Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Budgeting for Groceries--How Much is Too Much?

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.
- Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food
Luke and I did our budgets (or spending plans, if you like that better) for the first quarter of 2009. We don't do a full, detailed budget for the quarter--we're usually about a month ahead on the detailed budget. However, we're finding that we're really cutting it very close every pay period on food, especially in the last few months. I know that food prices are going up, but I'm not sure that accounts for everything...

We use the envelope system. That means when the envelope is empty, it's empty. We have to wait till next pay period to buy more food. I don't mind this if there's only a day before payday (there's always enough between the freezer and the pantry to get by). But in the first 15-day pay period of January, we blew our grocery money in the first week.

What's changed for us is that we read
In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan. And the fact is, real food is expensive. I could do like I did in college and eat Ramen noodles every day and catch scurvy (I didn't really). Joking aside, though--cheaper processed food for the savings now, or higher medical bills and insurance premiums later?

The last six months of 2008, we budgeted $500 for food per month. This did not account for eating out (separate envelope, with much less money in it). We eat most breakfasts and dinners at home and take our lunches to work. Is this too much?

According to the
USDA's food plans for 2008, $500 consistently fell between the low-cost plan and the moderate-cost plan for food for each month of the year (December's figures are not available yet) for a family of two. $600, which is what we're considering bumping our food budget up to, is between the moderate-cost and the liberal plan.

We're concentrating on eating less meat, more vegetables and fruits, and spices. We're not really buying anything processed, with the exception of flour to make our own bread. Keeping Michael Pollan's Real Food tenants in mind, can this be done for $600 a month? How much do you think is appropriate for a family of two?


  1. Al and I are trying to restrict ourselves to $90.00 per week, beer included and it's working well so far (two weeks). We'd been overspending on groceries for a long time. It's a lot of work to cook all that food from scratch, but so far, if you look for deals and keep costs in mind when menu planning, it can be good, and even tasty. The latest edition of Bon Appetit magazine has a section on eating cheaply with a week's worth of menus that should cost about $100.00 We've tried some of the recipes and they're pretty tasty.

  2. Wow. Our FPU group tried to have a conversation about what a grocery budget should be but no one had a good answer. We eat crappy convenience food, have no real talent (or interest) in the kitchen, and have the kind of stomachs that means at restaurants we share an appetizer, entree and dessert and take home leftovers. We have our grocery budget fluctuating between $250 and $300 and (as no one's been willing to give us an idea of normal) thought it was probably too high.

    But we also tend to think of eating out (real restaurants, not food) as almost as good as grocery because it lasts us two meals and is shared, and we have a little separate for eating out.

    I'm thinking that if you guys tried to have our budget, you'd seriously starve to death. But reading this does make me feel a little bit better about when I splurge for healthy food!