Saturday, November 23, 2013

Stewardship in the Kitchen: Setting a Realistic Grocery Budget

Once kitchen inventory has been taken and weekly family meal times have been established, it is time to get serious about the grocery budget.  As mentioned in a previous Meal Planning 101 post, the costs of groceries can be very fluid for those who do not have a plan or a set budget.

When planning our meals and the coordinating shopping trip a couple questions beg to be asked.
1.  How much do I currently spend on groceries each month?  If you are not a receipt saver, like me, please take time to review the last 3 months of your checkbook register or bank statement and add up ALL your grocery expenditures, no matter how small they may be.  Divide the amount by 3.  This is your family's average monthly grocery expenditures.  2.  What is a realistic grocery budget for my family's income level?  According to personal finance advisors, like Dave Ramsey and Larry Burkett, Americans should not be spending more than 10 -13% of their monthly incomes on food.  Not only are we one of the wealthiest nations in the world, but we also have some of  the lowest food costs in the world.

According to Wikipedia the 2011-2012 annual median income of U.S. households equaled $50,054 (almost $200 less than 2009 figures).  That means the average household should never spend more than $417 - $542 per month on groceries, regardless of family size.  Of course if your family's income is higher than the average, you will be able to have a larger grocery budget.  However, if your family's income is lower than average, then your budget will have to be adjusted accordingly.

According to research, in 2012 the average U.S. family spent an estimated $250 per week on groceries.  That's $13,000 per year or 26% of the median income of U.S. households!  These numbers are very telling.  Although our nation still has one of the lowest food costs world wide, our food prices are increasing at a much faster rate than average income levels and families are failing to budget their food dollars.  We must remember that when the U.S. government releases official inflation rates, food, fuel and utility costs are NOT included in those figures.  So just because the U.S.'s annual inflation rate was only 1.74% for a said year - that does not mean that food, fuel and utilities increased by only 1.74%.  Math tells us that the costs for these necessities are increasing at a significantly faster rate than the rest of our economy.  Budgeting one's grocery expenditures is more important for the financial health and well being of our families than it has been in decades.

How do we get our grocery budgets under control?  How do we feed our families healthy nutritious meals on a budget?  First we must identify our spending habits.  As I stand in line at the check-out counter, I am nosy and look in the other guy's cart.  I've done this my entire life.  By looking in someone's grocery cart, I can generally tell if someone is a single parent, divorced or married, has athletic children or couch potato children, I can even deduce why someone may be overweight and/or chronically ill.  From my observations I've realized that Americans spend far more money on groceries than they have too.  I consistently see cart loads of the most expensive items one can buy in almost every grocery cart I peer into. 

What are the 3 most expensive food items Americans purchase?  Convenience pre-prepared processed foods, animal products, and the most expensive products you'll ever purchase ... spices/herbs.  Yes, spices/herbs.  Do you realize that when one does the math, that little 1.75 oz. bottle of caraway seed you paid $4.69 for actually cost more than $45.00 per pound?  Who's living large now? 

The easiest way to reduce the cost of herb/spices is to grow the ones you use most often.  Herbs are the easiest and most simple plants to grow.  They can be grown in a flower bed or in an old tin can on a sunny window sill.  Growing a few of my own herbs was the spark that ignited my gardening passion.  Nowadays, my garden saves my family thousands of grocery dollars every year.

As the years have progressed, I've found it more and more difficult to purchase quality meat products that are not "ready to use".  The frozen foods section is expanding, the "fresh" meat coolers are shrinking and the meat displayed in them is often pre-marinated / pre-seasoned adding exorbitant costs to it's purchase.  Grocery carts at the check-out counters are full of "ready to use" meat products.  I never purchase these products.  As a matter of fact, any store bought meat that is purchased for our home is purchased from the reduced for quick sale bin and is never pre-seasoned/pre-marinated.  Upon arrival home, if this meat is not cooked the day of purchase it is placed in the freezer.  My freezer is my most utilized kitchen tool.

Most of the foods purchased from today's grocery stores are convenience foods.  Remember, I know what your buying - I've been checking out your grocery cart.  What are convenience foods?  They include food products that are partially cooked (i.e. instant minute rice, instant potatoes, hamburger helpers, etc..), packaged pre-seasoned foods (flavored rice and noodle sides, etc.), boxed baking mixes (cake & brownie mixes, cornbread & biscuit mixes, etc.), pre-cut and attractively arranged fruit & veggie trays from the produce department, ready to eat foods from the deli department, bottled salad dressings and marinades, etc..

Why do we find so many convenience foods in today's grocery carts?  I believe lack of time, lack of knowledge and advertising pressures have made convenience food a societal norm for our culture.  Convenience foods are not only EXPENSIVE they are also very unhealthy.  We have a relative who consistently comments on how they can spend a week in our home eating more food then they ever eat and still loose weight.  It is because, they are not eating partially cooked, pre-seasoned, boxed & bottled convenience foods.  They are served and they consume foods prepared from scratch.  Foods prepared from scratch generally contain fewer calories per serving than most convenience foods and are often at least 50% less expensive per ounce/per pound.

Using time management to plan family meals and  cook from scratch are the best behaviors one can use to combat high grocery bills.  I'm sure you are asking yourself, "how much does she spend on groceries?"  Please keep in mind that I live in an area of the nation that has very high food costs (my Houston friends pay about $2.50 for a gallon of milk, we pay $4.89 per gallon), we host other families about 2 times a month, I occasionally babysit, my dad visits for months at a time, we consistently donate to our church food pantry, needless to say, I am often feeding quite a few more than 4 people each week.  I am proud to say that as our family's Chief Financial Officer, I've set a $5,000 annual grocery budget or $416.66 per month for our family.  I stick to that budget and everyone who comes into our home eats very well.  If I can do this, I believe anyone can do it.  All it takes is discipline, creativity, and resolve.

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Thank you for taking time to read my blog and leave a comment. I try my best to respond to each one. God Bless You, Mrs.B