The thorn in my side.

October 10, 2011 · 51 comments

I like to consider myself a pretty good manager of money. Money comes in, and money goes out. It’s a simple process really. But no matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to get a handle on the Ninja household average food budget. This one category is totally throwing my whole game off. Take a look at this ridiculous graph of how much eating costs us each month (groceries and dining out).

How the heck do we go from $400ish in the early part of the year, to a low of $280 in spring, to the mid $700′s in late summer? Our average food budget is as crazy as Britney Spears was when she cut off all her hair….

Leave Britney alone (anyone get that joke?).

Britney’s right, the Ninja’s food budget IS crazy and I don’t know what to do about it. Girl Ninja and I both agree that there is no reason we should be spending so much. In a perfect world, we’d be dropping about $250-$300/month at the grocery store and about $150-$200/month dining out. All in we’d love to keep our food spending to about $450/month. WHY CAN’T WE DO IT!?

Food is the thorn in our side, or I guess the thorn in our budget. It’s the only category that fluctuates on such extreme measures. We plan to limit our dining out to weekends only, pay better attention to what is on sale, and throw in a few “cheap” meals during the week (tomato soup and grilled cheese, black bean soup, etc). We obviously can manage just fine on a $450 average food budget ’cause I don’t remember starving in January, February, April, or July. It’s just gonna take a little more discipline and planning, but I’m confident we can figure something out. Worse case scenario; I stop eating altogether. Oh and don’t worry. We wont turn in to extreme couponers. I hate those people.

What item in your budget always seems to throw ya off (food, travel, clothes, gas, etc)? How much do you spend each month on dining out and groceries (dollar amount and number of people in family)?

{ 51 comments }

1 StackingCash

This is why I don’t budget. To have a strict budget does not allow for living. Our budget consists of spending and saving. As long as we are saving more than we are spending, I’m ok with whatever comes our way. There are times the cars need repairs and/or maintenence. There are times when we have to travel on certain holidays. There are times when a piece of technology needs to be replaced. There are times when eating out is just fun. Lately, our home has been a huge expense because it seriously needed some updating. However, flooring and paint is much cheaper than a new home :) Pretty soon we will be replacing an older car. There are always thorns in my side…

2 Austin

That’s awesome that you can save over 50% of your income – I wish we could (find the discipline, ways, bargains to be able to) do that!

3 StackingCash

Whoops, let me rephrase that. I make sure we don’t spend more than we make. We don’t make that much money to save 50% of our income. Life is pretty expensive as you can tell by all the “thorns.”

4 Jake Stichler - Debt Sucks

This is why I *do* budget. But not for things like food. The only day-to-day spending I budget for specifically is gas, because it’s so awesome to only spend $10/mo on it. Everything else goes in to a big fat “misc” line, which rides around $400/mo. My teensy share of the groceries falls in to that. My lunches at work fall in to that. Some new bling would fall in to that.

But *anyway,* if it were me, I’d keep track of everything you spend that food money on in what turns out to be an “average” month, and base future grocery planning off of that. Heck, do a monthly food plan. That’s what I’d do, if I ate more than 3 different things (which I don’t).

5 slug | sunkcostsareirrelevant.com

This is also why I budget. Food is tough. The discipline comes with cooking. If you define certain nights as cooking nights and mealplan at the beginning of each week and dedicate yourself to eating the leftovers, you will most certainly reduce your food budget.

I can by 3 NY strip steaks and grill them myself for about $13 plus vegetables, or I can order 1 steak in a restaurant for $25-$30.

6 John

We ended up spending almost $400 on eating out last month! That’s ridiculous to us, so we’ve decided that this month we are fasting from dining out. No mickey d’s, no olive garden, no Taco Bell(gasp). So far it’s been great!

7 Jaimie

For a family of 5 (two adults and three children) our food budget is $600 a month on good months. There are some months when money is tighter and we need to drop down to $400. We try to only eat out once a month and the price for that varies from $30 (McDonald’s) to $60 (sit down family-type place).

8 Candace

Jaimie — are you Canadian or American? (Just curious, because we Canadians pay approx 20% more for the same groceries than our American cousins). I spend on average $1700/month, but I’m feeling two adults plus six children full time and another two about 1/3 of the month. Four of those are teenage boys.

9 Candace

OH MY! I’m FEEDING all those people, not FEELING them – lol…..

10 Larry

Especially if they’re teenage boys. ;)

I tend to agree partly with Stacking and partly with slug. Once my fixed expenses (utilities, phone, insurance, etc.) are taken care of, I simply assign myself a per diem amount each pay period that covers food and incidentals. The goal of course is always to use less than that assigned amount, but so long as if I break even or don’t go much over, I feel no great angst.

