Monday, July 29, 2013

The Cost of Feeding Our Family

We've been trying to live within a strict grocery budget for something like...our entire marriage!  I jest...a little.

For whatever reason, I have this idea that we can feed a family of six for $400/month.  It seems possible, doesn't it?  I consider ourselves to be pretty frugal when it comes to spending and we practice many ways of eating on the cheap.

We don't eat out except on a rare occasion and the only "prepared" foods we buy are cereal (Cheerios and Corn Flakes) and crackers (Ritz and Graham).  We make most things from scratch (although I'm still trying to stay on the homemade bread wagon...I seem to fall off pretty quickly each round).  We limit meals with meat to a couple times per week, buy dry beans and rice, buy in bulk when that saves money, and throw away very (and I do mean very) little food - the kids don't say that Daddies eat all the leftovers without due cause.

We also do not have any dietary restrictions that require us to pay more for our groceries.  No allergies.  No sensitivities.  No chronic illness.  It makes life easy.  Praise the Lord!

Not to mention the bazillion blogs and websites I read each month trying to glean frugal insights from others (I'll say here that I'm getting the point where everything I read is old news...and most of it we already put into practice).

$400/month seems like an attainable goal, right?

And yet we haven't met that goal in months.  In fact, it's probably been even more than a year or two since we've managed it.  I was blaming the increased prices on many grocery items (like beef and dairy) or even our own overspending.

But tonight I had an eye-opening experience.

According to the most recent FDA report (May 2013), the average cost of feeding our family (from the most frugal plan, based on ages of all individuals) should be more like this:

$719.60 / Month

According to this article, I could reduce this amount by 5% to have a more accurate estimate.  That in mind, our food bill should be more like this:

$683.62 / Month

That is a HUGE difference from what I perceived as being achievable.  Of course, I do consider that we may actually eat for less than this amount even when we're exceeding by a long shot our very limited budget.  So, I did a little number crunching (I must be a nerd because this was actually an enjoyable way to spend my Sunday evening).  Here's what I calculated:

FDA Model (Thrifty Plan, Family of 6, with 5% Reduction)
Daily Meals (Per Individual)
          Breakfast:  $0.75
          Snacks (2/day): $1.00 ($0.50/snack)
          Lunch: $1.00
          Dinner: $1.25 
Daily Meals (Whole Family)
          Breakfast:  $4.50
          Snacks (2/day):  $6.00 ($3.00/snack)
          Lunch: $6.00
          Dinner: $7.50
                    Daily Total: $24.00
                    Weekly Total: $168.00 

Chew Crew Actual Spending (Typical Weekday Meal Plan)
I did take in to account the differences in how much each person in our family eats.  Each meal was itemized by ingredient and amount of that ingredient.  For simplicity I added and averaged.  So, while Claude will definitely eat more than Jeremiah, the numbers resemble the amount of food (based on the prices we usually pay) our family actually eats.

The menu I used used reflects what we normally eat.  Because Claude packs his lunch and I do not always eat the same thing as the kids, there is quite a long list on some meals.  The cost was calculated based on the number of people and the amount per serving of each food item.

Also, the dinner I chose to calculate runs a little higher than most meals that we prepare.  However, it seems to average out throughout the month depending on what we choose to eat for lunch and dinner (the two most variable meals) and what we eat on the weekends.  Weekend meals range a bit more from the week because we are all at home and Claude is not packing his lunch.

Daily Meals (Per Individual)
          Breakfast:  $0.69
                (toast, cereal, yogurt, fruit)
          Snacks (2/day): $0.69 ($0.35/snack)
                (apple, cottage cheese, peanut butter, other fruit, crackers, cheese slices)             
          Lunch: $0.83
                (pasta salad, lentil soup, salad, PBJ, carrots, fruit)
          Dinner: $1.51
                (beef tacos, beans, rice)
Daily Meals (Whole Family)
          Breakfast:  $4.15
          Snacks (2/day):  $4.16 ($2.08/snack)
          Lunch: $4.95
          Dinner: $9.08
                    Daily Total: $22.34
                    Weekly Total: $156.38

