Grocery spending comes in all shapes and sizes. If you missed the post where Ben wrote about his $298 grocery budget for a family of 5, it’s worth a read! He shared so many great ideas and tips for those looking to cut back their spending on food so they can focus their money on other priorities. The way he and his wife have honed their meal planning strategy is something I truly admire!
In light of his post, the title of this one might sound shocking. When Ben offhandedly shared his grocery budget amount, I immediately thought “Whoa, I spend double that on just two people!” Perhaps you, too, are thinking “She spends more on food than I do on my mortgage!” That may very well be true. But, before we dive into those weeds, here’s a little more info to give you a fuller picture.
A Few Caveats
I’m not here to make anyone feel weird! Some of you are single. Some of you are married. You have five kids. No kids. Six dogs. Your first four children are grown but you recently decided to adopt a 12-year old girl. You love to travel. You love to stay home and order takeout. You are paying down debt at a wildly frantic pace. You’re building your nest egg.
You have your own priorities and life.
The amount you spend on food is completely based on those priorities. My way isn’t the right way, nor is it possible for or preferable to everyone. This is just a glimpse into another option—one way of doing things that’s working really well for two people.
A few other things to keep in mind about my situation:
- We don’t have children. Did I mention that already? As I’m writing this, my puppy keeps asking to be included in this number but for the sake of rational logistics we only have two adults to feed.
- We, like Ben, live in a fairly low cost-of-living area.
- We budget an average of $100 a month for eating out (more on this later). That makes a total of $700 for food. And, in all honesty, it’s rare to have a month where we don’t have to WAM (whack-a-mole) just a little with our grocery category.
- Our grocery budget is for food items only. Cleaning supplies and paper products are budgeted in a separate “Home Supplies” category.
- Most of our shopping is done at our local co-op. If we can’t find something there, we’ll stop at one of the big-box stores on the way home.
Let’s get down to it. The reason we spend so much on food is because high-quality, healthy food that nourishes our minds and bodies is our number one priority.
I used to think paying down our student loans took the number one spot. However, after a series of health issues and careful research alongside a qualified holistic practitioner, I drew a different conclusion: What I put into my body every day has a direct impact on my physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. And it’s worth investing in.
Now, we don’t go crazy. I don’t buy every new hot supplement on the market and I still can’t afford free-range chicken, but we do our best while still leaving room to focus intently on paying down those loans and traveling once in a while. We’ve made amazing progress on our debt which will be paid off in full eventually. But we eat every single day, so an emphasis on this area was key for us.
Over the long haul of life, what we consume adds up. I’m a firm believer in the “pay the farmer, not the doctor” ideology, so prioritizing whole foods and produce that are free from pesticides, chemicals, and ingredients created in a lab means my investment in food is actually an investment in my long term health. And while I don’t have any super scientific data to back up this next statement, I’ve only had to see a doctor due to illness once in the last two years. My husband hasn’t had to go (except to get some stitches) in three years. Knock on wood.
Ok, So How?
At first, I felt this was a strange topic to write about because it’s not about cutting back on spending. It’s about giving yourself permission to fully prioritize something that’s important to you—in all its glory (and cost). But then I realized that’s pretty much all we write about here at YNAB. You cut spending in one area so that you can put those dollars towards the better thing, whatever it is for you.
So, if you’d like to focus more on your health, or if you have a family member who requires a specialized diet, or you want to support the local farmers in your area, I’m here to say YES! Go for it! It may require trade-offs in other areas of your budget, so take time to reassess your priorities and make changes if you need to.
In addition to those changes, here are a couple of ideas from my own experience to help you get started:
We Meal Plan
Like Ben, we are big proponents of meal planning. It sets us up for success every single time. I am not a spreadsheet wizard like his wife is, so I pay for an app to organize everything for me. I do all my shopping on Saturday mornings so we’re completely set for the week. This saves a lot of time and money because I’m only buying what we need for a set number of days.
