After college, I had NO CLUE what a food budget was and how much money I would need every month to feed myself.
The realization that my Monday to Friday Chipotle habit was adding up to $200/month was a seriously rude awakening. Yikes!
I felt so frustrated that despite being in the privileged position of having graduated without student loans and making a good salary, I still wasn’t saving any money. I was basically in the best position you could be in for saving money, but it just wasn’t happening. For my first six months out of school, I broke even every month.
When you’re new to it, handling your money feels intimidating and scary. I was afraid to look at my credit card statements and figure out where the money was going. When I finally did, I realized that money isn’t something to fear; we can control where it goes. That’s essentially what a budget does!
I was 22 when I started thinking about budgeting, and it was clear where I had to cut back on spending: bar hopping, taxis, clothes and food. That’s when I first got into meal prep and started keeping track of my grocery budget.
Meal prepping helped me enjoy home-cooked food more than takeout, and after some trial and error, I fell in love with cooking. The savings started to come easily.
Unlike fixed expenses — rent, utilities, Netflix — a food budget is hard to nail down.
Think about all the factors:
- Where you live (and how much groceries typically cost in your region)
- Your income
- How much you need to eat to be full and satisfied
- Any dietary restrictions/preferences you may have (vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, etc.)
- Which supermarkets are convenient for you to get to
- How much time you have to cook
- Whether you prefer to cook or dine out/eat take out, and whether to include dining out and takeout in your overall food budget
- Your food priorities (seeking organic or locally sourced food, avoiding a particular ingredient, etc.)
With so many factors to consider, it can be tough to land on a number and stick to it. In this post, I want to walk you through the three steps you can take to get a solid idea of how much you can spend on food, and make decisions about how much you should pay for your financial goals.
My original food budget looked something like this:
Groceries: $60/week | $240/mo
Restaurants: $40/week | $160/mo
Takeout: $30/mo (this wasn’t a weekly thing for me)
Total: $100/week | $450/mo
I used to include alcohol/bars in my food budget, but since I go out so rarely it’s just part of my “entertainment” budget now.
How does $450/month for a single person in New York City sound to you?
Keep in mind this was my budget when I lived alone in Manhattan, where food is more expensive than other places I’ve ever lived. I also live with my partner now, and we manage to spend $500/month on food together — including restaurants.
I don’t have dietary restrictions, I don’t care about buying organic (my budget would have to be higher), and I eat most of my meals at home. When I do eat out, I don’t go to expensive places. My life is pretty sedentary, so I don’t need to eat as much food as, say, a professional basketball player! I shop at local grocery chains, like Key Foods, not specialty stores, or “health food” stores. If I was willing to travel, I could probably buy cheaper groceries, but I don’t want to spend hours shlepping to different boroughs or riding the subway just to pick up groceries! (I hate the subway. A lot.)
See how all of these factors matter?
I can’t say what the best or most ideal food budget is, because it’s different for everyone. But I CAN help you nail down a budget that’s realistic for you. Let’s start with the most important question/step:
1. How much did you spend last month on food?
This is the easiest way to start nailing down a food budget.
If you use a credit card, you can easily review your food spending over the last month by checking your charges, either in your most recent statement or on your banking app. Just add up every charge from grocery stores, restaurants, and takeout places. You’ll really get to see how often you eat out vs. grocery shop, and how the two compare cost-wise.
If you don’t use a credit card, I recommend tracking your food spending (restaurants and grocery trips) for at least two weeks starting today — preferably weeks that are “normal” when you’re not traveling or hosting. You can double that amount and get a feel for how much you’re currently spending per month. You can keep the receipts or track the costs in a journal or the notes app on your phone.
A budgeting app, like Mint (that’s what I use), makes it easier to get these totals if your cards are connected. However, you should make sure to double-check, because budgeting apps can sometimes mislabel your charges.
Here’s my restaurant spending from last month, according to Mint. Definitely on the higher side, since I took my mom and my boyfriend out to dinner for their birthdays!
It might mean shopping at different stores, cooking more (I can help you with that!), or changing your overall grocery shopping strategy.
If you want to learn how to shave $20 off your next grocery trip, sign-up for Workweek Lunch’s 7-day free trial, which includes my free grocery guide, and learn all my tips!