As for cooking, I go out to lunch maybe twice a week, but mostly I bring lunch from home. For as long as I can remember, I’ve formed the habit of reserving one weekend day every two weeks for cooking 3-4 nice dishes that I can then keep in the fridge or freeze. Some foods reheat well, mainly braised foods, and these are what I make on cooking days; other days for variety I’ll do something quick and simple in the oven or on the stove. By the end of each cooking day I’m absolutely exhausted and the kitchen is a mess, but I’ve taken care of most of my food needs for a good stretch of time and saved a fair amount of money.

11 Austin

Wow… my heart goes out to you. $1700 is an enormous amount of money!

12 Jaimie

Candace – I am American. We have 2 boys (14 & 12) and a daughter that is 8. I probably should have noted that the amount above includes toiletries and dog food/treats too ;-)

13 Candace

Thanks Jaimie – my total always includes all the stuff you can buy at the grocery store too – like laundry soap/toilet paper/shampoo. The dogs/cat/rabbit stuff I buy at the pet store and they get their own line in Quicken, so that’s not included.

14 Red

For just me, I spend about $80 a month on groceries. Mr. Red does his own shopping. (He has stomach issues and can’t eat the things I buy. Plus, he doesn’t really like what I eat to begin with.) We eat out very rarely these days, just because we’re both so busy with school and work.

One thing that helps me maintain my food budget is meal planning ahead of time. I don’t know how many times you go to the grocery store in a month, but I go every week. So I sit down before going and decide what I’m going to eat for that week. I put the foods I’ll need to make the week’s meals onto my grocery list, and I STICK TO IT. Sure, I’d like to buy a dozen donuts every time I go to the grocery store, but they’re not in the budget (plus, they’d go straight to my love handles). Of course, if I feel like switching it up as the week goes on, I’ll totally eat Friday’s dinner on Tuesday. I’m a rebel like that. But that’s what I’d suggest. Make a meal plan, a grocery list based off your meal plan, and stick to it. Good luck!

15 Melissa

I think this is always a challenging budget for the younger couples and single folk because many of our date nights and couples’ nights out focus on going out to eat or attending a wine tasting or food festival, etc. One of our friends writes a food blog and I write a low carb blog where I review local venues for their “friendliness” to low carb & gluten free folk. My boyfriend and I took a look at our average spending on groceries & dining out and it’s about the same as your graph. Well, except for that low month. A low month for us is about $400. We decided we absolutely want to keep dining out as a social activity with friends, but we are getting more conservative with ordering drinks or “extras” at meals. We’ve also started utilizing more Groupons with our friends and plan nights out based on specials that local places offer. We follow our favorite eateries on Twitter and now “follow the deals” to save money while having fun.

I’ve been trying much harder over the last two months to cut back on grocery spending and I’m definitely having success. I think someone else mentioned it here but the biggest budget drain is when you waste food. Focus on buying what you need and keeping a menu plan and use leftovers! It works. Takes a little legwork, but it pays off.

16 Kim

Ditto – I feel like young couples like to meet at a sports bar to watch the game. We’ve short-circuited this by inviting people over for the game. And that way, since people are starting to have kids, the families aren’t left out. We just make a pot of chili & people bring beer & chips.

17 Mike

We had the same problem. We would target $600/month for groceries and eating out and kept over doing it.

Last year right before our second child was born, we switched to cash-only for all food-related expenses. We also limit ourselves to $20/day ($140/week). That has to cover every meal for 2 adults and 2 young kids. We have been so good recently that we only go over this amount when we entertain a lot, which happens this time of the year. Once a month, we also allow ourselves a Costco run to stock up on major items – this is outside the normal weekly limit.

Also, from April to October we knock the amount down to $120/week since we participate in a CSA that costs about $17/week.