This puts our average monthly grocery bill (and it is within a few dollars of what we actually spent in June 2013) at:

$625.52 / Month

My evaluation of this little exercise goes something like this:
1. I'm not going crazy!  Groceries really do cost more.  We're not overspending and being unwise with the resources we have.  What we're spending every month is in line with national averages for a family our size.  In fact, our monthly spending is 13% less than the unadjusted average according to the FDA.  Definitely NOT crazy.
2. I'm obviously crazy!  I am expecting, week after week, month after month, that we can pay a certain amount for groceries.  No matter how many times this number is proven unattainable, I still go back to the store (well-planned and even calculated to the penny) list in hand with the same unrealistic goal in mind.  What's the definition of insanity???  Yep...crazy.

So, there you have it, folks.  A reality check that is both freeing and frightening.

So, how much do you *try* to spend on groceries for yourself or your family each month?  How do you come out - over or under budget?


  1. We are empty nesters and I try to spend $500 a month. My grandchildren spend days here while their parents work and we have lots of company. So I really feed more than 2 people. Last month I spent $742. We eats lots of produce but that is really our only splurge.

    1. That sounds like a realistic goal. We also spend most of our grocery budget on fresh produce. I'm not sure what I have been thinking with our budget, except my goal grocery budget actually worked with our income and other expenses. I'm learning how to let go of my unrealistic expectations, to do my best in keeping the bill down, and to trust God to continue providing as He always has.

  2. Wow, it was right on for us! It's just my husband and I- we are both 24- and it says it should be about $111 a week for the low-cost plan. I usually spend about $115-120 (I assume this chart is just food, not cleaning supplies and things like that that we sometimes have to include in the budget). Very interesting!

    1. I thought it was interesting as well. You're right that it does not include cleaning supplies or toiletries, only food. We used to include those items in our grocery budget and even when we started having children we were able to keep it really low (under $400/month even after our second child). But the kids eat more doesn't go as far as it did before! :) Plus, I'm not just imagining things...some prices really have increased considerably in the past few years.

  3. That is actually very helpful. I have been having a hard time coming up with a realistic number for our family too, and that chart shows me I'm not being realistic.

  4. Nice stats Becca:) Those are eye-opening numbers. The last few months have been financially stressful for us and so I've learned, out of sheer necessity, that I can make our grocery budget work with $400. Before the financial meltdown I was spending $600 average. We are gluten-free which initially posed a unique challenge. But I've completely stopped buying GF products, amazingly. Large bags of rice and dry beans have been a staple. I stopped buying chips and cereal and other snacks, sticking to just sale fruit - I use the bulk section at HEB a lot too, and really love it! When the kids say they're hungry(out of habit or boredom) I make them drink a glass of water and wait 10 minutes before I give them a snack. A lot of times I think they just need more water and they think they're hungry. After 10 minutes, sometimes they forget that they are "hungry" and then when they "remember" it's almost meal time anyway:) I also made a great discovery recently - my kids don't react to spelt - so I will be making homemade spelt bread. Oh! and corn tortillas - major staple. And oats! Lot of oats! Which I've been buying from a co-op pretty cheap. I think that covers most of the major changes I made that helped me shave off about $200!

    1. Wow, Fabi! That's a huge savings each month! I'm still tying to beat the system and am eliminating crackers and cereal from our usual grocery list. We also eat a lot of beans and have been consistently having breakfast for dinner one night a week - scrambled eggs or veggie omelettes with some muffins or pancakes. I found a great recipe for DIY instant oatmeal packets. The kids put a scoop f the mix with some water in their bowls and prepare it just as easily as old cereal. It could be done GF with GF oats. We are also making our own bread products - tortillas, pita, English muffins, and sandwich bread are some we're trying out - but being frugal monetarily can mean being free with spending time so I still feel tempted to go the "easy way out" I'd love a bit more storage for buying truly in bulk, but for now I'm making improvements as I can and trusting God for the rest!