By Paula Wethington / Monroe on a Budget

If you’ve sat in on one of my grocery and coupon classes (click here for the video), you have heard me refer to the USDA Cost of Food at Home study as a reference point for grocery budgets.

Download the archived charts, or look at the January 2014 chart for “thrifty” range for your family size and demographic, and you’ll be able to calculate what your monthly grocery expenses should be.

CostofFoodJan2014Since I do teach this point, it’s only fair that I give a report from time to time as to how I meet that target.

I’ve just run the bookkeeping records on my 2013 grocery bills. For two adults at home, our average cost of groceries was $412.58 a month or $4,951 for the year. That’s after subtracting bottle deposits and coupons.

The USDA chart with June 2013 (June is considered the average) numbers would put our grocery expenses at $378.90 a month.

So on the face of it, I’m 8 percent over.

But if I factored out the cleaning supplies and paper goods, I’m probably still at thrifty. I’ve assumed all along that 10 percent of my grocery bill was non-food items; although 15 percent may be a better guess. I haven’t set up a separate line item on those purchases because I can’t separate out which coupons were credited to which products on my register receipts.

During the past six years, the best results I noticed with money-saving efforts on our grocery bill was 80 percent of thrifty noticed in fall 2008. That was with the help of low-cost groceries purchased through Angel Food Ministries, which no longer exists. It was also a time when we were particularly motivated to cut costs, as the recession was starting to hit our finances.

What am I doing right at this time?

  • As an alternative to gardening, which I know I won’t take the time to do, I occasionally shop at a farmer’s market. After all, Monroe Farmer’s Market and Ciolino Fruit and Vegetable Market in Monroe are both open year-round.
  • I’ve used much more frozen and so-called convenience package foods since my daughter moved out; but I have done so to cut back on leftovers that my husband and I really can’t use. Food waste is a huge hidden cost in a grocery budget.
  • I do clip and use coupons, and have been doing so since my college days.

How and where can I do better?

  • I can pay more attention to the sales fliers at stores that I don’t usually shop at to see whether any of them are worth a stop.
  • I can consider asking for price matching at the stores that do that. But in order to ask for a price match, I need to have studied the competitors’ fliers.
  • I can be more pro-active on using the digital coupon promotions, since they are in use at are the stores I shop at most often.
  • I can look more frequently for meat department specials, knowing that I’ll be repackaging the meat into meal-size portions when I get home.


Update to the math on March 17:

I realized two days after writing this blog post that I forgot two key pieces of data in my 2013 grocery math calculations.

First, it wasn’t just my husband and I at home in 2013. My daughter lived with us from mid-May to mid-September. Subtracting out about a month for the times she was traveling, visiting relatives and out of town for job hunts, I need to have the target budget include three months of grocery expenses for her.

And yes, my grocery money did include her. She was unemployed and the money she could earn from babysitting and dog sitting between was only enough for “pin money.”

A single woman age 24 would have a grocery budget of $162.40 a month on the USDA chart, or a total of $487.20 for three months. When she was living on her own, she told me “thrifty” was pretty much on target.

That puts our grocery budget at 2013 to $5,438.20.

Now about the spending. I had a complete brain fade that “eating out” money needs to be added in. This is still food money. One can argue the value of the food over the cost of the food, or counting some of it as vacation money when doing this calculation; but I’ve always added it back in dollar for dollar. A pick up order pizza at $7, after all, replaces a frozen pizza that costs about $6.

My bookkeeping records show dining out and fast food expenses were $1,335 for 2013 or $111.25 a month, which for us, is extremely high. To explain:

  • 2008: $439. I don’t think we were out of town at all that year. We were really tight for cash. Some of the gift cards we received for Christmas were for restaurants and movie passes that we used in 2009.
  • 2009: $517 net (gift card spending taken out). This included one weekend in South Bend. It also included the fact my father-in-law was in the hospital late in the year and we were picking up more fast food than usual.
  • 2010: $955. This includes three weekends in South Bend. It also included the fact we were in Toledo a lot to settle my father-in-law’s estate and sell his house.
  • 2011: $897. This includes graduation weekend in South Bend.
  • 2012: $1,707. This includes a week’s vacation for my husband and I in Green Bay.
  • 2013: $1,335.  This included graduation weekend / moving out in Oskaloosa / Des Moines, Iowa; and later two weekends moving my daughter to her current home near Indianapolis. To be honest, my husband and I also packed in a lot of family activities and outings when my daughter was home.

So our grocery spending of $4,951 plus the eating out of $1,335 a year would be $6,286 a year; as compared to $5,438.

Yes, that’s high. It’s almost the annual “thrifty” range of cost of food for a family of two adults and two small children; or between the annual “low cost” and “moderate” for a family of two adults.

That being said, our 2014 dining out costs seem to be back to normal with $134 year to date to mid-March. We’re more likely to eat out in summer and fall because of baseball and football schedules; so it will be more than $150 a quarter when the annual reports are done.

Our 2014 grocery costs year to date also have dropped compared to last year, although I’ll not consider that a trend for a couple of months yet.

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