Groceries: How Much Should You Spend?

Is coming up with a consistent monthly food budget making you crazy? Or guilty? Or hungry? Jane DeLaney, the founder of E-Mealz, puts things in perspective by sharing her experience with creating a food budget. Read Jane’s strategies to adopt, and some she encourages us to drop.

I am often asked how much I spend on groceries each month. As you can imagine, my food budget has changed over the years. But one thing that remains the same and that I know to be true, is if I don’t set a fixed—and I mean fixed—amount on groceries, my food spending will quickly evaporate into a black hole.

It’s suggested that families with an annual income range of $50,000 to $90,000 budget 11 to 14 percent of their after-tax and tithe income on groceries. For example, a family of four to six with an annual income of $75,000 would budget $500 per month on groceries. In today’s economy that seems nearly impossible, but it can be done.

Perhaps you’re wondering whether the average family can spend even less than $500 a month on groceries. My answer is absolutely. In fact, I’ve pulled off dinners on many occasions that cost only $4 to $5. And that’s feeding my family of six, which includes four teenagers. What those $4 dinners did require was a lot of time and effort with couponing, rock bottom prices, meat markdowns and free produce from my neighbor.

I am always striving to make dinner as cheap as humanly possible. But consistently saving money at the grocery store isn’t about the coupons, free produce or special sales—what I call “props and variables.” Those things can be time consuming and are not always at my fingertips each week.

What I came to realize was that counting on these variables each week turned dinner into an inconsistent “hit or miss” approach, which left gaps. This set me up for “the five o’clock stare” into my cupboard, which then led to a last minute grocery run or the fast-food money pit. And we all know that a single fast-food bombshell can cancel out all the savings from couponing that week.

So, what’s the answer? Menu planning.

As my family grew and I went back to work, time became critical. This forced me to think realistically instead of idealistically. Dinner had to appear every night, come rain or shine, dirt cheap or not. I finally accepted that the best tool I had in my grocery saving arsenal was not my file cabinet of coupons or cupboard full of bargains. Rather, it was consistent, realistic, practical dinner planning.

Meal planning allowed me to stay within a “fixed” grocery budget. Using recipes that were already budget-friendly and then building a menu based on the weekly grocery store sale flyer, were two variables that could consistently translate into a working, frugal menu from week to week. If I had extra time in a given week, I could dig in deeper for further savings with coupons, bargain hunting and stockpiling. But it wasn’t required.

So, what is a realistic amount to budget for the cost of one family dinner? At E-Mealz we believe that a do-able, projected amount that can feed a family of four to six is approximately $11 to $12 per dinner. That’s $360 for an entire month of dinner groceries. The amount is based on today’s current grocery prices and frequent sale prices. And of course, a very young family or couple will be able to save more money on a weekly basis.

If you have never created and followed a dinner plan from week to week, I encourage you to take on the challenge to try it for just one week. Having a dinner plan translates into a grocery-spending plan that is key to making your overall budget consistent and fixed.

You’ll gain family time, sanity and control of your food spending. With this realistic and predictable approach, your very own dinner table becomes a money saving tool waiting to happen!

This Everyday Cheapskate column was printed in its entirety with the permission of Mary Hunt and DPL Press, Inc. 2011. To sign up for this free daily column, go to is a simple system that saves your brain and your budget by eliminating the time-consuming hassle from dinner menu planning, recipe searching and grocery budgeting. For more information, go to

For more information about financial counseling services at The Village Family Service Center, call 1-800-450-4019 or go to