9: Daily Life | Grocery budgeting in California


I consider us pretty frugal overall. Or maybe frugal is the wrong word, but definitely cost-conscious. We live in a one-bedroom apartment (hopefully not much longer though, I need a craft room! Ha!), we only own one car, I have a short commute to work and we don’t spend a ton of money on going out. Yes, we do have cable TV, but hardly ever go to the movies anymore or spend money on frivolous hobbies.

However, one of the things I’ve been trying to get a little under control is our grocery budget. As I said, we do live in California and food prices here are simply higher than in other areas (or so it seems), but I am always mind-boggled when I hear what other people’s grocery budget is.

I have to preface this post by saying that we do like to eat fresh and organic produce, meat (though not daily!), and that we consume a lot of dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt). It simply adds up and I am telling myself that I am willing to cover the higher costs for making these things a priority. Still, I am always a little mind-boggled when I hear that other people only spend $300 on food (often for a family of four).

Part of me is like “How do you do that? Teach me your ways!”, the other part of me things “meh, whatever. I don’t really want to compromise (much) when it comes to the food I put into my body”.

I guess this whole post is born out of curiosity (and a tad of inspiration to be more thrifty – because who doesn’t like to save some money or score a good bargain? Exactly.)

The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) has developed four food plans (thrifty, low-cost, moderate-cost and liberal) for a nutritious diet on different levels of income. For a family of 2 (one male, one female) the food budget should be around $390 for thrifty, $499 for low-cost, $621 for moderate-cost and $776 for liberal spending (September 2015). This, however, does not take into account your location and the specific food prices where you live. I wonder how carefully one really has to shop to meet the dietary requirements on a thrifty budget.

Let’s just say that our budget hovers somewhere between the moderate and liberal plan – depending on the month (and how many weeks there are in the month). In September, we spent $619 on groceries which is exactly what is budgeted for the “moderate-cost” food plan. Over the last three months, we averaged $670/month.

Now, you may think that I am not paying attention to food prices, sales, or the like, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

It’s not even that we buy a lot of excess food. We meal plan every week and hardly ever throw anything out. I shop at the Farmers market and at three to five different stores, use coupons (whenever possible) and we cook mostly from scratch (I am mentioning that because ‘raw ingredients’ are always considered less expensive than (partly) prepared foods). We limit eating out to (cheaper) take-out food once a week or a casual dinner at a restaurant every other week (and that’s not even counted in our grocery budget). So yes, we do eat most meals at home (and for the record, hardly ever spend money on lunches or coffee shop purchases!), so I wonder if other people  simply have a higher eating-out budget? I don’t think that this is necessarily the case.

Regardless, I know there is room for improvement. Although I try to do so, I don’t always stick to the grocery list and am guilty of the occasional impulse purchase. One thing I could work on. I could also shop my pantry more often. Although things get eaten eventually (and I consider having a little stockpile generally a good thing), I should make sure that nothing goes to waste there either.

I am very curious, though: how much do you spend on groceries? How do you stretch your dollars?

I realize that grocery budget will be different for every family. It depends on your location, eating habits, preferences, priorities, what have you. So many factors go into the decision-making process of what we buy to feed our families. I am not attempting to win the contest of “who can spend the least on groceries”. I would never win anyway and it’s not my end-goal to “spend less than everybody else”. Food is definitely a priority in our household and I don’t want to compromise too much just to push the number down. We like to cook, we like to try new things and I don’t see food just as a means to an end. I know I should keep that in mind when I think about where my hard-earned money goes.

I guess I am just trying to see what’s reasonable and if there is a way to cut our budget a little bit (I am always up for a good challenge!)

  1. It’s like you were reading my mind this past weekend. I’ve been thinking about how we can reduce our grocery budget as well, but it’s so difficult. When I do make a meal, I have to make it for 3 people or 4 if I want to keep some left overs because Matt eats for 2 (me only 1). He works out a lot and needs more food because he burns so much. So while we are two people, we have to buy more than what a couple usually buys (I’m guessing, could be wrong). We tend to spend around the amount you guys do, but do eat out a bit more because I don’t like cooking (and I’m usually super tired).

    I think what might help us is if we meal plan for the majority of the week, then cook some of the stuff over the weekend, and eat out only one per week. I’ve tried this in the past (meal planning), but I also hated it and couldn’t stick with it. Have to try it again, but do it in a different manner (i.e., have Matt help me and buy groceries on Thursday or Friday evening then cook some stuff and freeze them on Sat-Sun). Cost of food around where we live is also very, very expensive. So not cool!

