Killing your $1000 Grocery Bill

A few years ago, I was at a party eating some amazing food at the potluck buffet. In my area, there seems to be a friendly competition among the thirtysomething outdoorsy tech worker crowd, of trying to out-chef each other. It’s a contest I heartily approve of and I am happy to be both an underdog competitor and a judge.

Anyway, the topic turned to how good we have it in our lives, with such plentiful food that we can afford to spend hours combining exotic ingredients just for the sake of overfilling our bellies.

“Yeah… I know it’s a bit over the top”, I said, “but we probably spend 80 bucks a week on good groceries. I think it’s worth it if you can afford it”.

“Eighty dollars a week on food for the three of you? That’s IT??”, said a friend, “We spend more than three times that amount!!”

“Whoa”, I replied, “I guess I’m not as spendy as I thought”.

Of course, the person telling me about her high food bill was more of a typical high-income spender in many ways. Her family also took out loans to buy new cars, had at least one $2500 carbon fiber road bike gleaming in the garage, and hired out the household chores to allow them to conveniently work a double-career-with-kids while still taking plenty of short vacations involving air travel. Looking back, I probably could have predicted a non-Mustachian grocery bill.

But the experience still reminded me of the amazing variety of spending levels we all have available to us here in the United States. It is simultaneously one of the cheapest industrialized countries in the world to live in, and the most expensive. It all depends on the choices you make in your shopping, because everything in the world is available right here for your buying convenience.

When you look it up, the average food cost for a family of four in the US is way up there at the level of my friends, at $944 per month. But to call it “food cost” makes it sound like it’s out of your control. I would call this the average food spending. Just like the average family’s transportation cost is not some fixed punishment that the cruel world imposes on them… it’s a measure of the amount of driving that they have designed into their lives, multiplied by the level of inefficiency of the vehicles they have chosen for themselves.

Instead of shooting for the average, you can design your own food spending.

Let’s say a family of four wants to spend only $365 per month on groceries, saving them $579 per month over that USDA average family in the link above. Investing this savings would compound into about $102,483.00 every ten years, which would obviously make a pretty big improvement in the financial health of the average young family.

To hit a monthly grocery spending target like that, you first have to understand what you are buying. There are four mouths to feed, each consuming three meals a day or 91.25 meals per month. Let’s say they all need adult levels of calories, so about 2000 per day.

To meet this level of grocery spending, each meal needs average out to about $1.00 per person, and provide about 667 calories. Of course, there can be plenty of variation in the cost and calories, and you might eat 6 smaller meals and snacks instead of three big 667 calorie blasters. But these are the fundamental numbers we’d need to hit.

Can it be done? Coincidentally, this is about the level of my own grocery spending when I’m in semi-frugal mode (if you scale it down to 3 people and $273/month), and in the non-frugal mode mode we currently shop in, we spend closer to $365/month for three people, resulting in a cost per meal of $1.33. So the answer is a definite Yes.

All of us eat very well, with a fair amount of luxury spending thrown into that amount – the grocery spending includes gourmet coffee every day, a lot of organic and gluten-free specialties, food for parties, and other things that you buy when you’re not worried about cashflow at all. Plus I consume far more than my share of calories due to all-bike transportation and physical labor, my son is growing about six inches a year, and Mrs. Money Mustache does crossfit workouts three times a week, increasing her food needs as well.

“But damn, a buck for a whole meal?”, you might say. “That’s the price of a shitty Burger King dollar menu mini burger on a soggy white bun – BEFORE TAX!”

Luckily, I don’t eat at Burger King, and neither should you. But let’s see how much it costs for 667 calories of some actual food staples that should be part of your diet:

Cost per 667 calorie “Meal” of common foods:
Basmati Rice: 25 cents
California Almonds: 80 cents
Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil:  57 cents
Spaghetti noodles: 28 cents
Black beans (uncooked): 49 cents
Natural (peanuts only) Peanut Butter: 53.36 cents
Bananas: 92 cents
Potatoes: 57 cents
Canola Oil:  14.38 cents
Cheddar cheese: $1.09
Apples:  $2.79
Organic cage-free eggs:  $2.85
Organic boneless skinless chicken breast: $8.00

Aha.. now things are sounding much better. Although not all of the foods above cost less than $1 per meal, they can certainly average out to less than that, depending on how you combine them. And when planning your menu to meet a certain budget, averaging out is exactly your goal. You still want to be able to eat apples, organic chicken breast, or whatever your heart desires. You just have to not eat entirely those most expensive foods.

And remember, this $1.00 target is just something I picked out of a hat for an example – you’re allowed to spend whatever works for you.

