From impulse grocery store purchases to weekday lunches, morning coffees and restaurant meals, food can easily eat up the bulk of our monthly budgets if we’re not careful. But it is possible to control these costs. In fact, the U.S Department of Agriculture’s “Thrifty Plan” for food budgeting says a two-person household can eat a nutritionally balanced diet for just $385 per month.
One of the easiest ways to manage your overall spending is to follow the 50-20-30 budgeting system. That’s when you spend 50 percent of your monthly take-home pay on necessary (usually fixed) living expenses, like housing, debt payments and basic groceries; save and invest 20 percent; then use the remaining 30 percent for flexible costs, including restaurant meals and takeout.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American household spends between 12 to 13.6 percent of its income on groceries and food outside the home. But you don’t have to be average.
Ultimately, the right amount of money to allocate to groceries and other food expenses is up to you—and hinges on how much you want to spend on other expenses. For example, your restaurants, happy hours and other “fun” food expenses could conceivably take up 30 percent of your take-home pay. But then you’d have nothing left for clothing, entertainment gifts or travel.
If you’re not quite sure where to start, but want to save, aim to scale back your food expenses by 1 or 2 percent at first—then make adjustments as needed.
To trim your food costs, keep these tips in mind:
Meal-plan around what’s in season and on sale. If beef prices are rising, eat more chicken. If you find a great deal on your favorite rice (a staple with a two- or three-month shelf life), stock up. Just be sure not to buy extra products you won’t eat just because they’re on sale; you’ll likely end up wasting money and food.
Restaurant meals, per serving, are far more expensive than home-prepared meals. For instance, a restaurant burger costs an average of $7.07 more than one prepared at home, and a serving of spaghetti in a restaurant costs an average of $8.94 more than one made at home, according to research by Datafiniti.
That’s not to say you should never indulge—just be more conscious about when and why you do it. Even if you scale back by one restaurant or delivery meal per week, you can save $40 or more a month.
If you’re an omnivore, try going meatless once a week. Beans, legumes, eggs and other protein-rich foods can provide the protein you need at a fraction of the cost of meat.
If you always reach for brands you know over generics, you could be paying 25 percent more than you have to. Instead, avoid going straight for brand names for bread, cereal, crackers, cheese and other staples and simply purchase the one with the best price. Store-brand products often have the same ingredients but cost much less.
Join grocery store loyalty programs and use coupon apps to score discounts on items you already plan to buy. And if you have a cash-back credit card, check for rotating “bonuses” on food-related categories. For example, a card may offer 2 percent cash back on all purchases, but up that to 5 percent for a limited time for spending at restaurants or supermarkets.