Every family has a different budget, which can be influenced by many factors: How many children or dependents you have, where you live, and your individual expenses. More often than not, you'll find that budgetary guidelines aren't very helpful and may actually feel quite arbitrary. When it comes to food, however, the United States Department of Agriculture has a different approach to creating guidelines for how much Americans should be spending on groceries. Rather than taking a one-size-fits all approach and offering an annual set of recommendations for everyone, the USDA issues new reports every single month, and federal analysts organize these spending guidelines into four different brackets: thrifty, low cost, moderate cost, and liberal.
Each category is designed to take your preferences and personal financial issues into consideration, and is also sensitive to where you live (the USDA even goes as far to create separate reports for Hawaii and Alaska). The monetary gap between thrifty guidelines and liberal guidelines are almost doubled across the board, but you can view budgets by week or by month on each report. And each category is well defined to include budgets for people by age and gender, too.
According to this month's guidelines, a family of four—which includes a male and female between the ages of 19 and 50 years old, as well as two children between the ages of two and five years old—should only be spending $892 on groceries per month, per the USDA's moderate guidelines. That becomes $1065.30 if your children are between the ages of six and 11 years old.
If children are out of the picture, couples between the ages of 19 and 50 years old are expected to keep their monthly grocery bill to $614, whereas senior couples should aim to keep food expenses below $591.
How exactly does the USDA formulate these numbers? Federal analysts use the 2005 dietary guidelines (highlighted in the MyPyramid chart) to pull costs of preparing plan-approved foods and snacks at home. This is a great standard, as it accounts for you buying foods that are nutritious and ingredients you can use to create wholesome, tasty meals in your kitchen.
While the USDA creates standards for individuals, children, a family of two, and a family of four, they also provide instructions for adding additional percentages based on how many people you have in your family.
One aspect that the USDA doesn't account for are dietary restrictions or food allergies that require families to purchase special ingredients, which tend to be more expensive. Plus, you'll have to remember that the federal agency expects you to cook and eat every single meal at home—if you know you travel or dine out frequently, the thrifty guidelines may be more in line with your needs.
While expenses are meant to be personal, the USDA's guidelines could help you with planning a budget based on your needs. If you're interested in using USDA materials to maximize your own budget, you can view monthly reports on their website—at the very least, give yourself a pat on the back for taking the time to see how your own spending habits compare to experts' standards.