Our Average Grocery Spending and What We Hope to Change
Why track grocery spending?
I have always had a vague feeling that we spend “too much” or “too frivolously” on groceries and, after noticing that very-same comment come up regularly in the Billfold Doing Money interviews, started to think about it in more detail. I realized that I didn’t really have a strong idea of what I mean by “too much.”
My boyfriend, BB, and I are currently in the fortunate position where we can go over-budget on groceries occasionally without it having a big impact. We enjoy eating tasty food (although that doesn’t need to be expensive) and don’t want to impinge on that for the sake of saving a few pence. Also, in my experience it’s easier to stick to a budget if you’re not wishing you were having or doing something else. However, if we were able to cut our groceries spending, this could be beneficial for our other finances.
So, perhaps the “too much” feeling is actually two questions:
- Is it possible to save enough on the monthly grocery bill to make a real, long-term difference to the rest of our finances?
- Can we make savings while maintaining quality and enjoyment of food?
To answer these questions I first need to understand what we are actually spending our money on, hence this review.
I have three additional motivations for tracking grocery spending:
- I have been attempting, mostly unsuccessfully, to eat better (for general health and weight reasons) for several years now and have realized that one key issue for me is similar to my financial question — what do I mean by “eating healthy?” I am hoping that tracking my food spending more closely will give me a clearer idea of what I eat and why.
- More practically, there are potential COL increases on the horizon:
- My commute is 40 miles a day and BB’s is 100 so a possible autumnal rise in fuel duty (tax) will negatively affect us.
- The compulsory pension contribution will rise from 3 percent to 5 percent in the next few months (here’s an overview of how U.K. pensions work). While this is great for us in the long-term, in the short-term it will affect how much we have available for day-to-day spending.
- General inflation in grocery prices, which may not be matched by wage increases.
- Brexit will (probably?) happen in March 2019 — this is a completely unknown quantity which we can’t really plan for. Should we all be stockpiling baked beans?
- Finally, over the past few years I have developed a deep and abiding love for spreadsheets so will go for any excuse to do some “=SUMIFS” calculations.
My boyfriend and I are newish homeowners in a low cost-of-living town in the Midlands, U.K. We are mid- to late-thirties and have, for the last couple of years or so, earned above-U.K. average salaries. We have no children, pets or other dependents.
We spend around £315 ($403) a month on groceries on average. This figure includes:
- All food used to prepare meals at home/to take to work
- Drinks consumed at home/work
- Kitchen-based household cleaning items
It does not include:
- Eating out
- Takeaways (I find it’s easier to monitor how often we have them from the ‘going out’ budget which is primarily cash, rather than the grocery budget, which is primarily paid for on credit card)
- Non-kitchen based cleaning items (because I like to live a convoluted budgetary life, these come out of another budget)
- Make a prediction on the top three spending categories:
- BB went for alcohol, fruit and toiletries
- I went for for alcohol, fruit and meat
- Retain all grocery purchases for one pay period and at the end of the month, create a spreadsheet with itemized costs (I am paid monthly on 15th or nearest Friday before if the date falls at the weekend so this month the pay period was 13 July–14 August)
- Categorize and analyze the data to find out how much we spend on what
- Identify top 3-4 areas of spending
- Come up with some ideas for reducing costs in these areas for the next pay period (15 August–13 September)
- Track spending (as I go along this time, rather than at the end) to see if my changes a) happen and b) make a difference
- Report back to the Billfold!
- All large values are rounded but the smaller ones aren’t.
- I use my freezer to store food so spending this month doesn’t necessarily reflect consumption this month, although they broadly match here.
The July–August pay period was 33 days (slightly longer than usual, because I got paid on a Friday). Our total spend was £383, which is £68 more than our average spend but this extra spending can be explained as follows:
- We hosted a barbecue for family for which we spend around £60 on food and alcohol
- We bought a Nicolas Cage film on DVD for £7 and didn’t know which other budget it would fit in so it went in groceries
Top spending categories
Our top three spending categories, which make up 57 percent of the total, are:
|Protein, incl. meat||£65|
We both guessed correctly for the top two and I was right about meat (although I have cheated a little as “protein” covers fish, cheese and tinned beans as well). Our fourth most expensive category was non-alcoholic drinks (£29), which represents what we spend on fizzy pop. Here’s a more thorough breakdown of the top three categories:
|Alcohol||Total cost||No. items||Ave. unit cost|
|Bottles of wine (incl. sparkling)||£55||10||£5.50|
|Bottles of craft beer||£22||13||£1.69|
|Cans of generic lager||£25||38||£0.66|
|Protein||Total cost||Servings||Ave. cost/meal|
|Cooked meat||£8.15 ($10.43)||12||£0.68|
*cheese is a multi-use food so it’s hard to break down by number of meals
|Fruit||Total cost||Servings||Ave. cost/meal|
|Fruit pots constructed at home||£34.49||32||£1.08|
|Readymade fruit pots||£16.99||10||£1.70|
Because pricing is probably a factor in our spending, I also broke our spending down by shop:
|Tesco (mid-range supermarket)||£286|
|Co-op (consumer co-op / mid-range)||£51|
|Other mid-range supermarkets||£24|
Average cost per meal
I broke our spending down to price per meal to get an average cost.