18 graduate.living

I separate the “grocery” section of our budget and the “dining out” section of our budget, because, really, you DO have to eat. You just don’t have to eat at a restaurant. Dining out is really our vice, so I like to see exactly how much I spend on that a month (hint: it’s not pretty). But I’m really good to sticking to our grocery budget – I average around $125/month. We don’t eat rice and beans every day, but we had grilled cheese and tomato soup last night and made a batch of chili the day before that will provide our lunches for the rest of the week. I’m also a fan of spaghetti noodles and cheap-y pasta sauce with a glass of water – dollar dinners anyone? =)

19 Allie

We try to keep our food budget below $400 a month as well, and we can usually stay under that without a problem. We probably go to restaurants only once or twice a week at the most, and eat most of our meals at home or from leftovers, though my husband does get fast food fairly often. I’ve managed to save the most money on our grocery bills since I plan a week in advance. I make a plan of what I’m going to cook for the week (assuming that the leftovers we will take for lunches), then make a list of the things we need every week and the things I need to make whatever dinners I’ve planned. Then I take my list and I DO NOT DEVIATE. I’m not one of those people who can wander around the store and pick stuff up randomly; when I do that, the bill skyrockets. But if I stick to the list, I can generally keep our grocery bill (for two adults) under $50 a week.

20 Kevin @ Thousandaire.com

I’ve spent as little as $200 a month on food, and as much as $471. That’s mainly just myself, but if I ever go out to eat with my girlfriend, I always pay because she’s in school and doesn’t have a job. The $200 a month was back when she had a job and we would split eating out 50/50.

21 Austin

Is that a Quicken chart?! I love Quicken…. Our food budget is pretty tough, but our “medical expense” budget is also a tough one. We can go a few months without using the $50 whatsoever, but then when we do use it (which is always a surprise), we practically double or triple it. Oi vey. That’s why we *do* budget though, so we can make sure all of our bases are covered and make sure we have wiggle room where we need it. Great post!

22 Austin

Oh and to answer your real question: For my wife and me, we budget $350 for Groceries; $175 for Dining out; $200 for “allowance” which is food while at work; and about half, or $35 of our “Entertainment” budget goes to food of some sort. So that’s……… holy crap, $760 on average per month. That’s a little over 10% of our take-home. Ay chihuahua

**Vomits**

Oh hey, I just vomited about $7 of our budget back!

23 Ninja

Quicken FTW!

24 Eric Hansen

Just starting out giving up my spend-a-holic ways – I also look at my groceries line item and am appalled by my inability to budget properly. Like you its all over the map. Luckily my wife is the thrifty one. She uses some coupons which I feel are beneath my dignity. But is excellent at sticking to $150 per week for a family of 4.So I let her do the shopping. and so far – its working out nicely. It’s probably best that I stay out of stores – always something shiny to buy. It also helps that I am eating oatmeal and ramen noodles for the first 2 meals of the day. Ramen is the worlds most underrated food item. The best of balancing caloric intake with the wonders of modern chemistry — and salt.

25 Donnie

We all know about Ninja’s California Burrito addiction. I’m going to blame that.

26 Jeff @ Sustainable life blog

Dude, I’m right on par with you on this – my food budget is up and down all the time. Sometimes its higher because of work traveling and having to eat out (like it was in sept) but other times, I totally cant explain it. I think part of it is because people say “I only want to eat out 1x per week, but that could mean many things – is it a 30/plate dinner for 2, or is it a large pizza to split. Very different cost.

27 Larry

Actually that “thorn” looks more like someone has hemorrhoids.

28 Oldfangled

We have one budget item for groceries and one for dates (dining out comes from the date money.) For three adults (one is our niece who lives with us for college but goes home on the weekends), we budget about $100 every two weeks (so, figure $200 – $250 per month). Date money is $10 every two weeks, so it takes us a while to save up enough to eat out (unless we go someplace really cheap.) Now, I will say that I work at a medical office and we often have lunch brought in, and hubby has business meals fairly regularly as well, so that helps out.

The thing that busts our budget? Home repair. Everything costs more and takes longer to fix than we think it will. Like that stupid leak in our upstairs bedroom closet ceiling. Where the heck is it coming from?

29 me in millions

Saving money on food is the easiest thing to do. Just make sure to stock up on food when it is on sale at its lowest price (no coupons necessary!) and make sure to eat everything before it goes bad. Spoiled food = throwing away dollar bills. Having a bit of a plan about what you’re going to eat each week and making a grocery list also help a ton in that department. Use restaurants.com or daily deal sites for discounts on restaurants.

30 Amanda

Food is definitely something that throws off my budget. We have the same problem, one month we’ll spend a little, next month a whole lot. We’ve tried eating out less, but it seems like the only thing that helps is to set a strict budget when grocery shopping and trying to not eat out for dinner as much.

