Several years ago, I discovered that the USDA publishes a Cost of Food at Home chart, broken down by age and gender. This chart allows you to compare your own food expenditures with the average cost of a nutritious diet at different budget levels–Thrifty, Low Cost, Moderate and Liberal. The Thrifty Food Plan is the basis for food stamp allotments.
This chart is a real eye-opener, because it’s based on what people actually spend on food, not what out-of-touch bureaucrats believe to be reasonable. I immediately got out my calculator, and based on my information in QuickBooks, estimated that our food expenditures were probably within the Thrifty plan. However, I wasn’t satisfied with this estimation, for several reasons:
1) At that time, I wasn’t keeping detailed records of all credit card expenditures. I was mainly concerned with accurately recording deductible expenses.
2) I wasn’t keeping cash receipts for small, non-deductible purchases.
3) I didn’t break down Wal-Mart receipts, which usually had both grocery and household supply purchases.
Being as irritatingly detailed as I am, I decided that I had to do a better job of record-keeping before I could accurately assess our food budget. I started breaking all credit card receipts down into detailed categories, such as groceries, dining out, clothing, cleaning supplies, etc. I also kept all cash receipts and stored them in a small accordion file, broken down by month. Not only did this detailed record-keeping help me in planning our monthly household budget, it also gave me a very accurate picture of how much we spend each month on food.
It should be noted that the USDA chart shows the cost of food only, and presumes no restaurant meals. If the cost of dining out was included, the average figures would be much higher. It’s very easy to spend $100 or more each month eating in restaurants, which can effect your cost average significantly. When figuring our monthly food costs, I did include the amount we spend on restaurant meals, because we do eat out a couple of times a month. I reasoned that I could hardly call myself thrifty if my grocery expenditures were within the Thrifty plan, but my monthly dining out expenses weren’t considered.
Based on the December 2007 figures (the most recent available), the average monthly “food-at-home” costs for a family like ours are:
Our 2007 monthly average, including all restaurant meals, was $463.55, which puts us below the Thrifty average. I consider this to be one of my greatest frugal triumphs. I must stress that cutting costs does not have to mean cutting quality. My husband comments almost every day on how delicious our meals are, probably because they’re cooked from scratch with quality ingredients. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that we always have dessert:)
The USDA also publishes a booklet called Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals, which can be downloaded in PDF format. I keep a copy in the “Food” section of my HMG. It’s a very handy reference, which includes nutrition information, recipes and detailed shopping lists. It’s a great place to start if you want to get Thrifty!