We all need to eat. Acquiring food is a common human necessity that drives much of what we do each day. And, unless you grow all of your own food – which is unlikely in the modern world – you will need to buy most or all of what you eat.
But how much should that cost and how much should you be spending on food? It’s easy to feel like your food costs are spiraling out of control, and food spending is sure to make up a significant portion of your monthly budget. Food is never going to be free but thinking carefully about your food costs and making smart decisions can reduce your overall spend each month.
With this article, we’d like to help you understand how much you should be spending on food. Arming yourself with information is the first step toward making better decisions and avoiding waste in the months and years to come. Let’s get started!
How to Budget for Food Costs
Controlling your personal finances is easier when you have – and stick to – a budget. With a target budget in mind for each month, you can guide your spending to reach the end of the month with at least a little bit left over.
Budgeting for things like housing costs is pretty easy, since those are fixed for most people. For instance, you know that your mortgage payment is $1,500, and it doesn’t change. But what about food? Since you can spend a different amount each time you head to the grocery store, this line in your budget is a little harder to predict.
Here are some factors that are going to impact how much you spend each month on food and how to drastically cut expenses. We will dive into these points in greater detail later in the article, but this is a good primer.
Related: Save Money with These Cheap Foods
How Many People Are You Feeding?
Obviously, it is going to cost more money to feed a family of 4 or 5 than it will to feed a single person or even a couple. This will determine how you should budget for food costs.
Where Do You Live?
Groceries in big cities with high living costs are going to be much more expensive than they will be outside the metropolitan area.
How Often Do You Eat Out at Restaurant?
This should go without saying but feeding yourself or your family at a restaurant costs much more than it does to cook your own food and eat at home.
Do You Have Any Food and Nutritional Preferences or Needs?
You need to think about the specific foods that you like to eat. Natural foods like fruits and veggies can be more affordable (depending on what you are buying) than prepackaged foods that have a bigger markup.
Perhaps the best way to start estimating your food costs is to look through your records to see how much you have spent on food in recent months. Access your bank account online and go through all of the transactions for the last full month. Add up everything that was a food cost and see where you land. This is a good starting point, and you can work from there to make improvements, if necessary.
Average Cost of Groceries per Month for 1 Person
If you live alone, buying food can be tricky. Often, food products are packaged in such a way that you get a discount when you buy more – but you might not be able to use all that food before it goes bad. Making strategic use of your freezer can certainly help, but there are some things that you just can’t freeze.
As a general guideline, you can expect to spend $200 – $300 per month on food as a single person. That is a framework for what you can budget for food costs, but it is not a hard and fast rule. If you eat out multiple times per day, for example, you are sure to exceed that $300 number. At the same time, if you never eat at restaurants and you are careful with what you buy at the grocery store, it’s possible to come in under $200.
Average Cost of Groceries per Month for 2 People
Things get a little easier, but a little more expensive, when you are shopping for two people. You might think that you could just double the numbers from above, but that’s not necessarily the case. You should be able to use your groceries a little more efficiently when you have two people eating, and as a result, you should save a little bit of money on a tight budget.
So, you might be able to target costs of around $350 – $500 for food if you are buying for two. Again, how much you actually spend will depend on your habits, and it will also depend on how well you plan out your meals. If you make it a point to use up your leftovers and cut down on waste as far as possible, you should be able to keep your spending down near the bottom of the range.
Average Cost of Groceries per Month for 4 People
A family of four is likely to include kids, so the math gets a little more complicated here. Kids will typically not eat as much as adults – until they hit their teenage years, of course – but they could also be pickier than the adults in the family. So, you might find yourself buying separate food for the kids than the parents, which will raise your overall costs.
For a starting point, think about budgeting somewhere between $700 – $900 monthly for food when buying for a family of four. Is it possible to eat for less than $700 in this scenario? Absolutely – but you’ll need to be organized and you will want to avoid eating at restaurants as much as possible.
Factors that Affect How Much You Spend on Food
At this point, we’d like to get back to the topic of the factors that influence your food bill. We touched on this near the start of the article, and this important topic deserves a closer look here.
It’s important to consider the factors below because you don’t want to be fighting an unrealistic battle. As you try to pare back your grocery bill, you’ll want to make sure you know what you can change and what you can’t. Some things are out of your control and understanding that will help you make a more practical plan for optimizing your food spending while still enjoying your meals and enjoying life. There are five points listed below and each of them impacts your food costs in one way or another.