31 Kristin

Traveling or vacations can definitely inflate a food budget. You often can’t keep cold or easily prepare certain meals, of if you’re on the road, you end up eating fast food, which is often pretty expensive. So months where I ski a lot, my food costs are often higher, because that’s the easiest way to categorize them. Also, the more often I saw my parents, (just for dinner, a birthday, etc), the smaller my food expenses were, because they usually either fed me at home or paid. For just me, I’m trying to keep myself to about $300 a month, approx. half to groceries and half to restaurants/fast food/coffee/booze. Stocking my pantry for the first time when I moved in August was also a budget buster – which I think you also had to do at some point this summer? A lot of little incidentals would have spoiled if I tried to bring them across the country, so I had to stock up (and get maple syrup!). I tried to pare down my pantry so I wasn’t losing too much, but you can’t exactly just use up a bottle of olive oil or terriyaki sauce in a day or two.

32 Kim

It took me awhile to budget for food because it is so essential. We live in the DC area and spend $300-$350 on groceries (depending on guests), and $100 eating out (incl. alcohol). We cook a lot and have thus improved immensely, so now when we eat out we’re usually not very impressed, which keeps us from going out too often. I also keep stuff on hand to eat when we’re too tired to cook – frozen pizza, soup, and we always have enough on hand to make a BLT. And we don’t do something like always eat out on Fridays – that gobbles up money in a non-memorable way. I make lots of one-pot meals, esp. in the winter, like chili, soup (plus salad or corn muffins), chicken & dumplings. I make a more elaborate every week or two so I don’t feel like we must go to a restaurant for something out of the ordinary (think goat cheese salad, lamb, thai).

You’re smart, you know this can go beyond just coupons. I tracked food purchases for 2 months to get ourselves into this track. I categorized, which many grocery receipts do for you – produce, meat, dairy, pantry stocking (canned food, cereal, bread, baking items, salt, flour, olive oil), alcohol, non-essentials, & junk food. Deli is more like non-essentials – prepared food, special ingredients for a recipe (rice vinegar, feta, chili paste, sundried tomatoes). Look at how much produce you throw away. Do you buy in bulk? Like Mondays, any unsold meat goes on sale, and you have 2 days to scoop it up & freeze it. We do 1 big shopping per month where we stock up, and then supplemental (produce, milk) as needed.

And I second Kristin’s point – I put those costs under travel so I know we didn’t go hog wild that month.

33 Kim

important for comparison – we’re 2 adults, no kids.

34 Larry

Just got back from a few days in DC. Obviously had to eat out most of the time. But I also hit a grocery store and buy some provisions that don’t require cooking like cold cuts, and I keep them in the hotel fridge in my room. But I never miss the buffet lunch at the Garden Cafe in the National Gallery. Well worth the $35.

35 Kristin

I tried splitting up travel costs into gas, food, lodging, etc, but it didn’t work well for me and felt like too much splitting hairs. Sometimes food was included with lodging. And I had to eat *something* anyway, so if I split it, my actual food budget would look really low. Or even if I drove a long way, I probably would have driven somewhere on those days anyway. Just decided to leave it as the simple categories and add up costs for travel separately.

36 LifeinPDX

Hi. I’m not sure about you guys but in my family the season has an effect on our food budget. Winter is such a great time for home cooking (hot stews and soups!) that we hardly eat out, but in the summer, wham! I’ve noticed this trend over the past 3 years ever since I became financially-aware. There was no trying to beat this trend. I just love summer to stifle the joys of eating food outdoors on really sunny days, especially living in Portland where it rains 3/4 of the year. There’s usually 1 month in the summer where we look at our spending objectively and “try” to spend less (on food, can you believe it???), but overall we tend to use up the food budget or go over it a little. The moment I saw your chart I just smiled instantly because it shows our pattern. :) Our food budget includes grocery and take-outs/dine-outs.

37 Lysander

My food budget is split into 3 categories: Groceries, Lunches (dining alone). and Dates (dining with my gf). That way I can tell what changed from month to month. Cumulative food spending is the symptom, but the subcategories allows me to diagnose the underlying cause.

It’s important to recognize that you under went a number of changes in the past 9 months. Moving from SD to SEA, being separated with GN for 3 months, with her living in SD and you living with M&DN, going on a vacation or two.

Some questions I’d ask:
1.) In June did you spend more at the grocery store stocking up your new apartment with staples and long lasting condiments?
2.) In August did you and GN go out for an expensive 1st anniversary dinner?
3.) Did you have any extended trips where you ended up eating out nearly every meal?
4.) Who paid for food in April? Was it M&DN when you moved up to Seattle? Were you using what was in your pantry so you wouldn’t have to throw stuff out when you moved?
5.) Is food just more expensive in SEA than it was in SD?

38 Colette

It might depend on what you include in groceries. For example, I buy a big container of laundry detergent at the grocery store probably every 8 – 9 months. Infrequent expenses like this can cause spikes like you see above.

