age 12 and 13. At that time we were barely spending 75.00 per week, partially due to me preserving fruits and vegetables, juices, etc. throughout the year, plus I made all of our baked goods including bread from scratch. That puts us around the 'thrifty' column and seems more accurate than today's numbers.

    I always feel like saying things like this make me sound 'old', but I am amazed at how many people I know take their kids (and themselves) for fast food two or more times per week. We stopped at a burger place (BK) on a little trip we went on, mostly because it was fast, and for two burgers, two medium drinks (which were gigantic!) and two medium fries it was almost 15.00. It's a sad state of affairs.

    • casey on November 5, 2010 at 10:33 am

      Serving sizes at fast food places seems to have gotten bigger (i.e. medicum soda is the former large size). I always get the kids meal-that is enough food for me (small burger and small fries) plus I get a toy. Sometimes I'll buy an additional drink if it's a road trip or something and I want something to sip on.

      Also anywhere someone else is making my drink, I alwyas ask for Coke-no ice because you get at least double the amount of soda that way. It's still cold, at least at the beginning and you can always get a cup of ice for like 10 cents to add to it as needed.

  21. Princess Leia on November 4, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    Just _grocery_ costs are always _way_ less than their allotted for our family of 4 (506/mo on the "thrifty" plan) and I don't really menu plan or coupon (except for HT triples and super doubles, at which I'm usually splurging on stuff that we wouldn't normally get since it's free or way cheap). And I'm doing my best to buy mostly organic produce.

    But often I'll buy vitamins at the grocery store – do those count? And hubs often forgets to bring the leftovers for lunch the next day, so he buys something (when he remembers!). Not to mention our occasional fast food or restaurant meal (1-2x/week).

    If it's cost of _all_ food we buy (3 meals/day, 7 days/week), plus all the other random things we buy at the grocery store, then our family is probably between "thrifty" and "low-cost." If it's just what I spend at the grocery store, I'm below thrifty without a whole lot of effort (just trying to use non-processed foods as much as possible).

  22. Christy on November 4, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    I'm feeling really expensive here… Are they considering this to be JUST food, or is this actually a weekly shopping trip which includes paper towel and cold medicine and detergent and all that other stuff?

    I'm in New England and we often exceed $200/shopping trip for just two of us. That's for a week to a week and a half of groceries.

    We do buy more processed stuff than we should, and a lot of produce, and I don't really pay attention to prices but this seems to be a big discrepancy… Sounds like I should be paying more attention. 🙁 I just figured it was normal with the way prices have gone up so much lately.

    • HeatherSolos on November 4, 2010 at 9:24 pm

      Christy, the plans are just for food.
      If you live in a city, things will be higher and some grocery stores are just higher as well. Take a peek at this post and see if it gives you any ideas:
      Also keep track of how much food you end up throwing out.

      • Tracy Mayor on November 4, 2010 at 11:09 pm

        Just need to second that New England prices must be higher, because I shop and cook for four (you'd have to count them as adults because teenagers eat *more* than adults) and our outlay is higher than what else I'm seeing here, and that's with buying almost no processed or pre-packaged foods, plus belonging to a CSA. We do buy fish twice a week, even in NE it's expensive, $12-$15 to feed the four of us, but worth it healthwise.

        Also agree with poster below that non-food stuff we buy at the grocery store — vitamins, shampoo, laundry deterent — frequently exceeds our output on actual food items.

  23. EV on November 4, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    For our family of four, we manage to eat organically and without wheat (allergies) for under $100 a week. Almost everything is unprocessed. (I think we really save money in that way.) We home school and cooked lunches are prepared at home daily, too. We budget $25 for eating out each week. For the Charleston locals, Sesame Burger in Park Circle has $3.00 burger night on Tuesdays. I'd love to have $170 to spend on food each week. But we would probably just get really fat. Sigh.

    • HeatherSolos on November 4, 2010 at 9:22 pm

      I hear great things about Sesame. We eat almost all of our meals at home and those that we don't fall under entertainment.
      Eh, I doubt you'd get fat, you'd just get to have fancier things. I'd love to head to Whole Foods more often and splurge on fancier items, but I just can't justify it (at this time).

