Food Spending – What should a family spend on food??

Contents of imperfect food box
My haul from this week’s Imperfect Foods delivery. I could not figure out what was imperfect about it.

Time to define budget goals for 2020! Food is where I decided to start. We all eat, right?

Fortunately, I have tracked my spending for years, so I know exactly what I historically spend on groceries, take out and restaurant food. However, while I watch for sales, stock up and use coupons, I haven’t seriously restricted my spending on food, I monitor, but I don’t moderate food spending, because I’ve been lucky to have flexibility.

Now, however, I’m retired and I want my money to last a long time (because I am going to live past 100, right?). My budget is going through a complete overhaul this year as I adjust to my new “paycheck”. I’ll review my process here on the blog as I go along. For starters, I am beginning with a deep analysis of food spending.

What do other people spend on food?

While food is essential, what we eat and where we buy it is variable. Fortunately the USDA provides some very useful data if you want to compare your expenses with averages spent across the US. Specifically, they provide very granular numbers each month and divide it by age as well as budget level (thrifty, low-cost, moderate-cost and liberal). Not sure why the word “liberal” is associated with the high-cost plan, but hey, call me liberal.

My current living-at-home family make up is 1 adult male and 3 adult females, (one over 50) or me, one son and 2 daughters. We are all omnivores except one person who does not eat meat.

Therefore, based on the USDA data, our average monthly food expenditure for the last year is just under the monthly average for the high cost or “liberal” plan. I spent $1321/month on groceries and the average high-cost plan for my family make-up is $1332.30. That said, since my groceries spend is lumped with nonfood household supplies such as paper goods, and cleaning/laundry supplies our real food spend is a little less. (I’ll cover eating out in another post)

Average monthly food at home expenditure in dollars, USDA data from November 2019

Age in years-gender Thrifty PlanLow-cost PlanModerate-cost PlanHigh-cost plan
1 94.60127.20144.70175.70

We live in California and I was curious if there is a premium or discount for living in this state. Fortunately, food here is not taxed, so that’s good. Unfortunately though, as of 2017 thirteen states still tax food – ouch.

MIT provides a very useful living wage calculator and it states, for an adult in California a person should expect to spend $3,573/year or $297.75/month on food. Multiplied by four for my household size, the Living Wage Calculator suggests $1,191/month is an appropriate amount to budget. This is 10% below my actual spend, and in between the moderate- and high-cost plans.

Therefore, based on this evaluation, I am going to set my initial goal for the first quarter of 2020 to reduce food spending by 10%. That is closer to the moderate-cost USDA plan of 1067.20/month. I’ll reevaluate and post my results sometime in April.

In the meantime…

How to decrease grocery spending?

contents of imperfect food box

Buy Imperfect Food. I just signed up for a program that delivers food deemed imperfect and thus unsellable by traditional grocers. I get a box every Tues. As an example, here is a photo of what I received in my first box. I added items on to the generic medium sized box so my total was 32.79 plus 4.99 for delivery.

Comparing prices for similar items from Ralph’s, the grocery store where I do most of my shopping, the Ralph’s prices were higher across the board. From my first analysis, even with the delivery cost, I will save money. I can customize my box each week, eliminating items (Hear this -NO KALE FOR ME!!!!) and adding additional items. I’ll keep you posted.

Eliminate Waste.

According to the USDA Americans waste 40% of their food. I am not sure my family wastes quite that much because I have never measured, but we do waste food. I toss out uneaten leftovers and fruit on a weekly basis. Other sources suggest a family of four throws away $1500 of food every year. Is zero waste a practical goal? That may be unattainable, but I am going to start by setting a goal to monitor food waste and keep it low. I found a helpful food waste tracker and instructions at the EPA’s food waste site. I am curious–and a scientist–so time to collect some data!

Shop more often, buy less

More articles are stating it saves money to take more frequent grocery store trips and buy less in bulk. But bulk shopping feels more efficient as does weekly shopping. I need some real data to decide if I believe this advice.

Even though we spend on the high side, I do consider myself a serious grocery shopper because, I know what items costs (I would so win on Price is Right), watch for deals and use coupons. Unfortunately, it typically takes me 3 hours to make my list, shop 2-3 stores and get home/unload, stash and stow. At minimum. And I don’t want to do it any more; I have grown to hate grocery shopping.

Consequently, instead of my weekly half day adventure, I am going to try heading to the store every couple of days. I’ll go to one store based on where the best deals for the week are, stock up when it makes sense (peanut butter, for example, is never wasted here), and reassess after 3 months. I am looking for changes in how much I spend, the actual time spent shopping, and the amount of waste, in addition to any changes in perceived quality of life.


I have always been a meal planner – or at least, for decades. When my children were younger I would plan a year of meals – and the system worked. Recently, I moved to planning meals between shopping trips. Now though, with my new shopping system, I am going to start with my Imperfect Food box and figure out what to make on a short term basis, every 1-2 days.

I am usually out each day and can quickly stop at the store to get what we need. Ultimately, if I can carry it into the house in one trip that will feel like success. Finally, the NRDC has a very nice, user friendly site to access a free meal planning system. I’ll be trying it out.

Imperfect food box lable

Ultimately, I hope I can report back substantial savings to my food spending, and even more, my food waste. Maybe accountability to my readers will help. Are you setting any budget or food-related goals this year? The first step is tracking what you currently spend on food. Good luck.

Quote on imperfect food box "whoever said that one person couldn't make a difference in the fight against food waste

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