Food and drink costs are some of the trickiest things to balance in a budget. There are lots of things contributing this. Grocery bills usually vary week to week, you might get roped into one more meal out than you planned for, and special occasions inspire splurges left and right. This list could go on and on.
Variables like these make food budgeting difficult for even the most budget-conscious of us.
To complicate the matters, the USDA advises a food budget that ranges from $184.60–$368.00 per month for the average, middle-aged American man, and $163.30–$325.30 for the average middle-aged American women.
This is a frustratingly blanketed approach to the matter. It fails to take in a number of circumstances and needs, depending instead on assumptions and averages. It’s a vastly wide range, to boot, making it difficult to understand where exactly you should fall in the range.
Throw the blanket budget away, I say.
We’ll get more into the nitty-gritty of what to do once you throw said blanket away later in this post. But let’s first address the question the title of this post and which will lead our way:
“Are you spending too much money on food?”
How to Decide if You're Spending Too Much Money on Food
There are a few simple checkpoints that clue you into whether or not there’s room for improvement in your food budget. I’ve listed the big ones below.
You’ll notice that they’re not complicated. Their simplicity, however, shouldn’t undercut their importance. Answers to questions like these can be the fundamental stepping stones for your efforts.
Take a look, put yourself to the test, and take note of how many times you say “yes.”
The checkpoints are (in no particular order):
Are you Throwing Food Away?
According to nonprofit, Feeding America, Americans waste upwards of 40% of the food grown and transported in the US. This should be a major source of concern, and one that extends far beyond personal finance budgeting. That said, we’ll stick to the issue at hand here. Because, you see, food waste equates to financial waste.
If you’re consistently tossing outdated food items or spoiled produce, it’s a major red flag that your food spending is too high.
Doing a simple audit of food that “goes bad” or is tossed will give you a general idea of whether or not this is the case. Take particular care to keep an eye on produce. Fresh perishables are often a big culprit as they tend to go south faster than other foods.
Is Food Your Biggest Expense?
Here’s an undeniable truth for you: food spending will always be a necessary part of any budget. Unlike other things in life that can be put on hold or eliminated entirely, you need calories and you will likely need to pay for them.
The “keystone status” of food spending in your budget, however, doesn’t mean a food budget can’t be adjusted if wiggle room allows and your basic food needs are being met.
One easy way to assess whether food spending could be a candidate for financial trimming is to simply look at the food expenses compared to the other spending in your budget. If for example, you’re spending more on food than your rent, there might be something funky and fixable going on in your budget.
To weigh possible heavy-handedness in your food budget, look at a month of spending and categorize your expenses. Compare your total food purchases (this includes grocery bills, meals out, drinks out, etc.) against other segments of spending (like rent, savings, etc.).
Have you Consistently Spent More than Planned On Food for the Last Three Months?
It’s perfectly normal to overshoot a budget occasionally or to go through periods of “splurge” and “save.” But a stable financial plan requires that you’re able to balance the ebbs and flows to meet in the happy middle.
All that to say, if you’re overspending consistently then there’s either an issue with your budget or there’s an issue with your spending. Perhaps a bit of both. Dig into that.
Take a look at your spending over the last three months and rate yourself per month using “Significantly over-budget,” “Slightly over-budget,” “On-budget,” “Slightly under-budget,” “Significantly under-budget” and go from there.
Do You Feel Uncomfortable When You Think About How Much You’re Spending on Food?
Did you, by chance, Google the question, “Am I spending too much money on food?” and happen to land upon this page? If that’s the case, was it — if I may ask — because you felt that you were spending too much on food?
That gut feeling that you’re spending beyond your means could very well be a clue into a deep, dark desire to change. Discomfort is often an excellent source of knowledge.
Don’t ignore the feeling! It’s valuable information and could also be the flint upon which you spark inspiration to make a change.
Did you answer yes to any of the questions above? Here are a few ways to correct and combat.
Answering yes to any (or all) of the questions above is nothing to be nervous about. We all face the reality of unwieldy or unsustainable food spending at some point in our life. The good news is you now have an advantage over the situation: awareness. We can’t actively change what we don’t acknowledge. Kudos to you for taking the first step!
How to Get on Track with A Comfortable Amount of Food Spending
Now as for the other things we can do to get back on track with our food spending, here are a few options:
Set Your Benchmark
Similarly to what I mentioned about awareness of overspending being critical to success, you can’t improve a budget that you can’t track. If you don’t have a food budget then now’s the time to set one. It won’t be perfect (and it will likely take tweaking), but you must set a benchmark if you’re to measure your progress and improve.
If you have a budget, take a step back from it and consider whether it’s a reasonable benchmark. It may need to be adjusted to fit your lifestyle more appropriately.
For example, if you’ve set yourself a $40 per month budget, you might need to loosen the reigns. That’s an incredibly difficult mark to hit. Conversely, if you’ve set a $400 dollar a month budget but it consistently gets eaten up by expensive meals out, you may need to reign in. There are many tactics to saving money on food which you can find here.
Create A "Food Only" Spending Account
You can’t spend more than you physically have access to. So if your food spending is getting absolutely crushed by spending on meals out, segment and control that spending.
One way to do that is by creating a savings or checking account dedicated entirely to your food spending. What you put in there each month (automated from your paycheck, ideally) is what you have to spend.
This technique gives you the comforting (though nerve-wracking at first) boundaries you need for your spending.
Say "No" More than You Say "Yes"
It’s hard to say no to things that bring you joy, happiness, companionship, friendship, or delight. Food, while first and foremost a basic need, is also a vehicle that can bring all of those positive feelings to us. It’s absolutely essential to remember, however, that it’s just that: a vehicle. A meal out does not make you a better friend, nor does it indicate that you will have a happier life.
We need to start saying “no” to the assumption that spending on food equates to investing in a higher quality of life. You can achieve happy friendships and happy lives without the excessive spending out on restaurant meals. This is tough love and a hard line. But we’ve been convinced by so many people that a key element of a successful life is to spend $20 on a cocktail after work. Untrue. Start saying no.
You’ll notice I didn’t touch couponing or only shopping sales. Those are an excellent way to reduce a bill, but they’re also symptomatic fixes. The above tips take into account a more holistic approach to controlling your spending.
By all means apply tips like “buy in bulk if possible,” “shop around for the best price,” etc. I’d heartily suggest, however, that you take a more holistic view into account as well. The habitual changes are the ones that will allow you to balance your budget in a healthy and sustainable way.
A Final Word
This post assumes that you have enough cash flow to consistently afford food basics for you and anyone you support. It does not account for the hundreds of thousands who have minimal funds that don’t extend to affording the nutritional basics. If that’s the case for you, please, please, please, know that you’re not alone. There are a variety of options available to you.
If you’re curious how you might use additional food programs to supplement basic needs, here are a few excellent resources:
*Please note that while food and water are a basic right, legislation for food programs will vary state-to-state.