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Old 12-07-2006, 08:12 PM   #1
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Monthly Food Budget

In July I established a food budget as an experiment, and have stuck to it faithfully for almost five months now. The budget wasn't 'necessary'; as I'm generally pretty careful about spending money, I can pretty much do what I want.

I had fallen into a pattern of eating out a lot - trash food mostly, and thought that setting a budget might help me to eat better, and save some money also. I had no idea what I was spending on food; keeping track of nothing.

With no idea of what a reasonable budget might be (It's just me.), and internet searches not turning out to be much help, I wound up guesstimating a number. $300.00 a month.

The first month and a half was tough - and I was having to monitor the money pretty closely. In November, it was surprisingly easy. December is off to a fine start. I'm averaging about $2.50 under budget each month. I have not (save for a couple of 'necessary exceptions' that I did not count as violations) eaten out even one time, a dramatic change from eating out (junk) 5 - 6 days a week. Sticking to the budget brought that to an immediate end.

Something of a 'sugar junkie', I have also instituted a rule against anything but 'home made' desserts (No bags of M&Ms allowed:)), wresting a little more control there as well.

Today I was given the best resource that I have seen so far for getting at what a 'reasonable' budget might really be.
http://www.usda.gov/cnpp/FoodPlans/U.../foodmay06.pdf

Turns out that my $300.00 is almost dead on for the USDA definition of the 'Liberal Plan' for my age group. Though I am now making the budget and not feeling as though I'm suffering in the process, it still doesn't feel so 'liberal'.

Whatever I was spending on food before instituting the budget, it was a whole lot more; probably at least $200.00 a month more - and I'm not really missing anything. The amount and quality of my home cooking is way up. (Even the 'bad' stuff has got to be a whole lot better than what I would get going somewhere.)

I do likely have the luxury of having more 'controllable' time than the average person, a tremendous advantage for someone that wants to cook as much as possible.

$300.00, defined as 'Liberal' by the USDA still doesn't seem all that liberal to me when considering the time (and skill) constraints of the average person. Yet I am not unware that whole families must, and do, eat on less than what I spend on myself.

Though I have the luxury of not 'having to', I'm planning to continue my experiment of closely monitoring and allocating a food budget. The only thing that I really have to be wary of right now is budgeting 'staple' items. $15.00 for bottle of good EVOO, and $10.00 or $15.00 for some spices quickly puts a big hit on the budget without even having anything to actually eat; a good time to go with a 'cheap' recipe of something with a good yield.

So - the question is: What kind of budgets are y'all using? Do you keep track of $$ at all? Eat out much? Deliberately develop low cost, good yield recipes? What do people really spend? Does the 'average' person eat out more than they eat in? That costs $$$.

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Old 12-07-2006, 08:31 PM   #2
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Hmmm...I'm not sure what grocery prices are in the US, but my budget ends up being about 1/3 less than the moderate levels for my family. Since that also has to stretch to cover allowances for the kids and the offerings at church I guess we end up in the lower third of things. We eat pretty well so I can't imagine what it would be like to be on the Liberal plan. We'd be lardbutts in no time.

I do a few cost saving things.

1. Buy bulk. Things like cereals, chicken breasts, pasta, flour, sugars etc. Those things we use a lot of and regularly I buy at Costco.

2. Use more scratch items. I do this more for the taste than anything else, but its a great money saver too. I bake from scratch and all our desserts are scratch. I don't buy jarred sauces etc as a general rule which lowers the cost.

3. I plan the bulk of my grocery $ to go to fresh stuff. Produce, cheese, milk, eggs, that stuff. Its very pricy, but if you buy what is in season it can be cheaper.

4. Lunches. This is where the majority of your $ could go. Things like juice boxes, granola bars etc are a LOT of $. My kids don't go without, but I buy them sparingly and again, in bulk. DH will take the leftovers, but the kids won't. And I won't send them pizza pops or stuff like that. They take tortilla roll ups, or soup in a thermos, or deli meat sandwiches. Sometimes its just cheese, pepperoni and some fruit and a treat.

Edit: We don't eat out much. We save it up and do a really nice restaurant a few times a year. Otherwise, its home cooking for us.
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Old 12-07-2006, 11:02 PM   #3
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I'm perfecting the grocery shopping technique for my area. If it can be bought in bulk and kept for a while, then it is. For example, I went our and bought 10 lbs of beef roast for just over $2.00/lb. I quartered it, and found that for the ~2.5 lb. roast that cost me around $6.00 costs around a couple bucks more pre-cut into the smaller size. If it can be frozen for an "extended" period, that's what I do.

Otherwise, of the three major grocers (Super Walmart is just starting to break into the metro area and is not included in the three), Super Target is the least expensive. Our other two key players are Cub and Rainbow.

I've found you can't beat Sam's Club pricing for a lot of stuff. Milk for around $2.00 a gallon, depending on the fat content. For sure buying the meat in bulk is less then buying at the grocer (even Super Target).
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Old 12-08-2006, 01:46 AM   #4
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I've found it helps to delve into ethnic cooking a little bit to help you save money. I spent a long time during a summer really focusing on asian cuisine, and found a few really great asian grocers in the area, and you can really get alot for very little at places like that. I think my very first trip there I came home with 15 lbs. of jasmine rice, about 10 lbs. of wide noodles, 40 oz. of soy sauce, 25 oz. of good rice wine vinegar, and some siracha (chili sauce) all for about $20. I've since started buying certain produce there as well; whenever I need napa cabbage I go there and find the most monstrous napas you've ever seen, for little over a dollar. Their root vegetables are pretty cheap, and you can also get a lot of other asian produce and ingredients that are extremely difficult to find anywhere else.