Meal planning also encourages me to…
We Stay In Often and Cook from Scratch
On average, we cook six meals from scratch each week. We don’t eat out very often, mostly because there are few places in our area I enjoy eating. Side note: I will not even tell you what our dining out budget looked like when we were living in Los Angeles. Nope, not going there. If I’m going to spend big bucks on a meal out I want it to be something I wouldn’t go to the trouble of cooking for myself at home, is good for me, and has a great atmosphere. As that combo is hard to come by in our current location, most of our dining out money goes to convenience meals when we’re on the road or having a crazy day. We also include coffees in this category, and there are months we don’t use it all.
Cooking from scratch allows you to control the ingredients and is often way cheaper than buying pre-made food. I don’t particularly enjoy cooking, but there is something pretty satisfying about getting complete nourishment from something I made myself.
Pursue Health for Yourself
Do your own research. There is a lot of conflicting and confusing information out there about what is truly “healthy”, so do your research and narrow down what’s important for you and your family. Maybe you have a dairy sensitivity or a kid with a wheat allergy. Digestive issues add a certain level of complexity (and higher price!) to shopping and meal planning, so take stock of your reality. Spending more on dairy-free alternatives to keep your tummy happy might mean compromising on other items on your grocery list, and that’s okay! Remember, this is about prioritizing your health.
Pay for Quality Over Quantity
Stores keep the freshest, whole foods on the perimeters. Fruits, veggies, dairy, eggs. These are your friends. Venturing further into the center of the store will lead you to packaged, processed foods filled with preservatives and ingredients I’d pay money to hear people try to pronounce correctly. You might be able to stretch your dollar further in these areas, but this is not actually real food, though solid marketing tactics try to lead us to believe so. This way of life isn’t about paying more for a lot of cheap food. It’s about quality food that’s going to nourish and satiate us. And, more often than not, grass-fed meat and pesticide-free produce taste way better than conventional items. Because their rich flavors are more satisfying to the palate, you won’t feel the need to eat as much. Win-win!
One of the best ways we can support our health, a sustainable food system, and our planet is to buy food grown in our own area. It’s also one of the best ways to ensure optimal taste! Go to your local farmer’s market and strike up a conversation with the vendors. Oftentimes, the person working the booth is the same person who grew the food. Ask these farmers about their practices. Is their produce truly organic? Do they use any form of pesticides or artificial growth hormones? Are their cows grass-fed and pasture-raised? Are their chickens raised in a humane way? Farmers are accustomed to answering these questions and the best will even invite you to stop by their farm to check things out for yourself. Don’t be hesitant to ask your questions—it’s important for both parties!
One of my favorite things we’ve started doing over the past year is buying in bulk with our own containers. We take our glass jars to our local co-op every week and fill them with only what we need for the next seven days. We simply weigh the empty jars, record the weight on a sticker, then fill them up with bulk ingredients—nuts, seeds, grains, chocolate, honey, granola, and flours. The store clerk then subtracts the weight of the empty jar from the overall weight. It’s great for cutting down our plastic consumption and helps us reduce waste by only buying what we need. I hate throwing away food for many reasons, but envisioning my money going into the trash is one of the worst.
Loosen Up Now and Then!
Around YNAB, we often say “rigid budgets break.” The same is true when it comes to eating regimens. We do our best to eat with long-term health in mind, but we also have days when we eat donuts. We eat fast food. We have a regular “super cheap” meal that might consist of mac & cheese or nachos. Usually it’s for the sake of our budget and that’s okay! Eating beans and rice for three weeks so you can make an extra payment towards your credit card debt is totally fine if that becomes your priority. And a few days of it here and there won’t ruin your health!
And that’s what it all comes back to: your priorities. Find what is most important to you and run after it with your whole heart—and budget!
Need a little help with meal planning? Our friends over at Cook Smarts have generously sent over a special promo for YNAB customers. Use this link to get a full month of meal planning for free!