Creating a budget is easier when you can estimate variable expenses accurately. But food expenditures can change by 20% or more from one week to the next. And besides being necessary, food is a major part of the household budget. In January 2013, a family of four with two adults and two children under 12 spent, on average, $128.10 to $291.00 per week on groceries, depending on factors like the age of the children and how carefully they controlled spending. There's no "right" amount you should spend on food each week, but it's important to include food when creating a budget. Here's how.
First Step: Know Your Current Spending
Write it all down, no matter how painful. Count everything, including the bag of chips from the vending machine, the drive-thru breakfast, the canned goods you bought for the local food drive, and the box of Girl Scout Cookies you bought from your niece. Even if you think something is a one-time or unusual expenditure, write it down. Keep shopping receipts and write those totals down too. You need to do this for two weeks minimum, and average the weekly totals before creating a budget, since food expenditures vary.
Second Step: Identify Where You Overspend
The very act of writing down everything you spend on food usually makes it clear where you're overspending. You may be shocked to learn that a Saturday fast food dinner for your family costs less than a sit-down dinner at your local Mexican place. And you may start to realize how expensive eating lunch out every day at work really is.
Consider the food you throw out as well. An August 2012 report by the National Resources Defense Council stated that the average American throws out around 25% of the food and beverages he or she buys. For a family of four, this could mean a couple thousand dollars per year spent on wasted food. Identifying waste is the first step to limiting it.
Third Step: Add a Savings Technique
Learning new habits takes time, and it's best to start by changing one habit before moving on to others. If you realize you're overspending on lunches out, start packing a lunch two or three days per week. Soon this will become routine, and those lunches out will seem more special. Or, suppose you buy lots of fresh produce with the best of intentions, but a lot of it goes bad before it gets eaten. Cut back on how much you buy and you'll spend less and waste less. Knowing where your non-optimal spending occurs lets you identify a specific behavior to work on changing.
Fourth Step: Repeat Until Satisfied
Once you've conquered one wasteful food spending habit, add another one. Maybe it's using more store brand products instead of brand name products, or perhaps it's clipping coupons. The point is, you can often find multiple ways to save after creating a budget. If you try to change everything at once, however, you may find all the change overwhelming and go back to your original habits. Keep adding savings techniques until you have your weekly food spending at a level you can be happy with.
Fifth Step: Don't Forget the Occasional Treat
Finally, it's possible to take things too far. If you never take the family out for ice cream even though you can afford it, or if you never have dinner out with your partner even though both of you enjoy it, you may be taking austerity measures too far. Drastically tightening spending - like crash dieting - can eventually result in resentment and binges. Food is something to be enjoyed, and you don't want to take all the enjoyment out of it by being overly restrictive.
Creating a budget for your stomach requires that you understand your current spending, and that you take into account the needs of your family, particularly if you have children. Often, simply cutting out wasteful spending gets your food budget under control, but if not, there are plenty of other good habits you can develop, like purchasing nonperishables in bulk, using coupons or store brands, and improving your home cooking skills, something that the whole family can participate in and benefit from.
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