    1. Ha! I feel the same way… J also eats for 2, me for 1. :) I am also glad to hear you’re spending about the same amount on groceries as we do… I know, it’s hard to compare, but it’s nice to know that another couple (no kids) has similar expenses ;)
      Meal planning definitely helps with not throwing any food out, but that’s why I also don’t understand that we can’t bring our expenses down a bit. I mean, everything gets eaten! It’s not like we’re wasting money in that regard.

  2. I’m in the process of trying to better our grocery shopping, what we eat/meal planning, and budget. Currently I go to the market on a Sunday. If it’s a week when my guy’s son is with us, I might spend $125, but then the weeks he isn’t, I’ll spend maybe 80. I’m trying to be more diligent about using all our food and am pretty good at it, but my partner is not! I also find that I have to make a midweek market stop too, especially for deli meat for him or more veggies for us. It’s not the best system and I hate having to go more than once a week, so trying to meal plan a bit, but currently struggling!

    1. I appreciate your input. We have weeks where we spend under $100 for sure, but most of the time it’s around $120.

  3. I don’t really have any suggestions, but wanted to chime in. I’m currently in Germany for an extended stay, and it’s mind boggling how much less money we spend on food compared to when we lived in the Midwest. We seem to have similar food preferences and habits as you, and while I haven’t been crunching the numbers, I am estimating that we are spending around one third of what we used to spend in the U.S. Crazy! I’ve noticed that the small supermarkets here don’t always carry the same huge variety of produce and other foods as in the U.S. Sometimes the produce doesn’t seem as fresh either, or at least, it does not stay fresh as long (which may be because it isn’t treated as heavily?! I don’t know). But it is so wonderful to be able to buy freshly baked bread at a real bakery, or a decent chunk of gourmet cheese for 2-3 Euros.

    1. Oh god, don’t get me started… living expenses in general are so much cheaper in Germany, and food in particular! I wouldn’t mind shopping more often if I could get more fresh bread and produce for less money ;)

      1. Yup, I also feel like living expenses are generally much lower in Germany, and we do feel like we have much more disposable income although our household income has remained the same. We’re really comparing apples and oranges though ;) For instance, we don’t have (need) a car here, while we used to drive two when we lived in the U.S. — a huge expense. Child care is also much more affordable here, just to give another example. On the other hand, many things cost more than in the U.S. — cars, clothes, shoes, gadgets, etc. Thankfully those are usually things we don’t need every day :) BTW, our housing costs are much higher here in Germany too, although as in the U.S., this totally depends on where you live and whether you are renting or owning. Sorry, I totally digress. Good luck with your grocery budget, I can so totally relate to what you wrote and don’t have any good advice.

  4. I budget around $115/week for two people. Sometimes we go over budget if we spend too much $$ on alcohol (yes, beer is in the grocery budget). We hardly ever by organic (i prefer local to organic) and I’m a vegetarian so hubby only cooks veggie meals. We also go out to eat at least once a week depending on what’s going on with work.

    1. Thanks so much for your input, Anya! Sounds like your spending is pretty similar to ours…. that makes me feel better :) May I ask where you live?

      1. I live in Texas so you should feel even better because we have a lower cost of living – although I’m not sure how food prices compare. About a decade ago, I would’ve felt bad about our spending because I knew couples who were spending $50/week. But realistically, they were shopping at Wal-Mart and buying more processed foods. The trade-off is worth it when you look at such comparisons.

  5. I used to compare our spending habits to those of other people and realized quickly that grocery spending is influenced by a lot of different factors (location, food preferences, work-life balance etc.). Since moving from Texas to Washington, our monthly grocery bill has increased by about 20-25% and now sits at $500-550/month. My grocery shopping habits are pretty simple. I go to one store (Safeway) once a week for a full haul and get baked goods (rolls/bread) a couple times throughout the week. We do have a Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods nearby (but still a good 20-min drive away) but I prefer being in and out and done with grocery shopping in an hour. Right now, our schedules do not leave a whole lot of room for experimenting with recipes, so we keep our meals simple as well. I’d like to be more conscious about what I eat (we do eat pretty healthy already but could be doing better at times) but I’d hate to throw out unused/spoiled food because we can’t find the time to prepare a meal.

    1. You’re so right, Stefanie… grocery spending depends on a lot of factors and it’s really difficult to compare! I realize that. I am still always curious how other people handle their spending.
      I usually shop at three stores (Safeway, Trader Joe’s and the local Co-op) and I usually get my shopping done within an hour – that is because the stores are pretty close to each other. I understand that you don’t want to drive 20 minutes to get to a Trader Joe’s or a Whole Foods. I think overall Safeway is a pretty decent store that carries pretty much everything you might want.
      It’s amazing that you’re spending 20-25% more on food just by moving to a different state (is Washington more expensive than TX overall?).