- Breakfast: We don’t eat breakfast so there’s no costs for that.
- Lunch: BB and I eat very different lunches at work (I take veg & a protein, he has slow-cooker meals)
- My average cost was £2.02
- BB’s was £2.43
- Weekend lunches vary wildly from 20p to £3 per person.
- Dinner: We usually eat together in the evening
- Average cost per person was £2.30
Between us, we had 31 meals not covered by the budget, which includes takeaways, meals out, being fed by parents and friends, and charging it to the company card (BB work trip). So, if we ate more at home next month, the overall cost for food might go up, even if the average cost went down.
Actions for future grocery spending
I find incremental change works best for me so I will be tweaking my budget rather than trying a radically new approach. In the long-term we might overhaul the way we eat and shop if the numbers and health benefits lead us that way but that’s not something that will be effective right now.
I have decided not to set financial targets for this month (but may do in the future) so the overall goals for August-September are:
- Reduce the overall cost for each top spending category compared to July–August.
- Reduce the average cost per meal for my lunches and our evening meals (as overall cost may go up if we have more meals covered by this month’s budget)
- Increase spending in cheaper stores and decrease spending in Tesco
- Buy less wine
- Buy cheaper wine
This one should be easy (maybe). As wine is the biggest contributing cost, the plan is just to buy fewer bottles. We always have a bottle of Cava on a Friday night and this is not a frivolity we’re willing to give up. But if we can reduce the number of bottles bought to drink at other times, we would save. We will also attempt to buy cheaper bottles so that the average spend per bottle is lower — I’m not a wine buff so as long as it doesn’t take like syrup or vinegar, I don’t mind. I think we’re ok to keep the quantities of beer purchased the same or lower for now.
- Buy fewer prepared fruit pots
- Buy more unprepared fruit
- Buy from cheaper stores (if the “best before” dates are okay)
This category is more difficult for me to come up with a plan for. We have drastically upped our fruit consumption in the last two years to improve our diets so this is not one I want to reduce by just buying less. We prefer berries to cheaper options too although I try to get them on offer as often as I can. However, buying unprepared fruit is cheaper than prepared, so I will start prepping my own fruit for my post-work snack.
We will also try to pay less for fruit. I have been advised that Lidl is a good alternative but I have concerns about ‘best before’ dates so I will proceed with caution on this one (we prepare several lunch-worths of fruit pots in advance to save time).
- Eat more non-meat proteins (mainly my lunches)
My most expensive lunches have been when I’ve had cooked meat or fish. I’m happy to switch to lower-cost veggie options so this seems a good place to start. We could probably look at eating less meat for our evening meal and for BB’s lunches but we’d need to learn some new recipes so this is something to look at longer-term.
- Buy cheaper fizzy pop
I already go to lower-cost stores for most of the items in this category but will also see if we can buy fizzy pop for BB there too.
- Shop less in Tesco
- Shop more in Lidl, Aldi, Asda (all classed as lower-cost)
My data shows currently prioritize convenience of location over cost. For example, I have one Tesco (the largest mid-range grocery retailer in the U.K. by market share) 10 minutes walk from my office and can go to three others on my drive home.
So, one of the indicators I will look out for next month is whether my overall spend in Tesco is lower and whether it is higher in discount stores and cheaper supermarkets, like the ones listed. This will apply across all the spending categories, not just the ones listed here.
I am excited about this process because firstly I am a nerd but also I have found previously that taking a very detailed approach to financial information (I have a lot more information on our spending than I have included here) is a great way to force myself to look at things in a new way. Big numbers can be overwhelming and I have often been frustrated attempting (and failing) to make changes with a top-down approach. Knowing my numbers inside-out can provide breakthroughs that I wouldn’t have anticipated otherwise.
Likewise, getting other people with experience and knowledge to comment is a great way of learning so I would love to hear suggestions from other Billfolders on what they do or don’t do to save money on groceries while still being able to eat (and drink) healthily. Low-cost, tasty recipe ideas are definitely welcome!
I will report back in September with an update on how the implementation went.
Louisa Bhaer (not her real name) works in marketing and spends far more time with spreadsheets than is probably healthy. She and BB are working on building up their Nicolas Cage film collection, one terrible DVD at a time.
This piece is part of The Billfold’s grocery budget series.
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