Where You Live
This is a big point, but you don’t need to give it much consideration because there isn’t anything you can do about local food costs. Unless you plan to move specifically to find cheaper food, which is unlikely, you’ll just need to deal with the prices at your local grocery stores and restaurants. Of course, it’s always smart to shop around, as you might be able to find a grocery store in the area that offers slightly better prices than the others. In fact, if you live in the middle of a big city, you could look into driving out into the suburbs for your groceries. The time and gas money you spend on the trip might be more than offset by your food bill savings.
If you live in the UK, check out some of these supermarket price comparison sites to save money.
Related: Cheapest Way to Live in 2021
Your Dining Habits
Most people eat three meals a day, plus a snack or two. For the sake of this article, let’s imagine that you fall into the eating patterns of most other people. Where do you get those three meals? Do you cook all of them, or is at least one meal per day acquired from a restaurant? Without a doubt, the biggest variable in your food cost equation is the matter of who is preparing your food.
If you would like to work on cooking more of your own food and eating out at restaurants less, keep this in mind – eating at a restaurant will roughly double the cost of your food. So, if you eat a meal that cost you $20 to purchase, you probably could have cooked the same thing at home for about $10. This equation is not perfect, of course, but it is a good rough estimate that helps you understand just how expensive it is to eat at restaurants.
What Foods You Like to Eat
Spend a little bit of time exploring your local grocery store and you will quickly see just how widely the cost of food can vary. Even if you are making the exact same dish, you could spend radically different amounts depending on the brands and types of ingredients that you buy. So, if you have high-end tastes and only like to purchase great cuts of meat and organic veggies, you’ll pay more for those luxuries.
As you think about your food budget, it’s worthwhile to review some of your buying habits to see where things can be improved. You might be able to substitute some of the things you regularly buy for some less-expensive alternatives without noticing much of a difference. Of course, if a costlier option like eating organic food is important to you that’s fine, just understand what it will mean to the cost of your groceries each month and factor that into your budget.
The Beverage Factor
We can’t go through this article without touching on the important role that beverages play in how much you spend each month. Drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, can quickly send your budget out of control in this area of life. That’s not to say that you can only drink water with every meal, but think closely about how much you are spending on beverages and don’t forget to consider that as part of your food costs.
If you are trying to cut back on spending, looking at drinks is a great way to do just that. Instead of having a beverage with dinner every night of the week, consider leaving those occasions for the weekend and just having water with those weeknight meals. Believe it or not, just making that kind of simple substitution could save you $100 a month or more, depending on what you are drinking.
Your Individual Needs
The last point we want to make in this section relates to what you need as an individual. Simply put, bigger people need more calories, so you will want to keep that variable in mind, as well. A person who weighs 120 pounds is not going to eat as much as a person who weighs 220 pounds, even if both are in good physical condition.
How to Save Money on Food Costs and Groceries
Below are some of my favorite ways to save money on your next trip to the grocery.
While couponing can seem like a waste of time, you can actually save some serious money. Some families are capable of saving more than 60% off of their grocery bill with many items being almost free.
But you don't need to take it to the extreme. Even doing some basic couponing, you can save anywhere from 10% to over 25% off your food costs.
As a bonus, the days of needing a pair of scissors are over. Many coupons can be found online and used digitally at the grocery store saving you time and money.
Only Purchase Foods You Consume Regularly
One of the biggest food costs is waste. The USDA estimates that between 30% and 40% of food is wasted every year in America. This can easily be reduced by planning and purchasing foods with multiple uses.
Start by planning out your meals for the week so that you can cut down on food waste. Once you've made these purchases, ensure that you use the majority of your food or freeze the rest so it can be used at a later time.
Final Thoughts on How Much You Should Be Spending on Food
The amount of money you need to allocate for food each month is likely to be a moving target. You might even find that your eating habits – and your budget – fluctuate throughout the year based on what you are doing and where you are going.
If you are busier during the summer while the weather is nice, you may eat at more restaurants and spend more as a result.
It’s important to take away from this article the lesson that you should be closely monitoring how much you spend on food. You aren’t going to eliminate this line from your monthly budget, but there is likely room to improve if you tighten up a few things and take a closer look at what you are buying and why.
As some motivation, consider this math – if you currently spend $1,000 per month on food, that’s $12,000 per year. Trimming your bill by just 10% would allow you to save $1,200 over the course of the year, which is a significant amount of money for most people. So, take some time to dig into your good budget and look for opportunities to save.