  24. dearmommybrain on November 4, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    I'd have to agree that the "thrifty" budget does seem a little high. We spend about $50/week on groceries and eat lunch out maybe a couple times per week. Certainly not enough to equate to $92.80/week… But for the most part, we don't buy convenience foods. Maybe that's part of it, as Milehimama mentioned? Because I know that we do spend drastically less than some of my local family and friends…

    • HeatherSolos on November 4, 2010 at 9:20 pm

      $50 on how many people?


      • Jen on November 4, 2010 at 9:25 pm

        Just two adults and a toddler…

        • HeatherSolos on November 4, 2010 at 9:26 pm

          Thanks, it adds perspective. 🙂

  25. Alli McFarland Crumley on November 4, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    We live in the South and have recently switched to shopping at Aldi. Because we live further away from stores I have to make sure my time is managed and always have a list to make sure I have what I need. That being said, since just switching to Aldi, I'm happy our budget is below the projected "thrifty" family of 4 budget. It's still higher than what my husband would like, but it's a step in the right direction.

  26. J Wynia on November 4, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    I know it's not confession day here, but I'm embarrassed to say I have no idea how much we spend on food, especially if you count takeout and eating out (which I *am* certain are WAY too high). Since it says "at home", I have to wonder how many meals at home are factored into these numbers.

    For instance, I don't eat breakfast or lunch at home M-F, and we eat out every Saturday night. My lunches are usually $7-10, making just my lunch budget exceed the "thrifty" category. But, only one meal a day at home M-F means I don't spend all that much for those days as far as "at home" food, but am really spending a lot on food in general for the day.

    When I was growing up, and working on the farm in the summer, we all ate all 3 meals at home, every day. That's a LOT more meals to be factored into a number than what I currently do.

  27. Jean on November 4, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    $164 "thrifty" for our family of six. If I had that actual cash to spend on our weekly food I'd be able to do awesome. In reality it's more like $60 – $80/week, max. Last two weeks have been budget-light.

    • Jean on November 4, 2010 at 3:06 pm

      Yes I am replying to myself. Because I like to scare myself I put them all as teenagers, living at home. $215, weekly. We're all learning how to garden and very seriously looking into a cow and a pig, the end.

      • HeatherSolos on November 4, 2010 at 9:19 pm

        Do you find gardening to be cost effective? I ask this in all seriousness.
        I hear people recommend it, but even my small attempts haven't been exactly cheap. Then again, I haven't broken it down into a per serving cost, either.

        • Jean on November 4, 2010 at 9:34 pm

          I will report back next summer. I'm considering square foot gardening for ease, but that won't be cost effective. We have plenty of land and compost so if we just tilled and planted, using rain barrel water to water it, it'd likely be cost effective. More so if I can figure out how to save seeds. We're also planning some blueberry bushes and fruit trees which should be cost effective over time. Preserving the loot is what will be most costly for us I think.

          And pigs are only supposed to take 2-3 seasons to get to butchering size and will eat our scraps as well as eat off our land. They're only supposed to need a very cheap lean-to shelter. I'm told it's the best meat animal in terms of cost. Butchering will be the most of it sine DH can't/won't.

          The goat milk is likely NOT cost effective… but they're treated more as pets.

  28. Milehimama on November 4, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    I've used that tool before but I don't think it's accurate at all. Or maybe it is accurate for people who buy very processed foods (i.e., Easy Mac in individual containers, the prepacked bowls of cereal, individually packaged yogurt drinks, etc.) Our "thrifty" is $1200 a month – and a year ago when we went on food stamps that is, indeed, what we were alloted. Crazy! I never spent that much in a single month – and I buy organic fruits and veggies, antibiotic and hormone free dairy and eggs, and grass fed meat. We spend about $700 a month on food (not counting eating out – that comes out of our entertainment budget.)

    • HeatherSolos on November 4, 2010 at 2:52 pm

      I believe I'd place you in a special category. You're practically a professional menu planner. You have dedicated a lot of time and energy into learning how to get the best deals for your food budget. This is something you should be proud of, but judging from the emails I receive I would bet you are an exception to the rule.

      Your being an exception instead of the norm are part of why I started Home Ec 101 in the first place. I'm working on providing an education that most of us either didn't get or were too busy (or stubborn) to pay attention to when they were presented.

      You do an amazing job caring for your family.

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