By Tony Azzara | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor
7 Min Read | May 11, 2020 in Money
Based on nutritional guidelines and cost analysis provided by the USDA, people can get a nutritious diet by spending as little as $200 per month on groceries.
Depending on how much you earn, what people actually spend on all food (groceries and dining out) ranges from about 10-16% of your income, according to government research.
You can build your own grocery spending budget to get good nutrition for any size family by using the USDA guidelines and cost analysis.
If you’re like me, the first time you figured out a food budget … well, you didn’t. You bought what you were hungry for. If you’re really like me, when the credit card statement arrived you were surprised by how much you spent on food without thinking about it. So, I set out to learn how much I should spend on groceries.
Luckily, federal government agencies publish very detailed, up-to-date reports on how much people should spend on groceries, and how much they do:
Looking at the two reports together—and comparing that to my own spending on groceries—offers some interesting insights. It may also help you zero in on the right budget for your own grocery spending.
According to the USDA, a single man living alone could spend as little as $223 per month for groceries on its “Thrifty” food plan, and still get all the nutrition needed for a healthy diet. A single woman living alone would need to spend $198 on groceries for good nutrition. All four USDA plans define different nutritional needs for men and women of different ages (these figures are for 19-to-50-year-olds), and assume you spend only on groceries to prepare all your own meals—no eating out. Table 1 shows how much you should spend on any of the four USDA plans, which assume the more you earn the more you’ll spend on groceries.
Table 1: How Much Single People Should Spend on Groceries
What do single people actually spend on groceries? According to the BLS survey, the average single person (including men and women) spent $4,436 on food in 2018, or roughly $370 per month. But since the BLS report reflects the real world, and real people eat out at restaurants at least some of the time, only 55% of that—about $202 per month—was spent on groceries to prepare food at home. The rest, $168 per month, was spent on food “away from home.” Don’t forget, that’s an average for all single people—whose average income in the survey was roughly $36,0003—but higher earners spend more and lower earners spend less on groceries. In general, households spend between 10% (for households that make $200,000 or more a year) and 16% (for households that make less than $15,000 a year) of their annual income for groceries and dining out, combined.4
The old saying that, “Two can live as cheaply as one,” may still be true, but the data proves that two do not eat as cheaply as one! Table 2 shows the USDA’s expected spend on groceries for couples following its four food plans, starting at $386 for couples on the Thrifty plan and nearly doubling to $767 for those following the liberal plan.
Table 2: How Much Couples Should Spend on Groceries
What do couples actually spend on groceries? The BLS report, which averages together all couples without regard to genders, shows they spent $8,226 on groceries in 2018, which works out to about $686 per month. Fifty-six percent of that was for food prepared at home, which translates into average monthly spending by couples of $382 on groceries and $302 (44%) on dining out.
This is where I can weigh in. Over a month, my partner and I collected statements and receipts, including for food in and away from home (we happen to be a 19-to-50-year-old, boy-girl couple—still closer to 19 than 50!). We made meal plans for two-weeks at a time, and cooked healthy food, often in large-batches, mostly on the weekend (and then re-heating them during the week). Coming by time to prepare meals was the most difficult part of the exercise.
Our spending on groceries and dining out for the month landed close to, but a little above, the USDA’s Low-Cost spending plan. For me, the most valuable part of the experience was how it made the plans very real—a person, couple, or family really could use these plans as guides to good nutrition at a reasonable cost.
All of which brings us to what families spend on groceries. Table 3 shows how much the USDA expects a family of four should spend on groceries every month, depending on the age of the children and the cost level of the plan.
Table 3: How Much a Family of 4 Should Spend on Groceries
|Food Plan||With 2 children, 5 or younger||With 2 children, 6 to 11|
What do families actually spend on groceries? The way BLS presents households in its report, I couldn’t find a perfect match for the USDA’s families. For example, it has data on households of “four people” could represent anything from college roommates to aging Baby Boomers living with their 90-year-old parents. Table 4 shows a few different ways to look at the BLS survey to see how much different families/households spend on groceries.
Table 4: What Different Households Spend on Groceries, 2018 Averages
|Household||Monthly Grocery Spend||Monthly Dining Out||Monthly Food Total||Full Year Food Total|
|Any 4 people||$511||$398||$909||$10,899|
|Married couple, oldest child under 6||$456||$336||$792||$9,502|
|Married couple, oldest child 6 to 17||$552||$449||$1,001||$12,013|
|Married couple, oldest child 18+||$576||$403||$979||$11,752|
Regarding nutrition: As I said above, the amount of food different people need to eat, and the amount they should eat from each food group, varies between men and women, young and old, active and sedentary, and many other factors, all of which are explained on the USDA’s ChooseMyPlate website.5 The website illustrates dietary requirements and servings organized by food group, age, and gender. For example, it notes that people who do more than 30 minutes of exercise beyond “normal daily activities” usually require more food. The food groups (fruit, vegetable, grain, proteins, oils, and dairy) are laid out in easy-to-digest charts.
Finally, there’s ample research that shows eating home-cooked food regularly leads to living happier and healthier, and can result in higher energy and even better mental health. Eating home-cooked meals is even associated with longer life.6 My partner and I enjoy the cooking time—it’s a great activity to bring households together. We consider each recipe a new adventure.
But despite doing our best to maximize the efficiency of our food budget (and maybe even our physical and mental health) by eating as many home-cooked meals as possible, we still set aside money for food outside the house. That way, we get to experience new foods that we may want to recreate at home. And besides, if/when we burn things (when learning, you may burn a few things) we can then guiltlessly, as a back-up plan, go or order out (as long as it’s represented in our food budget). We also like to pay with a cash back credit card that gives high rewards, which helps to stretch our budget a few percentage points further.
People of different family sizes and income levels all spend differently on groceries, but the spending information in this article can help you zero in on how much is right for you, or your family. By examining the USDA and BLS sources for this article, you can do a deeper dive into healthy meal planning—and what it should cost!
1 “Official USDA Food Plans: Cost of Food at Home at Four Levels, U.S. Average, November 2019,” U.S. Department of Agriculture
2 “Consumer Expenditures - 2018,” U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics
3 “Table 1400. Size of consumer unit: Annual expenditure means, shares, standard errors, and coefficients of variation, Consumer Expenditure Survey, 2018,” U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics
4 “Table 1203. Income before taxes: Annual expenditure means, shares, standard errors, and coefficients of variation, Consumer Expenditure Survey, 2018,” U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics
5 “What is MyPlate?,” U.S. Department of Agriculture
6 “Is Cooking At Home Associated With Better Diet Quality or Weight Loss Intention?” The Nutrition Society