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Food Cost Calculator: How I Calculate What Our Average Monthly Food Cost Should Be

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This is a guest post by Todd Ryan who blogs at So Help Me Todd where he talks about faith, family, finances, and other quandaries.

When I first started trying to improve my financial situation, I went through a series of phases:

Denial

I didn’t think I had that much to learn. I mean, I was already balancing my checkbook and reviewing my statement each month, and I could tell you about what I was spending as I knew how little much we had left over each month. We weren’t doing anything wrong, we just needed more money and then we’d be fine.

But, I didn’t think it could hurt to at least read a book and make sure.

Shock and awe

One of the first things any personal finance book will tell you is that you have to start recording every purchase you make and associating it with a category. Cash, check, credit card, everything gets recorded.

After a week or so of recording everything, you’re told to go back and add up what you spent in every category. So I complied and dutifully went about adding up each category, thinking that it shouldn’t take too long to find that you can’t get blood from a turnip…

Anger

Holy (insert family friendly expletive here)!

I spent how much on work lunches?

Why do groceries cost that much?

I could buy a coffee maker every month and STILL spend less on coffee!

“This is crazy!” I said and quickly set out to see how we could reduce our spending.

On a mission

Suddenly, I became Ima Schwartzasaver, the Terminator.

And every category suddenly read “Sara O’Connor” in big bold letters.

“Are you Sara O’Connor?” I said to the cable bill.

“Yes”, replied Ms. Sara Cable Bill O’Connor nervously.

Well, I’m fixin’ to terminate you.

(gratuituous violence scene)

Repeat. Lather. Rinse.

Closing in on total annihilation

After surveying the trail of “reckless spending” carcasses in my wake, my eye caught one of the behemoths of my budget.

(queue the suspenseful music, preferably something from “300“)

Groceries.

(Hopefully when you read that word, in your mind it sounded like the guy who does the movie trailers for the summer blockbusters)

That one should be easy to cut, especially after all the stories I heard about couponing. Heck, I’m such a bad dude I bet extreme couponing would be more my style.

And off I went.

I did the research.

Read the forums.

Got the book from the library (Did I mention I’m frugal?).

Watched the show.

And so, a couple of weeks later I was ready, having laid the foundation:

  • Bought multiple copies of the newspapers for my area, and filed the coupons by coupon source and date
  • Saved the coupons in the mail
  • Scavenged coupons left behind by others at restaurants
  • Set aside a storage area for my bounty
  • Registered for all of the in store reward cards
  • Used websites to figure out when my coupons would line up with store sales
  • Compiled a list of which stores I would visit (4 in total), which coupons I would use, and how many different transactions it would take at each store.

Operation “Grocery Store Domination” is a GO!

And it really did work.

I came home that day, exhausted after several hours of shopping and driving between stores, but I had saved over 50% on my grocery bill.

So I gleefully set about unloading the car and marveling at my loot, feeling like the modern-day metro sexual version of a pirate.

The fact that I was the “wench” because I did all the shopping and cooking kind of ruined my fantasy, but I did have a pretty cool parrot.

Anyway, about an hour later I had everything stowed and had bragged about my success to my wife (who actually accompanied me on some of the trips).

Having worked up a big appetite, we were starving, so I casually remarked something about whipping up something that would probably cost us pennies on the dollar.

Off I went to the pantry to see what we had.

Hmm.

20 boxes of cereal.

Nah, not for dinner.

30 boxes of spaghetti.

Rats, the spaghetti sauce was on next week’s attack list so that won’t work.

3 blood sugar test kits.

What the? Oh yeah, that was so I could get that rebate thing that made them free and gave me cash back in the store so that I can……never mind. I can’t eat them anyway.

10 Air fresheners.

Well, that’s good. If I cook something that smells nasty I can overpower it with that fresh pine scent.

10 pounds of chicken breast, boneless / skinless.

NOW we’re talking! I’ve got a bunch of great recipes for those….