Whole oils are the ultimate example. They are packed with tasty, slow-metabolizing calories, extremely good for you, and easy to mix into your diet. Using olive oil as an example, you can one third of a day worth of calories for 57 cents. Every time you dump these oils into a frying pan, or mix them into a recipe or a salad dressing, you’re lowering your food cost – the oil provides calories that your body might otherwise get from cans of Coke, Filet Mignon, or Burger King dollar menu burgers.

And contrary to the 1990s low-fat-diet fad, the human body loves oil. It’s yummy, clean-burning, good for a giant range of body functions, and it is satisfying to eat too. I eat a fairly high-fat/low-carb diet these days, yet I’m leaner than ever, because the oily food doesn’t cause spikes of fake appetite like bread does. I’ve even been known to bring containers of herb-infused olive oil on road trips, supplementing every meal with this supercharger nutrient, especially when it’s time for an extreme hike or a high-energy work day.

See Article: The Amazing Waist-Slimming, Wallet-Fattening Nutrient

Similarly, you can mix other foods from the under-$1.00 list into meals, freeing up space for expensive garnishes. Chicken and rice recipes with oils, spices, and vegetables are delicious and can be made in many different styles (Asian,  Mediterranean, Indian, Mexican) while still coming in at under $1/meal.

For snacking, I usually eat handfuls of roasted almonds and other mixed nuts, combined with fresh fruits and vegetables. The nuts provide most of the calories, while the fruits provide the various nutrients and healthy stuff.

But What about Protein?
These days, the high-protein diet is back in style, especially among followers of the “Paleo” diet/religion.  I am also a big fan of the nutrient, since it’s handy as part of strength training and exercise. Unfortunately, most people equate “protein” with “meat”, which is the most expensive way to get protein by any measure.

An average person might want to shoot for about 75 grams of protein per day, while an athlete might consume 150 grams. As a fairly regular weightlifter and manual-laborer, I go for the higher number myself.

When you eat beans and rice in the same meal, you’re getting complete protein at virtually no cost. Nuts and especially peanut butter are also a good way to mix high calories with built-in protein. Eggs contain the highest quality complete protein of all (6 grams per egg), so I enjoy three of them every day.

Protein from high-quality meat and fish costs about 4 cents per gram, which would already put the Paleo-eating athlete over $6.00 per day just for his meat intake. Eggs come in around the same protein cost, although at lower environmental cost and with a lot of good calories and other nutrients as a side benefit. But plain old milk, or whey protein powder from Costco, Sam’s Club or an online source like Swanson Vitamins provides protein at about 2.5 cents/gram – cutting the bill by 40%. So to hit my own 150 grams during a period of heavier training, I include the eggs, nuts, cheese, a lunch or dinner that includes some meat or fish, and throw in a mid-morning protein shake (banana, milk, yogurt, whey protein powder, pure cocoa and maybe some ground flax or whatever is lying around) for an extra 40 grams of protein.

The key is to look at the protein content already in your basic staples before deciding how much you need to supplement it, and then do so intelligently based on your own activity level. The average American diet is actually quite oversupplied with protein, due to the fact that most people eat meat with every meal, even while most are not competitive weight-training athletes. The opportunity for savings is enormous.

Where to Get your Food

Not Here

To research this article, I biked over to the health food store in my town, a place called Natural Grocers that attempts to imitate Whole Foods. It seemed like a friendly place, where the customers are unusually slim, the bike rack sees frequent use, and everyone brings their own cloth grocery bags.

But Holy Shit, were the prices ever ridiculous there! In one quick tour of the store, I observed a package of four  “Bison hotdogs” priced at $11.85, a two-pound bag of plain Tilapia filets at $25.00, and jugs of organic milk at $11.00 per gallon.

All of these prices are more than double the levels of the nearest Costco, which is one of the best places to shop for your calories and protein, unless you have even better options in your area. The prices I quoted in my $1.00 meals table above were Costco prices, and unless you already have unlimited money, you should stay miles away from Whole Foods or any of its cousins.

At a more community-oriented level, there are also good deals to be had in Mexican, Indian and Chinese grocery stores, Community-supported agriculture groups (CSAs), farmer’s markets, your own vegetable garden, and other old-fashioned sources. When the parking lot is not full of hybrids, there are international phone cards on display in the window, and the cashiers also stock their own shelves and do not speak much English, you are probably onto something good.

What to Eat
Finally, the fun part! As the wise people of India have proven beyond all other cultures*, amazing food is all about preparation and spices, rather than starting with costly ingredients. Once you know which ingredients make good staples, you can easily poke around on the Internet or in any cookbook to find an infinite number of good recipes that use them.

At the simplest “bachelor” level, you’ve got recipes like:

Fancy home fries:

Slice up about five big potatoes into thick french fry shapes, mix them around in a giant bowl along with a huge amount of canola or olive oil (maybe 1/3 cup), garlic, black pepper, cayenne pepper, paprika, and/or any spices you like (even curry!). Cook at 400F for 25 minutes on a metal tray.

