How Much for Groceries?

The Dollar Stretcher
by Gary Foreman


Dear Dollar Stretcher,
Are there any statistics of what the average family or couple spends each week on groceries? When I read what families spend on groceries, I am always mortified that my husband and I alone spend approximately $130 per week. We are vegetarians, on top of that! We do buy all organic dairy and some, but not all, produce, which certainly raises our bill. We don't even live in a particularly expensive part of the country. And this bill is strictly for our breakfasts and dinners, lunch is eaten out at restaurants. I think the articles are probably not near the norm, right?


A lot of people have the same question. How much should I spend on groceries? And are those families that we read about really normal? Can you actually feed tasty meals to a family of four for $50 per week? Let's take a look and see if we can unravel some of the mystery surrounding our grocery bills.

To begin we'll take a look at the U.S. Statistical Abstract for 1999. It shows that the weekly food cost per family varies dramatically. Take a family of two aged 20 to 50. A so-called 'thrifty' family will average $58 per week. A 'moderate' family would spend $91. While the 'liberal' family will spend $113. That's roughly twice what the thrifty family spent. (note: the descriptions come from the Statistical Abstract, not from your author. No hate mail, please!) So Terri's weekly bill of $130 plus lunches is certainly on the high side.

You'll note that there's a big difference between the low and high. And it points to an important fact. What we choose to eat and how we buy it can make a major difference in our grocery bills. There are very few areas in our budget where we can make such a significant financial difference without major lifestyle changes.

Perhaps your family is larger than Terri's. A family of four including two children between the ages of 6 and 11 would spend an average of $156 per week in the 'moderate' category. And each additional child would add to that bill. For instance, a one year-old would add an additional $22 per week. A 18 year-old son would mean an extra $45 per week. Yes, teens really do eat more!

Another way to look at it is that 14% of the average family's non-tax expenses goes to buy food. Roughly 60% of that is for food prepared and eaten at home. The balance is prepared or eaten outside the home. So we spend nearly half of our food budget on items that aren't home cooked. A lot of potential savings here.

Where you live makes a difference, too. Someone living in San Antonio, TX will only spend 88% of the national average on food. Another person shopping in San Francisco, CA will spend 118% of the national average.
What about our eating habits? According to the Statistical Abstract, consumption of red meat has declined from 126 pounds per person per year in 1980 to 111 pounds in 1997. Poultry has taken up the slack. The average American consumed 24 more pounds of poultry in 1997 than they did in 1980.

And Terri is not alone in shifting to fruits and vegetables. Both fruits and vegetables are more common in our diets. Fruit consumption went from 262 pounds to 294 pounds per year. The average person increased the amount of vegetables they ate by 80 pounds in that 17 year period. So Terri should have a lot of company at the fruit stand.
What's causing Terri's bill to be so high? It could be the organically grown foods. A little research turned up a group called Specialty Food Distributors and Manufacturers Association. A study quoted on their website concludes "Not only are specialty foods a higher margin product for retailers, most specialty food categories sell over 90% of the specialty foods at full retail price."

The same study states "specialty food consumers typically purchase more than one specialty product at a time." So not only is it doubtful that Terri's finding bargains in the organic section, but she's probably buying quite a bit of it, too.
What can Terri do to lower her bill? She can do the obvious things. Plan a menu. Don't buy impulse items. Buy sale items and use coupons.

If she's really serious about saving money she could begin to keep something called a 'price book'. That's just a small notebook that lists the items that you commonly buy. For each item you make a note when and where you found a low price. That way when you're shopping you'll know when you really have found a good price and can stock up. Shoppers who use a price book often save up to 25%.

Since Terri likes specialty items like organically grown foods, she should try to find out more about how they get to her grocer. It's possible that she can buy those items closer to their source and save money. Remember, specialty foods have a high markup.

Finally, it's important to note that averages are just that. They tell you where the middle is. That doesn't mean that you should spend that amount. Terri may find that spending extra for specific food items is worthwhile. And if her family can afford it, that's fine. She may decide that she'd rather spend her money on healthy eating instead of expensive cars or vacations. But, if she's struggling financially, she might need to consider some changes to help get that grocery bill in line.


Gary Foreman is a former purchasing manager who currently edit's The Dollar Stretcher website You'll find hundreds of free articles to help you save time and money. Visit Today!


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