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Reader Email: What is a Good Food Budget?

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[Editor's Note: Sorry for the lack of posts of late. I'm moving this week and traveling the next. In the mean time Cox Communications seems to be completely inept at setting up an Internet connection. Hopefully with the travel, I'll have better access to Internet than I do now.]

A regular reader, Mike sent me the following email:

Subject: Question for your readers

Body: My wife and I live by ourselves. Our largest monthly expenses are her student loans, the mortgage, and then food. Are we spending too much on food? We average about $200/mo on sit down restaurants, $200/mo on fast food, and about $150/mo on groceries. This comes to about $9-10 per person/day. Too much? Tips to save?

I like how Mike is focusing on the biggest expenses and looking to bring them down. It's much better than attacking the small things (though the small things can add up to be equal or more than the top big expense).

People typically spend a good amount on food, especially eating out. The USDA has some guidelines on how much people spend on groceries. Using the most recent data, a typical couple in the 19-50 range (a typical Lazy Man reader) would spend between $87.30 and $111.50 a week on thrifty or low-cost plans. I'm going to presume that the typical Lazy Man reader is going to be skewed to the more frugal options since we tend to be more mindful with our spending. The average of the thrifty and low-cost plans comes to about $100 a week for a couple or a little more than $14 a day. Per person this works out to be $7. Mike's $9-10 per person estimate for all food (groceries & restaurants) comes in at around $136 per week which puts him almost exactly at the USDA's moderate cost number of $138.70. Since the USDA's number is about groceries only Mike appears to be doing great overall.

As for tips to save, I've got some Amex Blue Cash will put 3-6% back in your pocket on groceries. Unfortunately, Mike emailed me back to say that his grocery store doesn't take credit cards (imagine that!). All is not lost though, he can use a debit card that can earn up to 2% back from Perkstreet.

As for restaurants, Mint has some good ways to track spending. (Side Note: It's been too long since I've checked out their tools myself. That's going on my to-do list.) It looks like Mike has already done the math to compile the $400/mo. number (I'm combining fast food and sit down restaurants). I don't have comparison numbers for restaurants, but sit-down restaurants would be the place to focus on saving money. The cost per meal at one can be ten times what you can make at home. I have my own set of tips for save money at restaurants. One can consider eating out at a sit-down restaurant as entertainment too as the ambiance typically plays a role in the value.

Fast food restaurants can be cheap if you make the most out of value menus, but they typically don't win any awards for great nutrition. From a cost perspective, a dollar McDouble is a pretty frugal meal... four of them a day (around 1500 calories) would set you back $120 a month, which is a pretty low food budget. I'm not recommending that, we say how that worked out for Morgan Spurlock in Super-Size Me, but the numbers illustrate how an occasional fast food trip can fit a frugal budget.

It's hard to put a strict "you should spend $X amount on food" guideline in place. Geographic region, diet requirements (some people choose to pay more for organic), and other factors (time to clip coupons) can move your food budget in either direction. This is why I would focus on making sure that my spending is in a fiscally responsible range. Some of the tools I mentioned above can help provide a sanity check to make sure they are fiscally responsible.

Getting back to the subject of Mike's email. He wanted to put the question to the readers. So now it is your turn to give feedback. I'm particularly interested if someone can find some food spending to income ratio numbers. That strikes me as a valuable piece of the puzzle.

If you have a personal finance question contact me and perhaps you can be featured in a future Lazy Man and Money article. And don't be shy, we'll keep things anonymous.

Posted on February 27, 2013.

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13 Responses to “Reader Email: What is a Good Food Budget?”

  1. You’re spending $550 per month on food. I think that this is pretty excessive given the quality of what you’re eating.

    I’m a single guy and I spend about $300-350/month. I cook all my own food and I am by no means a frugal cook (cooking is a big hobby of mine). I use a lot gourmet ingredients and I cook with a lot of meat (meat is very expensive). I can easily knock $100/month off of that bill if I gourmet to normal. I could reduce it even more if I made large batches of food and saved the leftovers instead of making every meal fresh.

    I think you could easily knock your food budget down to $400 a month, and would be eating a lot more healthy food, if you cooked more.

    I don’t know how much free time you have, so I can’t say how feasible that is.