      1. That’s great that all your go-to grocery stores are located close to one another. Technically, I could make the drive to the other Safeway that’s right next to Trader Joe’s but that would add a good chunk of time regardless. Cost of living expenses are definitely higher in WA: groceries, utilities, car insurance, gas, rent (luckily we get a stipend adjusted for location for the latter though).

  6. I have a completely different situation as I’m in Florida and I’m a single lady who doesn’t cook too often. I typically budget $300/month for my groceries, and I’m usually right at or a little below that range. I eat meat, which always drives the price up. But I don’t include eating out, which is a huge portion of my budget. I also buy a lot of convenience foods because I just don’t enjoy cooking (mainly because I usually have too many leftovers!)

    What I want to say about this post, though, is that grocery budgets are all relative. Living in CA, you have a higher cost of living as a whole, so it wouldn’t be fair to compare your grocery bill to those in other states. I think it all comes down to what your values are for what you eat (from what I see: buying local/organic, eating well, not wasting food) and if you are living within those values, that’s something not a lot of people can say for themselves! We all want to work on our budgets, I think, especially when it comes to the grocery store, but unless you could see significant areas where you could cut down, you have to be satisfied with where you are.

    1. You’re totally right – comparing prices in different states when the costs of living are so different, isn’t really a good idea…. I am still curious how others budget for groceries. I can understand that your budget is lower, since you’re cooking for yourself and eat out more.

  7. I cooked for 1.5 people, I would say, as maybe half the time I eat with Phil? I would say I spent around $400/month on groceries. I have different eating habits than others, though, as I only cook 2-3 real meals a week, and they are usually meals that yield 2-3 meals of leftovers. So the leftovers are my lunches and dinners during the week and then 2-3 nights a week I eat simple things like eggs on toast, scrambled eggs, or a tuna sandwich. And I don’t eat very much meat so that cuts down on the cost. Phil is also a simple eater as he will have a bowl of cereal for dinner. I think if I was around more in the evenings I would cook more but it seems rare for me to be home more than 1 week night these days (which I hope changes soon as my schedule is way too chaotic these days).

    1. I know that if I would cook for just myself most of the time, my grocery budget would be very different. J definitely eats for two and it shows in our meals. I usually have something leftover to take for lunch the next day, but we rarely ever have leftovers to freeze or use for a full second meal.

  8. I absolutely agree on the lower costs here in Germany! We spent so much more living in the Chicago area – it was insane how much money went into grocery shopping and living costs such as cable tv, phones, internet, gas etc. So glad to have left that behind us – on thing I surely don’t miss about the US!

    1. Oh, the German food prices… I miss them so ;)

  9. We spend a ridiculous amount on groceries. We budget $700/month but usually go over. I use coupons, shop sales, go to 3-4 different stores, and nothing really seems to help. I’ve even tried using budget meal-planning sites (https://budgetbytes.com). We don’t throw a lot of food out, either.

    1. This sounds like us! (Although… you have two kids, we don’t ;)) But I still see that you are employing a lot of the same habits (coupons, shop sales, 3-4 different stores and struggle with the same things that we do… I’m subscribed to that website by the way for meal ideas. Since she cooks for herself (I believe?) her budget is of course much lower in general.

  10. We have a budget of £250 for groceries, household products (cleaners, dishwashing detergent etc) and cat food. That’s about $380. This doesn’t include takeaways or eating out, and we probably spend another £80-100 ($120-150) on that. And some months we also spend a bit more on groceries, it depends on how much we have in the freezer etc. We do shop at budget supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl, sometimes ASDA (Walmart) and rarely elsewhere. Even if we did all our shopping at ASDA we’d be spending so much more. While we do try to be conscious of how much we’re spending, we could probably cut down a little more relatively easily by buying less junk food if we wanted or had to. If we bought all produce and meat organic we’d probably spend quite a bit more.

    1. I think Europe in general has lower food prices. I don’t know if that is true for England per se, but from what you’re telling me – your grocery budget is significantly lower.

      1. Might be true although food is a lot more expensive in the UK than in Germany. It’s been so long since I lived in the States so I can’t remember. We used to have a budget of £300 but when we bought the house we wanted to be a bit more frugal so cut it down to £250. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Heh.

        1. Do you meal plan? And do you eat mostly at home?

          1. No, we’ve tried it and it actually works well when we do but we don’t (yet). We do eat mostly at home. We take lunches to work from home and maybe have a takeaway once a week. But we do also buy ready made meals (like pizza or lasagna) sometimes depending on how busy we are.

  11. Hi San! I’ve found your blog through superduperfantastic’s post about 2015 spendings and I like it a lot :)

    I’m pretty new in California but can already say that we spend a lot on food here! Just like you we prefer to cook from scratch at home. And besides that my baking hobby adds up a huge amount of spent money to our bills :)

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