(rummage through the recipe box)

Well, I’ve got about a dozen great recipes, but we’re missing at least one ingredient for each of them, which means another trip to the store.

Man down!

So we ordered pizza that night, and I quickly realized that couponing wasn’t going to work for me. It was hard enough (and I failed) coming up with something on a weekend after I had just went shopping, I couldn’t imaging trying to do that after working all day.

So back to the drawing board I went, and I stumbled across a site called emeals (at the time they were E-mealz).

The premise of emeals is that they provide a one week menu for you (they offer menus by store or food type, i.e. low carb, low fat gluten free, etc.) with the shopping list to go along with it.

And, their menus are designed to average (now) around $85 per week to feed a family of 4. For us, the “family of 4” has been very inaccurate in that we’re able to feed a family of 5 (including a teen that wears a size 14 shoe and his younger brother who eats more than he does) to satiety and we have had leftovers every single meal.

They have sample plans available under the “How it works” section on their website if you’d like to see the types of meals they offer. We have a couple of picky eaters and we’ve only found one or two dishes that we didn’t like.

How do I know what my grocery budget should be?

Even after implementing emeals, I still struggled with determining how I was doing in my grocery budget. Most of the personal finance books I’ve read speak in percentages, but those were always way off and didn’t seem to make much sense to me.

How can one percentage work for a retired couple, a house full of teenagers, and a single person?

What if there are special dietary needs that are required medically?

Doesn’t the cost of food change? If this book was written in 1999, are the percentages still accurate?

Get your slide rule out…

And then I discovered the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) website. On their site, they have a document (PDF) that is updated monthly. In that document, they list the average cost of food necessary to eat according to the food pyramid broken out by age, sex, and four different budget levels.

Even though I’m not necessarily a huge fan of the pyramid, that seemed like a reasonable model and the fact that they tied it to the consumer price index made it very factual to me.

So I pulled up the PDF and began to calculate what our average monthly cost should be:

  • Let’s see, I’m a 42 year old male so, let’s start with “Thrifty” (jot that number down) from the “19-50” column.
  • Next, my wife…find her age range….find thrifty….jot that number down
  • (Repeat for the other 3 family members)
  • Cool, here’s my total. Wait…..what’s the text at the bottom?
  • Oh, I need to adjust the total by 5 percent because these figures are based on 4 family members. Makes sense, but a pain in the butt.
  • So there’s my total. Oh. I should probably do the other 3 spending levels as well just so I know them.

Needless to say, this became a lengthy, tedious process that I wasn’t anxious to repeat.

Here he comes to save the day!

Never fear though, dear reader. Not only is this the “Blogging Away Debt” blog, but you happen to be reading the “Blogging Away a Pain in the Butt” guest post.

Luckily for you, I designed and hired someone to code the math behind the table and present in a homely but very efficient and beneficial (not me, the calculator smarty pants) page where all the math is done for you.

All you have to do is select the sex and age range for each family member and press the “Calc” button to see what the average spend in each food category for your family should be.

The table supports up to 10 family members; if you have more than that you already have your own reality show on TLC, so what do you care how much groceries cost? Sheesh…celebrities are so needy.

Anywho, here’s the link to the calculator: Food Costs Calculator (don’t worry, it opens in a separate window)

For us, thanks to emeals, we fall just above the “Thrifty” average and just below the “Low” average for most normal months. If we have company or cook a holiday meal it creeps up to “Low”, but we average below that.

So how do you fare?

Are you at the “Thrifty”, “Low”, “Moderate” or “Liberal” level?

If you’re at the “Thrifty” level or below, how do you do it?

If you’re at the “Moderate” or “Liberal” level, can you think of ways to lower your bill besides becoming a Republican? (Sorry, couldn’t resist. Get it? Liberal? Republican?. Never mind.)

Have you had success at couponing, and if so, how did you overcome the challenge of finding meals easily based on what you have in hand?

We are always looking for interesing, motivational and real life personal debt stories. If you have a personal debt story that you’d like to share, feel free to contact us so that we can share it with all the readers.

