One of the questions I get the most, both by email and in person, is about setting a food budget. Here are some suggestions to get you on the right path:
What should my monthly food budget be?
There's not a exact number I can give you for setting a food budget. It depends on how many are in your family, your eating habits, your lifestyle, your dietary needs, etc. Take a look at the USDA's Cost of Food table, where you can calculate food costs for you or your family at levels from “thrifty” to “liberal.” You also need to look at what you're currently spending. Track your grocery bills, eating out, and other food purchases for one month. From there, make a decision about reducing your spending. Let's say you're currently spending $1,000 on both groceries and eating out. The goal for next month could be to reduce that by 20%; for many, it's just a matter of eating out less and cooking more. For others, it's about planning meals so you make less trips to the store with less impulse buying.
What techniques should I use to save on food?
Take a look at my 31 Days of Grocery Savings series, where I go into detail about all the small habits I use that add up to big savings. Don't try to implement them all at once! Choose a few to get started; for example, consider serving a meatless meal once or twice a week. If you haven't before, pay attention to your store ads and purchase items at their lowest sale price. By focusing on some new habits, you should see a decrease in your food costs right away, which will encourage you to continue.
How do I stick to the budget?
Some people use the envelope system, using cash only for all shopping during the month. When you shop with cash, you're less likely to make impulse buys since you have to account for every penny. I do something similar, but I keep track on paper of my groceries and eating out; this has been working for years so I'm sticking with it! If a monthly budget is too large a chunk for you, consider a weekly amount to spend on food. This is a great place to start if you feel your food expenses are out of control.
If you haven't used a food budget, now is a great time to start! Tackling your food expenses is one the areas you have the most control, which is why it's often the first part of your overall budget to reduce. Once you have positive results, you can apply some of the same habits to other areas of spending–like entertainment, clothing and other variable expenses.
Have you tried setting a food budget? How is it going?