Having said that, I recently changed from grocery shopping every week to shopping every 2 weeks, and it definitely makes a difference in how much I spend – mostly because we know that whatever’s in the fridge needs to last 2 weeks, so we go through some of the more snacky food (e.g. cheese) more slowly.

39 Jessie's Money

this is such a good point – I should have read all the comments before commenting. we have two large dogs so our grocery bill includes items for them.

40 Ashley @ Everything Finance

We spend $500 a month on groceries for two adults and two kids. We also spend about $200 a month eating out. So I guess that’s $700 a month on food. Bleck.

41 Matt

Food definitely fluctuates a lot for us. Food and gas are the two hardest things to budget for, because it fluctuates so much from month to month.

42 Jessie's Money

Jordan and I tracked our eating out/grocery (actually all) spending for a full year and averaged eating out – 430.30 and groceries – 352.74….which is ridiculous. that said, the more we tracked the better we got…our grocery bill increased and our dinning out bill decreased.

In the last three months of the months we tracked we spent an average of 172 on eating out and $460/month on groceries.

As long as we don’t have a lot of waste with groceries I’m confident that we’re heading in the right direction. I don’t know if we’ll ever make it to $450/month on a consistent basis…but maybe that’s a good challenge.

43 Me

Grocery budget for a family of 5 = $1000/month Canadian
Restaurants = $0/month
Take out = $40/month (pizza twice a month which comes out of the entertainment budget)

For us, it’s our drugstore/medical costs that always seem to come up and bite us in the butt. With 3 young kids, someone is ALWAYS nursing a runny nose or cough – I think our family keeps the drugstore in business!

44 Me

I should probably mention that about $200 of our monthly $1000 for groceries in non-food stuff, like toilet paper, toothpaste, cleaning products, feminine stuff, shampoos and soaps, laundry products, etc… so our “food costs” come to $800/month at the grocery store and $40/month for pizza take out for a family of 5. (2 adults, 3 children)

45 krantcents

Food and gas because they are linked. The cost of oil is increasing transportaion costs on everything. Although oil is going down, the prices are not on products that must be shipped.

46 This Guy

Family of 3

Just dining out, about 250-350 any given month. We don’t budget just groceries because the store we shop from is also where we tend to purchase diapers, some clothing, some home decor, some cleaning supplies, etc. kind of an everything gig. So we have “Target/Costco/Fred Meyer category, which averages about $500-$700 (a guess would be $250 in grocery).

We could probably shave $100-$200 by shopping smarter….. but we’re lazy.

47 talesofablendedfamily

Usually gas is our downfall…it all depends on where we go or what we do. I budget $100.00 a week and sometimes we spend $80 and others we spend $120 (for 2 cars).

We are a family of 9 and a dog. Our food budget is $275 a week, but we’ve been surviving on $250 for the last 2 months :-) . Many times we’ll have enough left over that we can all go out as a family about once per month. Staying home from restaurants and making homemade meals is the key for us.

48 Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager

Gas. There are months where I never drive and then there are months that I got on road trips. Definitely fluctuates month to month.

49 Julie

Good topic, as variable things do make for difficult budgeting! Hubby and I try to spend $350 per month on groceries and $60 per month on eating out. For us as well, these are the two categories we go “over” the most often in. Meal planning, good communication, and couponing has been our “trifecta of saving” when we do well.

When I first started couponing I saved about 30% on my grocery budget, and I was already extremely frugal to begin with. Plus my quality of life went up, as I was buying nicer things with a wider variety. I’m not an obnoxious clear-the-shelves couponer, but I love to work a great deal and follow coupon blogs like hip2save (my personal favorite). And it’s not just groceries, we also get “buy one get one” meal coupons for eating out. That’s helped us a lot with our date budget. So you can punch debt in the face ninja…I’ll punch “paying full price” in the face!…

50 Kristin

For the record, I had a nightmare about being at a hotel and my room service order suddenly being 3X my restaurant budget for the month last night. Weird things happen in dreams…

51 SusieQ

Cash is king for us when it comes to food! The money comes out of the bank at the beginning of the month for groceries and dining/entertainment. When it’s gone, or getting low, we get more creative and use what’s in pantry or freezer. When we use the debit card instead of cash we go a bit overboard without realizing it.

Our biggest variable in our budget seems to be gas for our cars & medical. We don’t have set medical expenses so try to budget a little every month so we have a stock pile when we need it.

You and girl ninja will figure out how to get this under control. Heck, you already know how to handle your money.

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