Is My Grocery Bill Too High?
by Gary Foreman
We are a family of four (me, my wife, and two daughters, ages 13 and 16). We live in Orange County, CA. Our average weekly cost for groceries runs approximately $375 or $1500 monthly. That does not include eating out. I'm trying to convince my wife that our grocery bill is excessively high for a family of four even with California's high cost of living. She feels it's a bit high, but matches up with most families here. What are your thoughts on this? Is there a site where we can find statistics on grocery spending for families living in California?
Good question. And, an important one, too. Because food is the third biggest item in most family's budgets (right behind home and auto). So overspending on groceries can ruin your financial plans quickly.
The U.S. Statistical Abstract contains the type of information that Bob's looking for. He'll find it at www.census.gov/compendia/statab/. To get the detailed reports, go to the section called "Income, Expenditures, Poverty, and Wealth: Consumer Expenditures." The information is generally about three years old, but current enough to be useful.
According to the Statistical Abstract, families with incomes less than $70,000 per year averaged spending $4,798 per year on food. Those with incomes between $70,000 and $79,999 averaged spending $7,818.
The average spent on food for all families in 2009 was $6,372.
What about family size? Those figures were for an average family of 2.5 members. And the average family included 6/10ths of a child under 18.
Bob's wife is partially correct. The average Los Angeles/Long Beach area family spent $7,531 on food. Of all the major metropolitan areas listed, it was the highest.
One reason it was more expensive was that people eat out more. Only 56% of the food expenses were prepared at home. By comparison in Tampa/St. Pete/Clearwater (with the lowest total expense) over 63% was for food made at home.
Given all the data, it would seem that Bob has a point. Spending $1,500 a month plus restaurant bills is significantly above average. But, I would caution Bob about being rigid in comparing his family to the average. The things that make our family unique (number and age of children, number of parents working outside the home, health and special dietary needs, etc.) can drastically affect grocery spending.
Rather than look at statistics, there are some other indicators that will let you know if you have a problem. None of them are scientific measurements. But, if there are some savings to be had, you'll recognize it. Plus, you'll have some idea where to find the money.
The first sign is the "what are we eating tonight" trap. You should know what's for dinner before noon. If you wait, you'll be more likely to eat fast food or prepackaged meals. In other words, you'll spend more.
The second test is to check your grocery cart to see how much packaging and preparation has been done to your food. Every time someone slices, dices or wraps plastic around food, it costs you. Sure, those snack packs are handy for school lunches. But, you'll pay dearly to save a few minutes a day. Do the math. You could be spending over $20 per hour to have someone cut and wrap cheese!
Next let's take a look in your freezer. Is it stocked with meals that you've precooked for future dinners? What about leftovers? Are they organized so they can be used? Or, is your freezer full of boxed meals from your grocer?
Speaking of leftovers, do you have an organized way to use them? Studies show that many families throw out 25% of the food they buy. Uneaten leftovers and food purchased but never served are a waste of your grocery dollar.
There are other signs that you're spending more than necessary for food, but these four will give you a quick and easy way to see if you have some work to do.
The good news for Bob's family is that it's fairly easy to save on groceries. You have many opportunities to save since you're buying food continually. And there are many tools to help you cut spending. Everything from pricebooks to menus and coupons. So Bob's family can solve the problem without moving away from Southern California!
Updated November 2013
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar Stretcher.com website and newsletters in 1996. He's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money and CreditCards.com. Gary shares his philosophy of money here. You can follow Gary on Twitter or visit Gary Foreman on Google+. Gary is also available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.
Take the Next Step
- Add up how much you are spending per month on food prepared in the home and then figure how much you spend per month on eating out or take out. Once you have your figures in hand, visit www.census.gov/compendia/statab/ to see how your family compares. Then, start thinking about how and where you can improve.
- Your groceries cost less when you get cash back! Checkout 51 can show you how!
- We are always finding new ways to help you trim food costs. Visit our food & groceries section each week to get tips for keeping more of your hard-earned dollars in your pocket.
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