Another tip is to make your kitchen efficient. Don'y buy dry gravy packets, but make gravy using the fond at the bottom of your pans. What to do with chicken bones? Save em and make stock with them. Shrimp shells? Make shrimp stock ( btw, uncooked and unshelled shrimp are always much cheaper than ones already peeled). Buy your meats in bulk... ie. a whole chicken instead of just brests, and learn how to properly break down a chicken. Craving filet mignon? Buy yourself a whole tenderloin and butcher it yourself. Same with ribeye, and pork loin as well. Look for sales, and plan your menus around what you can get for cheap. This goes especially for meats. I save more money on meats/poultry/and fish than all other food ctegories combined. I am able to get my pork loins and beef tenderloins at 50% off about 95% of the time. I butcher into individual portions and freeze, and it keeps well.

By cooking oils in bulk as well. I buy my peanut oil about a 1/2 gallon at a time. I try to use pomace olive oil for regular pan frying, and use the EVOO for stuff that really benefits from the extra flavor.

If you're into baking, you can save tons of money by buying flour in bulk. Our grocer carries 25 lb. bags of it for about $7... to buy a pound of name brand flour costs about 1/2 of that.
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Old 12-08-2006, 06:18 AM   #5
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If you are going to keep track of what you spend, you may as well keep track of your inventory, as well.
At work I keep track of everything I spend on food...all the food, milk, produce, plastic wraps, paper products, chemicals for cleaning. I also take inventory every week to determine what my total food cost per week is. I average about 32% which is pretty good, considering my customers can eat as much as they want, I'll always make more.

If you take the inventory, you'll be able to see that even though you spent money on an expensive spice or oil, you still have that product on your shelf for some time.

There is a difference between money in the bank and money on the shelf. We always prefer to have money in the bank. However, since money on the shelf is necessary, you may as well count it. Think of it as an investment.
There are computer programs that will help you set up an accurate inventory.
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Old 12-08-2006, 06:37 AM   #6
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With the exception of her #4, I'm almost identical to Alix in the way I shop and in the fact that we eat out very, very rarely (#4's not relevant because Greek kids eat lunch at home every school day).

However, I'd add on something else -- something I've only learned to do in the last couple of years when we got very sudden and unexpected budget restraints (like both of us losing our jobs on the same black day!): try to avoid name-brand items.

I'm just endlessly glad I made this change because we found out we were just plain delighted with the quality of about 95% of the no-name stuff we now buy (in our part of the world, the house brand of the French supermarket Carrefour and the stuff at the German chain Lidl). We've shaved about 2/3's off our previous budget -- I kid you not -- so if and when we need to splurge, it's without guilt.

I couldn't even hazard a guess at appropriate budget, however (which I haven't forgotten was the original question). Even if I did keep track, we're in such different markets it would be irrelevant. I'd suggest you do a quick analysis of what you have spent previously and establish your own budget, fine-tuning it over the months to something that should end up being realistic for your family and your eating preferences.
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Old 12-08-2006, 09:14 AM   #7
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I guess Buck and I would have to establish a "poverty" plan. Because of distance, I shop every two weeks. On that trip I purchase ALL our consumables and non-consumables. That is, all meats, fish, poultry, produce, almost all dairy (including cheese, etc.), frozen foods, canned goods, all paper products, food wraps, pet foods, litter (we have cats only), detergents, soaps, toiletries, many baked goods (however, I bake nearly all our bread products), some pharmacy items such as multi-vitamins and contact lense supplies, birthday/anniversary/sympathy cards and gift wraps. I'm sure there's more but you get the idea.

On these same shopping trips, I also visit several favorite thrift stores and almost always purchase a few items there. Usually things that I will convert to gift items or holiday arrangements. I shop all year for birthday and Christmas gifts for my friends and family.

We eat well, as do our pets. I leave the house with a very detailed list, coupons when applicable and $185 USD for my shopping day.

As for eating out, we seldom do. Usually save it for special occasions.
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Old 12-08-2006, 10:11 AM   #8
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Notes from a former materials manager who has evolved? devolved? into a grocery buyer and cook.

I've been doing most of the cooking in our family since I retired. (Initially because it was only fair after all those years of just showing up at the table, but now because it's kind of fun.)


We have come to the opinion that restaurant food, with a few exceptions, is not as good as what is cooked at home for one tenth the cost.

Buying meat in bulk and freezing works great if you have a vacuum sealer. (Lean meat, since we got the vacuum sealer, is still good a year later. Previously, if it hadn't been eaten in six months, throw it out)

Once you get a stock of food, you can save even more, by buying only replacement inventory when it's on sale.

Having said all that, we come in under the lowest numbers for our catagory, including liquor and wine! (Hmm---have to buy more wine.) And eat TOO well.
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Old 12-08-2006, 11:55 AM   #9
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We don't track food costs. When we do a weekly shopping, we also buy non-food items such as cleaning products and wine. I would estimate we spend a lot less than the liberal amount and eat quite well.

We buy a significant portion of our standard items on sale and/or in bulk at lower prices. That's the benefit of having a freezer in the basement.

We rarely buy prepared foods, sweets or snack foods.

When we eat out, it's often at a local restaurant that has good food cheap.
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Old 12-08-2006, 02:57 PM   #10
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I think it is great if you can figure out a Monthly Food Budget. As for me I just buy what I want.
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