Disclaimer: This post is sprinkled liberally with links to emeals, a site where I am both a customer and (like every customer) an affiliate, receiving a 25% commission when you sign up. However, I post these affiliate links with no shame as 100% of the profits I receive from emeals (and from my blog) go directly to a non-profit charitable corporation I’m launching this summer. Currently, the funds are going towards incorporating costs as I tapped out my “dream” budget balance pretty quickly working on developing the concept. If you’re interested, there is more information about the charity on the calculator page.


17 Comments

  • Reply Janelle |

    Hey I’m thrifty! That is sweet! I still hate that thrifty for my family is just a few cents short of $900 bucks a month!

  • Reply Todd |

    Same here, I’m usually slightly higher than “Thrifty” but almost always under “Low-Cost”. The only exception is when we have company for an extended period and over the holidays.

    Honestly, I’m happier with my grocery budget right now than I am with my gas budget. My gas budget is running at 50% of my food budget.

  • Reply Marianne |

    Wow- and I thought ordering pizza on the same night that I did groceries only happened in my house!! I shop the sales and it happens all the time that I have a whole bunch of ingredients that just don’t go together very well. Add to that the fact that I am a very poor cook and it is a recipe for disaster (read take out..) I think Beks used to blog about E-mealz or something like it at least. I’ve never looked into doing something like that because I thought if I put enough effort into it I could just do the work that they do myself but after trying very hard this month to meal plan and doing really poorly at it I am pretty tempted to sign up.

    • Reply Todd |

      Well, since you mentioned it, I am a 3 time veteran of the emeals signup process. Luckily for me it’s very easy to suspend / cancel your account; unluckily for me I have a very short memory.

      Here’s the usual cycle for me:
      1) Frustrated with figuring out what to cook and / or our grocery budget creeping up, I discover / remember emeals.
      2) I review the website in detail (again) and, satisfied, I sign up.
      3) After a few weeks/months I think things like “Man, this lady was a genius!” and “These recipes are so easy and not even “exclusives” and “I bet with a little effort I could do this and save the $7 per month it costs”
      4) The first weekend I get ambitious because I get a little free time, I do just that.
      5) That lasts about two weeks MAX until I realize how much time it takes.
      6) Repeat starting at step 1.

      Luckily for me, since my memory is so bad, the thrill of #2 is always an exciting discovery…. 😉

    • Reply Todd |

      Thanks, I appreciate it.

      I was really frustrated initially as I hated manually calculating it, but I’m not a programmer and couldn’t figure out how to do it automatically.

      Once I found a website that allowed me to match my “vision” with someone who could program it, I was so excited that my brain literally went into creative overload.

      So, if any of the readers of this blog won the $600 million lottery last night, I’ve got about $300,000 worth of ideas I’ll give you if you just let me experience seeing them come to life… 😉

  • Reply Lucy Andy |

    Very good read about Food Cost Calculator! I’m really pleased to read this new idea. This is an awesome calculator. Thanks for this allocation.

  • Reply Claire |

    Todd! I’m loving this calculator! Thanks for sharing and by these numbers I’m a grocery store rockstar, aren’t I? What am I missing? It seems that I’m way below the thrifty number. I may need to revisit my calculations but it came up around $1K for the 6 of us…and I am definitely not spending $1K. Anyway, I subscribed to your newsletter and have enjoyed visiting your site.

    • Reply Todd |

      Thanks Claire, I appreciate that.

      I used to be way under the thrifty, but I worked over the past year or so to increase our monthly grocery budget amount. I found that by staying between thrifty and low, we actually ate out less and we were eating a little healthier.

      Meals and eating habits are a personal choice, so your mileage may vary, drivers were on a closed track, tax tag and dealer fees extra, etc….

  • Reply Claire |

    Forgot to mention–I have used http://www.makedinnereasy.com/ and while the meals aren’t necessarily focused on $ saving, I am addicted to the grocery list she provides. It’s a free service and can be modified for your family’s needs.

