“Healthy food is too expensive!”
“There’s no room in our budget for organic food!”
“Why can’t produce be less expensive?”
It’s very easy to lament about healthy food costing more than less healthy choices – I know, I’ve certainly fallen into that trap. While individual food costs are worth considering, for today’s Eating Healthy on a Budget post, I’d like to talk more broadly, about budgeting in general.
Deciding how much to Budget
If you’ve not set a grocery budget before, this would be a great time to do so! We’re at the start of a new month (and a new year!), so you have a fresh start. There are a few things to consider when starting a grocery budget:
- How many people you’re feeding
- How many meals you’ll be covering (do you like to eat out, or eat at work, for instance?)
- Any dietary considerations
- How much time you realistically have to spend cutting coupons & finding deals
- What stores are in your area
Today I’m going to be pretty open-book with you about our budget, but please understand I’m sharing it for illustrative purposes only. I do not believe grocery budgets are one-size-fits all. I do not believe a $200 budget is “good” and a $500 budget is “bad” because there are just so many variables (see above). (Incidentally, this Gallup poll suggests that the median amount of money American families spend per week on food is $125).
That being said, let me tell you that I used to try to keep our family on $300 a month. The problem was, I almost never could do it! It was very difficult for our lifestyle, the way we like to eat, and my husband’s work schedule to do it. Sales and coupons would not always oblige, either. Over time I’ve upped that amount to $350 and now it’s at $400. I’m happy with that amount for our family – I figure that gives me $100 to spend every week, which is a decent amount since we’ve upped our produce intake substantially over the last year or so. It’s realistic for me, and I still save a lot of shelf cost with that $400.
Finding that Balance
I changed my budget because I had to get my head out of the clouds and be realistic. Be wary of the coupon instructor that insists you can feed your family of 8 for $13 a week. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but in my experience, there is likely a steep time cost involved to coupon at that level, and I’d be curious to know exactly what that couponer is getting for his/her $13.
Are there ways to save on produce, organic food, meat, whole grains, and the like? Oh yes, absolutely – I don’t doubt it for a moment! If I did, I wouldn’t bother sharing some of what I’ve learned with you. However, I don’t want to put some pie-in-the-sky idea in your head that you can enjoy your new gluten-free, dairy-free diet for four on just $50 a month.
If you need to adjust your budget, you are NOT a failure! I know that sounds really silly, but I also understand how it feels to call yourself a couponer and then feel like maybe something’s wrong because you need to spend more money on food all of a sudden.
Ask yourself: is the most important thing to stick to some arbitrary number/savings rate/etc I’ve set for myself, or to feel like I can realistically feed my family the way I want? I’m not saying disregard your budget entirely – that’s not feasible for most of us. But I am saying take a good look at the changes you want to make to your diet and how that grocery figure on your budget lines up.
Finding the Money Elsewhere
Have you ever gone to balance the checkbook or your budget and been shocked by how all those small expenses really add up?
With one breath, we complain about the cost of free-range chicken breast and with another, we’ve spent $4 on a latte.
Here’s what I’m getting at: if you want to increase the budget of your food category, find another category to reduce or eliminate. Here are a few budget busters I came up with off the top of my head. Do you regularly spend needlessly on these categories?
- Coffee shops
- Fast food/quick meals
- Magazines at checkout
- Quick grocery trips for impulse purchases or snacks
- Alcoholic beverages
- Shoes (*ahem*)
- Cable/overpriced phone plans
- Soda machine at work
If eating better is a goal for you this year, maybe you’ll be more inclined to shift your budget around to meet that goal. Suppose you’re currently spending $200 at restaurants per month and $100 at coffee shops. If you were able to reduce eating out to $150 and coffee shops to $50, you’d have $100 you could then apply to groceries. (This is just one simple example, but you get the idea.) Also consider if your new diet will have you eliminate certain foods you normally spend money on (coffee, alcohol, soda, etc) – that may free up some dollars for you too.
The Value of Planning Ahead
One of the overarching themes of this series is going to be plan, plan, plan! You will more easily stick with your budget (and new diet!) if you can plan ahead.
Here are a few ways planning has worked for me to stick to my budget (I’ll be talking about more of each of these during the course of this series):
- Using cash. You would be amazed if you did nothing more than started paying cash for your groceries. If you decided to spend $100 a week, take $100 cash out. Pretty simple. (And it works!) You’ll also be more inclined to put the foods that matter most into your grocery cart FIRST.
- Plan meals. Setting foot into the store for “just a few things” is a recipe for disaster. Take a few minutes before you head to the store to plan on what you’re actually going to eat that week. Plan your meals around seasonal deals for even more savings. Such trips also avoid middle-of-the-week impulse trips, which are rarely good news.
- Plan snacks. This might sound kind of silly, but I think most of us do get hungry for snacks! I’ve noticed that it’s important to have good snacks on hand at home so I’m not tempted to go out and blow my diet or budget. Again, the idea is to plan on avoiding impulse, “little” trips.
- Stockpiling. When you find those deals on good basics your family eats over and over, stock up!
A final word: if you’ve not done so already, why not download my FREE Excel Savings Tracker? You can plug in your grocery budget and start tracking your savings and spending to keep motivate to stick with your goals!
What other tips do you have about setting a grocery budget? Have you had to increase your grocery budget recently?