2. Test different weekly budgets to find out what’s realistic.
Now that you know how much you spend without trying to cut back, decide how much you want to spend. Be realistic, and you can start small — if you spent $600 on food last month, suddenly cutting it to $300 probably isn’t going to work.
The best way to locate the happy medium between “lean, but comfortable” and “completely unrealistic” is to test different budgets each week.
If you’re currently spending $200/week, try to cut it back to $150 for the next week. If that’s easy, try $100/week. See how much you can cut without feeling a loss or struggling to stay within the budget.
You’ll quickly find out what’s doable for you and what’s not. This is exactly what I did when trying to cut back on food spending, and it worked well! Instead of dramatically cutting back, do it in steps.
Within three or four weeks, you’ll find your conscious comfort zone.
Here are some budget-friendly resources that will help you cut back on how much you’re spending:
- These recipes are ideal for anyone without easy access to a microwave and they each cost less than $2 per serving, and they actually taste good!
- Making cold brew coffee has become part of our meal prep routine. Like batch cooking, making a big batch of coffee each week has saved us time, money and we’ve significantly reduced waste. Learn how we save over $150 per month by making cold brew coffee.
- According to the USDA Americans waste around $370 a year on groceries. Reduce your food waste and save money by learning how to make a grocery list and avoid over shopping.
3. Track your spending with an app or cash envelopes.
It’s fairly easy to SET a budget. Sticking to it is the hard part!
Before I started seriously budgeting, I NEVER looked at credit card statements or the Mint app (even though I had been “using” it for years). The most important habit you have to form to be able to stick to your grocery budget is to consistently check and track your spending.
If you’re not into using credit cards or budgeting apps, cash envelopes are a popular way to go. Once you’ve determined your food budget, you take out that amount of cash for the month or the week, and use it for whatever you’ve set a budget for — in this case, food. I haven’t done this before, but it’s really useful! Once you’re out of cash, that’s it.
Just remember, these are things to TRY. One of these methods might not work for you, but you won’t know that until you test different ways to track your spending. You don’t have to commit to any of this long-term! Treat it like an experiment.
More budgeting apps you can try:
Although I suggest Mint —I’m not affiliated, just a longtime customer. You can set a budget, and Mint will alert you when you’re close to hitting it or if you go over. But here are some other popular options:
- YNAB (You Need a Budget) — After the 34-day free trial, YNAB comes at a cost, but for the app’s devotees, it’s well worth it. It forces users to spend within their actual income and is known for helping people pay down debt.
- Wally — Wally is free, and it’s one of the best out there for easily tracking your expenses, especially if you use a mix of cash and cards for food. Not only can you connect your various accounts, but you can also take photos of your receipts, and Wally will automatically add that info.
- Tiller — If you love a spreadsheet, Tiller might be for you. It does include a cost after the 30-day trial, but it’s less than YNAB. It imports all of your spending into either Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel, and gives you templates for tracking your spending, visualizing, and budgeting, but it also allows you to use the data in whatever way works best for you.
- Pennies — Pennies has a one-time cost of $3.99, and is a great one for freelancers who don’t have a consistent bi-monthly paycheck coming in. It allows for flexibility while still keeping careful track of what you spend and where you spend it. Plus, it allows for any currency!
- Goodbudget — If you like the idea of the envelope system but don’t actually want to use envelopes, you are Goodbudget’s target audience. They offer a free plan and a premium plan, and the app basically separates your monthly income into digital “envelopes.” It does require more discipline than a physical envelope would, but if you have that discipline, it might be perfect for you.
Are you ready to start saving money on groceries?
If you know you’d like to cut back on food spending, using a food budget will help you get closer to your financial goals, whether it’s paying off student loans or buying a house in seven years.
For me, it’s been instrumental in building an emergency fund and saving money for snowboarding, which is my one true passion in life (and a costly hobby). Having a goal in mind, whether it’s one super-specific trip you want to go on or a more nebulous idea of what you want your life to look like, can help motivate you to stick to the budget you’ve set.
Now you know how to create a food budget. All that’s left is sticking to it.
Meal prepping can help you save money on groceries and stick to your food budget!
It’s packed with nine of my BEST tips and strategies for keeping grocery costs super low and more tips and tricks that work no matter where you live, how many people are in your family, or how you eat.
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