    • Reply Todd |

      That is a great site, and I am a fan of sites like that, the $5 meals site, etc.

      The thing that psychologically makes me want to pay the $7 per month for emeals is that, if you select a meal plan tied to a store (for instance we use the Publix plan), the recipes are tied to the sales cycle for that week.

      So, I feel like I’m “winning” by buying items on sale and figure that I’m either getting more than $85 worth of groceries for $85, or if I save at least $7 in sale items I consider that month’s emeals fee covered.

      Now that I think about it, that’s also the reason why the emeals charge is paid out of the grocery budget.

      If you’re not near a store they have a meal plan for, then you’ll have to see if that works for you.

      Either way, I don’t think you can go wrong with meal plans, so whatever version of those you use (self made, free, paid) I believe will be worth it by saving you time and limiting impulse shopping.

  • Reply Claire |

    What?! Tied to the sales circulars?! That is awesome and most certainly not something our grocery giant is tied into! Each passing day I add something to the list in support of healthy grocery competition!

  • Reply Jay |

    Awesome calculator! Thank you so much for putting the time and effort into this. I cannot imagine what goes into something like this (programming and time).

    • Reply Todd |

      Jay – Thanks, I appreciate the comments.

      To be honest, the programming intimidated the heck out of me too. At the recommendation of a friend, I tried one of the website where you can bid out work and hired someone to develop it for me.

      It wasn’t incredibly expensive and I considered it as an investment, plus it would have taken me weeks to do it myself.

  • Reply The Prudent Homemaker |

    Todd,

    Your problem is simple. You did a great job shopping. Don’t give up on that.

    Realize that it will take a couple of months of shopping like that before you can make things without having to go shopping at all. You still need to buy some of the normal things to round out meals. Once you start stocking up, you’ll be able to pull from your pantry and freezer and cook from there without shopping.

    Due to a complete loss of income for 8 months, and very little since then, my family went over a year without shopping AT ALL. We still regularly have months were we don’t buy anything–not food, not tolietries, certainly not clothing or entertainment. We strive to pay the utlitlies, and keep them as low as possible at that (this year I cut our highest witner heating bill by 65% in one month). Our income varies, and is recently a pittance.

    I feed my family of 8 for $100 a month. Broken down, that’s $3 a day, or .40 per person per day.

    I do use coupons–but I’m not an extreme couponer. What I do much more often is buy in bulk–bulk beans in a 25 pound bag for .65 a pound (instead of $1.25 a pound in the one pound bag). Rice in a 50 pound bag. I grow a garden; this week I harvested arugula, red leaf lettuce, and swiss chard from our garden (all of which are pricy at the store but very cheap to grow). We eat beans in some amazing ways: pasta e fagioli, minestrone soup, bean and rice burritos, and more.

    I’ve got 4 months of seasonal menus on my site, plus a 2 week pantry-only menu (for when you have more month than money left and nothing in your freezer). These include recipes. It’s all free 🙂 Come check it out.

    And make the pizza. It’s REALLY good 🙂

    • Reply Todd |

      Sorry for the late reply, when I clicked on your site I hadn’t expected to see that amount of content and it took me a while to get up to speed on what you had posted.

      That being said, I am still reviewing your site and applying what you’ve posted. Although I’d love to get down to $0.40 per person per day, we are working on trying to incorporate as much organic produce and meat in our diet as possible so that’s probably not realistic for us.

      That being said, I’d love to move towards a “hybrid” approach, where I can enjoy the luxury of a meal plan that provides 7 dinners for around $85 week, but also start to build up some food reserves that we could use for impromptu meals.

      Once I have a chance to digest everything on your site, I’m sure I’ll be bugging you over there and posting comments / asking questions…. 😉

      http://www.theprudenthomemaker.com

  • Reply Emma |

    When I was first married my husband was starting his own business so we did everything we could think of to save money and these ideas have been right up our alley ever since.

    I will have so go check out emeals. I haven’t heard of that before and it sounds great. Thanks!

So, what do you think ?