How does your grocery bill compare?

Is My Grocery Bill Too High?

by Gary Foreman

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Hello Gary,
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?

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 USDA publishes the type of information that Bob's looking for. He'll find it by viewing USDA Food Plans: Cost of Food. Just select the most recent report from the list to get weekly and monthly averages for 4 different types of food spending plans.

According to the USDA, the average family of 4 spent between $559.10 and $1278.70 on food in the month of October 2016. Even with California's higher cost of living, Bob's family is spending more than most other families.

Given the data, it would seem that Bob has a point. Spending $1,500 a month plus restaurant bills is 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.

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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!

Take the TDS Pantry Challenge.
Clean out that pantry, fridge and freezer and see how much extra cash you can free up this month!

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 2016

Gary Foreman

Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar website and newsletters in 1996. He's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money, and Gary shares his philosophy of money here. You can follow Gary on Twitter. 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. Then, start thinking about how and where you can improve.
  • Get cash back on the groceries you buy. Checkout 51 can show you how!
  • Continue to trim food costs by visiting our food & groceries section to get tips and tools for keeping more of your hard-earned dollars in your pocket.
  • Join those who 'live better...for less' - Subscribe to The Dollar Stretcher newsletter, a weekly look at how to stretch both your day and your dollar! Subscribers get a copy of our ebook Little Luxuries: 130 Ways to Live Better...For Less for FREE!

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