If you’re looking for the best way to save money grocery shopping, the first step is to create a grocery budget.
What is a reasonable budget for groceries? It depends on where in the country you live, where you shop, and whether you shop online or in-person.
A grocery budget calculator can give you a basic idea of how much you should be spending on groceries each week or month.
If you've ever tallied up your supermarket receipts, you might be surprised at how much you're spending on groceries every week. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of groceries rose by nearly 5% in 2020. In that same year, the average annual cost of food for a household was just shy of $5,000.
Even if you think you're frugal, food costs can add up fast. It’s easy to overspend, especially when you shop on an empty stomach or don't take advantage of deals and sales. If you’re an older adult wondering about the best way to save money grocery shopping, the first step is to create a grocery budget.
How to create a monthly food budget
Each month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) publishes a food budget that provides an estimate for monthly and weekly grocery spending. Adjusted each month for inflation, these budgets are based on the average cost of nutritious, home-prepared meals and snacks and are tailored for gender and age. They’re broken up into four categories: a Thrifty Food Plan, Low-Cost Food Plan, Moderate-Cost Food Plan, and Liberal Food Plan.
What is a reasonable budget for groceries? The answer is not so cut-and-dried. Grocery costs may vary widely based on what region of the country you live in, where you shop for food, and whether you shop online or in-person. However, the USDA food budget can provide a helpful benchmark when determining what you should be spending on groceries. For example, in February 2022, the Low-Cost weekly food budget for older adults age 51-70 was $59.70 for a man and $53.40 for a woman.
This online Grocery Budget Calculator, based on the USDA Low-Cost Food Plan, can help you determine how much you should be spending each week on groceries for your household. Just enter some simple information, such as your household size, the genders of those in your household, and your basic eating habits. The resulting number will give you a baseline figure for creating your own grocery budget. Keep in mind that USDA food plans do not include restaurant or take-out meals.
What are some other tips for seniors on creating a grocery budget?
If you're wondering how to create a monthly food budget, another tool to use is the 50/30/20 rule. This simple and intuitive grocery budget formula suggests that you spend your net (after-tax) monthly income this way:
- 50% for living essentials (e.g., groceries, housing, transportation, healthcare, etc.)
- 30% for wants (e.g., restaurant meals, entertainment, travel, etc.)
- 20% for savings and debt repayment (e.g., credit cards, mortgage)
Budgets are meant to be flexible to a point, and you may need to tweak the formula above to fit your unique circumstances. For example, if you have high medical expenses that don't leave enough left over to buy groceries, you can use additional money from your "wants" budget.
How to grocery shop efficiently on a budget
Creating a grocery budget plan is easy. The hard part? Sticking to it! Here are some money saving tips for grocery shopping that can help you stay within your budget.
- Make a list: If you want to know, "How can I spend less at the grocery store?", start with making a weekly list either in a notebook or on your phone. Having a list can help eliminate the temptation to buy things you don't need (hello, bakery cupcakes). Bring your grocery list with you when you shop and buy only what's on it.
- Don't overbuy: Be sure to check your pantry and fridge before you make your grocery list. That way, you're not buying things you already have. You want to buy only what you can reasonably use within the week.
- Prepare meals from scratch: As much as possible, try to avoid convenience foods (e.g., pre-chopped vegetables) and processed foods. These tend to be budget-busters and are less healthy than buying whole foods. To make this easier, stick to the aisles on the store's perimeters.
- Buy produce in season: Plan your meals around in-season produce, since it generally costs less and tastes better when it's in season. For example, buy strawberries only in the spring and summer, and stick to the summertime for buying corn. The USDA offers a guide to help you enjoy the freshest, most affordable produce all year round.
- Create a meal routine: Meal planning can help you save money on groceries, since you know in advance exactly what you need. One way to do this is to create a predictable meal routine. For example, Tuesday night is taco night, Sunday night is pasta night, Friday night is homemade pizza night, and so on. Focusing on healthy, whole foods-based meals is even better. If you're worried about getting stuck in a rut, change up your meal routines every month.
- Keep an eye out for coupons: Sunday newspaper inserts, store promotional mailers, and store apps are all good sources for money-saving grocery coupons. Walmart, for example, lets you find and print out coupons directly from its website. However, be sure to use coupons only for products you regularly use. Resist the temptation to buy something you don’t need just because you have a coupon—especially if it’s a product you’ve never tried before.
- Find out if you’re eligible for SNAP: If you don’t receive benefits already, it’s worth seeing if you qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP is a government safety-net program that helps older adults stretch their grocery budget further. The average SNAP benefit for a one-person senior household is $104 per month, which can be used to buy everything from fruits, vegetables, meat, and poultry to snack foods and soft drinks.
For Joyce Lee, age 78, SNAP is a much-needed lifeline.
"After losing my husband, things got tight," Lee said. "In most cases, medical bills and household expenses come first, and food isn't of that much importance—until you need to eat."
Checking your SNAP eligibility is fast and simple with our online screening tool. Just visit BenefitsCheckUp.org and select your state of residence. If you need it, NCOA will even connect you with someone who can guide you through the SNAP application process.