Is Your Grocery Budget Too Big?

Are you a thrifty shopper or do you go all out when stocking the fridge? Do you head to the market to buy whatever looks good regardless of cost or do you stick to a list and count every penny? Try gauging your habits against the official standard set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) four-tiered food plan budgets, representing so-called thrifty, low-cost, moderate, and liberal sums spent for food consumed at home. Even penny-wise shoppers may exceed these bounds.

The government-stamped budgets for a nutritious basket of consumables are divided into weekly and monthly averages by gender, age, and family size. For example, monthly totals for a mother and father with two children between the ages of 6 and 11 amount to $650.50 (thrifty), $854.60 (low-cost), $1,064.60 (moderate), and $1,293.20 (liberal). For singles, the weekly budget for a 19- to 50-year-old woman is set at, respectively by budget type, $38.50, $48.40, $59.80, and $76.40; for a man in the same age cohort, the USDA food plan allots $43.30, $55.80, $70, and $86, again, respectively.

Understanding the Budgets.

The USDA's food plan budgets, prepared by experts with prices drawn from the Consumer Price Index, inform a host of government policies. The thrifty plan determines Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and the other budget plans affect amounts paid for child support, foster care, and alimony.

The weekly and monthly budgets aren't designed for consumers who love their fast food or even sweet desserts. Sticking with the USDA budgets means eliminating highly-processed and prepared items from the shopping cart and filling it with low-cost fruits, vegetables, dairy, and other protein sources. There are precious few pennies for pricier organic products or berries and whipped cream after dinner. Indeed, the viability of the cheapest plan (i.e., thrifty) has been questioned by the Food Research and Action Center, largely due to assumptions about food availability, affordability, variety, waste, and the amount of time needed for proper food preparation that the report asserts are unrealistic.

The Plan vs. Reality.

How do these four government-stamped food plan budgets compare to actual spending by real people?

As it turns out, a fair share of Americans outspend even the most generous (i.e., liberal) food budget prepared by the USDA. The latest numbers we found from Gallup indicate that 10 percent of American families (the number of people in the household is undefined) spend $300 or more each week on food, while the USDA plan figures $298.50 is quite sufficient for a family of four with two pre-teen children. The same survey also shows that men and women spend, respectively, an average $157 and $146 weekly on food, sums that are approximately double the top USDA plan. Meanwhile, last year Gallup found that 20 percent of Americans were hard-pressed to afford food for themselves and/or their families.

How You Can Lower Food Costs.

Regardless whether your food expenses fall within the official ranges or completely outside them, savvy shopping can pay off. These tips can help.

  • Choose generic or store brands rather than brand-name products when buying pantry staples. They are typically much cheaper, and even chefs report regularly buying generic ingredients for their home kitchens.
  • Grow your own food. At the very least, try growing herbs indoors.
  • Shop at discount or budget-priced markets such as Aldi, Walmart, and Kroger. Aldi often posts the lowest prices overall and Walmart boasts the cheapest brand-name prices. Kroger leads the pack with selection, customer service, store-brand quality, coupons, and a loyalty program.
  • Know what to buy at high-end stores such as Whole Foods. Cheapism found that select Whole Foods products, including some in the organic 365 Everyday Value line, are cheaper than similar items at the supermarket.

Questions for You.

How much do you spend on food each week? Do you think the USDA food plan budgets are reasonable? Post a comment on our Facebook page.