By the Numbers: The Average Cost of Food Per Month

November 19, 2009 at 5:46 pm Leave a comment

I’ve been wondering recently about how my family’s monthly food bills compare to everyone else’s. Am I spending too much? Am I too frugal? What guidelines are at there to help me budget each month? While there are numerous budgeting books and websites that provide advice, I’ve found that it’s pretty inconsistent, so I thought I’d turn to hard national data to see what it has to say. The numbers were interesting and a bit surprising.

We’re Not a Small Country but Our Incomes Feel Small

Before digging into what we spend on groceries, I thought it might be useful to find out more about our population, family size, and income. The latest census (from 1999) says this about the nation as a whole

  • Total Population of the US = 281 million – there are a lot of us in the country these days
  • Population under the age of 18 = 60 million – 20% of us are under 18
  • Average Family Size = 3.14 – most families have at least one dependant, regardless of age
  • Average Household Size = 2.59 – not everyone in our families lives at home but we don’t generally live alone
  • Median Family Income (for those making more than $25k per year) = $67K per year – we have to find smart ways to make the most of our budgets to stretch this around the household

Our Food Bills Aren’t Small

Next, I wondered, in general, how we spend our money on food. I know it’s a big expense in my household. The latest study from the USDA (which was published in2003-2004 but doesn’t change too much from year to year) says:

  • Average food spending per person, per year = $2,207.
    • $1,347 is spent on groceries
    • $860 is spent eating out

With a bit of help from a calculator and working with the 2.59 people per household number from the census, this means we spend our food money this way:

  • Total household spend per month = $476
    • Total grocery spend per month = $290
    • Total cost of eating out per month = $185

Even with this information to work with, I felt like the numbers weren’t quite real, because really, whose household has 2.59 people in it? Granted, on some days my brain only functions about half way, but I don’t think that impacts how much my family spends on groceries or eating out. If I’m a little more specific to real family sizes, the math looks like this:

  • A family of 4 spends $735 per month on food
  • A family of 6 spends $1103 per month on food

Also, somewhere I know I saw an article that says that we go to the grocery store about 1.9 times per week. I of course can’t find it, but if I do, I’ll share the source. I wonder if we went to the store fewer times if our grocery bills would go down.

So What Does This Mean to Me?

So I’ll admit that this data was somewhat helpful, but it didn’t really tell me how to budget for my family’s food. After all, grocery prices are different around the country and my budget sometimes changes from month-to-month depending on pesky things like washing machine repair or back to school shopping. This Boston Globe article on how hard it is to nail down how much a family should spend on groceries each month made me feel better. In a nutshell, the article affirms that it’s hard to estimate how much we spend on food, but it’s probably somewhere between 9 and 13 percent of our incomes. Also, we can range in shopping style from “thrifty” to “liberal” (as defined by the USDA) and liberal shoppers can spend almost twice as much as thrifty shoppers, so individual shopping habits are a big factor as well.

The reality is we all have to make the most of the budget we have. So while I’m not going to go crazy trying to match my family’s food spending to a nation al average, I do think it is worth it to keep track generally of how much I spend on groceries and eating out. There are opportunities to not only save a few dollars here and there, but also to improve the quality of what my family eats if I can have a better handle on where my money is going.

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Entry filed under: Food Costs and Budgeting.

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