  2. Mike Z says:

    I actually signed up for Mint and that’s what got me thinking about my food expenses – it’s the largest expense I have that can be controlled (somewhat). The Perkstreet debit card – EXCELLENT idea for grocery stores that do not accept credit cards.

    Also, just to clarify, the $550/month number is for my wife and I combined – or $275 per person/month. The two reasons we eat out so often are convenience and cost. It costs us $5-10 for a meal at Taco Bell vs. $30+ to make tacos at home. The large reason why making our own food is so much more expensive is because you need to buy minimum quantities at the grocery store, so we either end up eating more than we should or it spoils. We do not own a large freezer, as it would push up our monthly utility costs. Maybe a future blog topic would be to compare the cost of a freezer and the electricity to run it vs. the savings from freezing foods…it would also have to take into account things like freezer burn.

    From a fast food perspective, the Wendy’s Chili is probably the best thing a frugal person can buy in terms of taste, nutrition, and cost. They will even add onions to it for free, if you ask. I got the idea from Mark Sisson here:


    As I just learned yesterday, the unlimited soup, salad, and bread sticks during lunch at Olive Garden may be the best sit down restaurant option at $7/person – sleep in on a Saturday and skip breakfast, eat a late lunch at OG (and eat a lot to fill yourself up), and then have a very light snack for dinner.

  3. Cathie says:

    We spend between 350-400 (I have $400 budgeted) for food each month, for a family of three. We don’t eat a lot of meat (one vegetarian and two who can take it or leave it) and we eat mostly organic. I bake a lot. We eat out maybe once a month, and order pizza between 2 – 4 times a month.

  4. Mike Z says:

    Cathie – that’s very good. Could you share how you keep the costs so low? What does a typical day look like on your household menu? Any tips to keep the spending so low (besides not eating out much)?

  5. robyn says:

    you don’t need a freezer but you DO need a good sized fridge and a pantry. i live in an apartment with my BF, my adult daughter and her BF [don’t ask!]i have a small fridge and a large pantry for dry goods. we eat breakfast and dinner home, bring leftovers to work most days [i take bulk salad, leave it in the fridge at work for the week] my daughter is a trained chef, my BF and i love to cook and we love to cook in bulk. i make a lot of stews soups and ethnic food, bring about half over to my ex and my 2 younger kids [age 20 and 12], can’t store it here, no room. anyway, between my household and my ex [since i DO cook for 2 households] a total of 6 adults and 1 kid we spend about 1000 a month on food or about 150/month each. not sure about eating out for my daughter, but my BF,my ex, my 2 younger kids and i average a TOTAL of 200/month. how? coupons at the fast food, special nights at the local diner, groupon or living social for restaurant meals. BOGO at my favorite supermarket for dry, frozen or canned goods; going to a different store each week depending on the sales [and i ONLY shop once a week] i seldom do coupons too much trouble but BOGOs are great! one other things: we are generous tippers. just because i pay half price at a restaurant i tip on the full retail.

  6. robyn says:

    one other thing: always balance your time against the money you might save. the pleasure of coffee and a bagel at a diner is worth more than the $3 or so it costs. you might want to trade your fast food for more home or nice meals. the GOOD burger joint here costs the same as mcdonalds but is 100X better. consider not only the absolute dollars but the distribution.

  7. Cassi says:

    I’m actually doing a unit in school right now to find out how much money I should be spending when I’m out of college and living off of a meal plan. These links are very helpful. Thanks!

  8. Melissa says:

    We average $200 a week for our family of 5. We eat almost all organic produce and grass fed meat. We never go out to eat, so all our food is cooked at home.

  9. […] Man @ Lazy Man and Money writes Reader Email: What Is a Good Food Budget? – People typically spend a good amount on food, especially eating out. The USDA has some guidelines […]

  10. […] Man @ Lazy Man and Money writes Reader Email: What Is a Good Food Budget? – People typically spend a good amount on food, especially eating out. The USDA has some […]

  11. $550/month on food? I feed my family of four for about $500 a month, and I consider that to be pretty generous! I think the amount being spent on fast food is really jaw-dropping, not just from a personal finance point of view, but from a health one, too!

  12. […] Man @ Lazy Man and Money writes Reader Email: What Is a Good Food Budget? – People typically spend a good amount on food, especially eating out. The USDA has some […]

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