Paycheck Chronicles

Food, Food, Food

As part of our Back to Basics series, Week Three is devoted to figuring out where your money is going.  For most people, food comprises the second largest budget item, behind housing (and sometimes transportation.)  The hard part about keeping track of food spending is that it can be hard to keep track of how much you're actually spending on food.  There are the obvious places, like your regular grocery shopping.  However, you've probably spent money on food many other places, including:

  • school lunches
  • grabbing a coffee and a doughnut while you get gas
  • a few items picked up at a superstore when shopping for something else
  • food court
  • produce stands
  • food while traveling
  • vending machines
  • work lunches
  • drive through snacks and meals
  • bakery
  • other grocery stores, either for better deals or convenience
  • dates or date night
  • take out (yum, chinese!)
  • discount store
  • a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk from the convenience store
  • going out with friends
  • seafood market
  • snacks at the movies
  • food sales on base
I'm not saying that you have to choose to allocate all these expenses under food, but it is good to see the whole picture.  For example, you might put snacks at the movies under entertainment.  That's fine - it's your spending record.  It is just something to think about.

One thing I hear frequently is "we don't spend much on food."  If you truly don't, that's great.  If you're a super-couponer, awesome.  If you have the most fantastic home vegetable garden ever, then I envy and congratulate you.  However, for most families, their food budget is significantly larger than they originally estimate.

The USDA has calculated the average food costs for US household, and they're pretty clear that food is not cheap.  You can access the entire document, with month by month breakdowns, and calculate what the USDA figures your family might spend on food.  There is a pretty broad variety amongst the various levels (thrifty, low-cost, moderate-cost and liberal cost.)  You also need to be sure to note the adjustments for family size at the bottom of the chart (add 20% for a single, add 10% for 2 people, add 5% for 3 people, subtract 5% for 5-6 people, subtract 10% for 7 or more people).  There are also easy, pre-calculated figures at the bottom for sample families of 4.

As you can see, for the latest month (March 2011), a family of four with two elementary school aged children is estimated to spend around $800 on a moderate food budget.  That is a lot of money, but not unrealistic.  My family's estimate is over $1100!  (There are six of us, and getting hungrier every time I turn around.)

Food is definitely one place where you can find lots more spending than you expect, and it will be a good place to start when we start trimming our budgets in a few weeks.  For now, try to gather all the information you can so your future spending plan can be accurate.

For your entertainment, here's an interesting infographic from that talks about food spending in various cities around the country.

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