Ding! You’ve got thousands of calories of deliciousness to use as a side dish, snack, or even combine with a salad to make a simple main meal.

At the next level, you can move up to I have been making regularly for years now:

Thai Curry and Coconut Butternut Squash Soup:

1 large butternut squash, about 2.5 pounds
1 tbsp oil
1/2 an onion, chopped up very small
1 tbsp freshly grated ginger
4 cloves garlic
2-3 tsp Thai Red Curry paste
4 cups chicken broth
1 13-14 oz can unsweetened coconut milk
1 tsp  salt
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice

Fancy optional things:
Some toasted coconut for garnish
A few kaffir lime leaves, chopped up a bit

Cut the squash in half, take out the seeds, brush it with oil, and bake it for an hour at 400°F. Then scoop out the soft squash with a spoon when it’s done.

Fry the onion, ginger and garlic in some oil for a few minutes. Add the curry paste and cook for a few more minutes. Stir in the chicken broth, coconut milk, salt, squash and shredded lime leaves. Simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the lime juice.

Finally, blend up the contents of the pan in a blender or a bowl with a hand mixer. Serve in colorful bowls with the garnishes.

This soup is extremely filling due to the deliciously high fat content of coconut milk, and so good you will not believe it came from your own kitchen. It also stores well in the fridge and freezer, and can be brought to work or on road trips and reheated anywhere.

Those are just two simple recipes. The key to frugal eating is to have at least ten good things you know how to make.

There are many chefs among the readers. Maybe we will get to hear some of their best low-cost and easy-to-make creations in the comments section below?

Further Reading:
Grocery Shopping with your Middle Finger – an old MMM classic on this same topic, where I first started thinking about cost per calorie. But there I  was dealing with food stockups and sales rather than thinking of it on a per-meal or per-month basis.

* According to the strong opinion of my own taste buds

  • EatingOurFuture November 13, 2013, 3:17 pm

    M+M MM, I want to send a HUGE thank you for the soup recipe! My family has been looking at me a bit strange lately as I’ve been changing my behavior to be more mustachian. I realized we were literally EATING OUR FUTURE at Whole Foods and restaurants. And, we are no where near FI. I’ve gotten more than a few eye rolls. Another MMM idea, they ask? Last night, I made the soup and after every one fell out of their chairs from pure culinary ecstasy, I revealed that it is a MMM recipe. Respect restored – victory!

  • DaveRN December 15, 2013, 9:44 pm

    Beans and rice might be a compete protein meal, but meat, especially the grassfed variety supplies much more than just protein. We eat nothin but grassfed beef, as well as raw mail from a local farm and our grocery bill is still low. All you have to so s keep it simple. Grassfed beef, vegetables, a little fruit, raw milk, some berries, eggs supplied from a local farm will keep you healthy and help avoid the diseases of civilization as well as save lots of ones on doctor bills and pharmaceuticals as you get older. My wife and I are both 53 and take none of big pharmas drugs and never get sick.
    I also grow some of our food.
    Good food is an investment in your health that pays dividends over time.

  • CheerfulAdventurer March 4, 2014, 7:53 am

    This was the first article I read together with every single comment. (I live in Hungary, Central Europe and in our 10M-people country we have a professional but independent individual financial blogger and counselor who has a huge reading audience as there is constant lack of financial writings in Hungarian even nearing the level of his ones. He rarely recommends any particular source apart from himself, but he dedicated a whole post to the MMM blog, and encouraged every one of us able to read in English to follow!! :-))

    I have been more or less making food for myself for the last 5,5 years since I left my parents’ house, but I can assure you that I learnt almost as much about groceries from this article&comments as I did experimenting during this whole period.

    Being single and living in the centre of a huge capital city in a less developed (not-yet-so-consciously thinking) country somewhat limits me in applying your smart food obtaining techniques, but I’ll keep thinking over it and hope to slowly change my habits.

    (I don’t want to praise the whole MMM blog here too long – just mention that I felt like at last I have discovered the “whole picture” WHY I have always been living so differently from others. Now with the example of the MM family, my goals became clear and more or less so is the path leading there!)

  • CheerfulAdventurer March 9, 2014, 6:33 am

    As for the squash recipe, what do you replace Thai Red Curry paste with if you happen to live in Europe? Of course I could order it from the web, or find the one Asian shop in the furthest hidden small street of the city where it is sold, but I prefer local or at least locally well available & affordable ingredients. According to Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_curry, many of even its ingredients sound kind of exotic here.

    (I don’t mind if I need to mix a few things for my Fake European Curry.)

  • Tyler in Seattle May 1, 2014, 2:17 pm

    I’m married w/ four young kids and we eat for $0.91 per meal. 6 people x 3 feedings per day = 18 total meals per day x 365 days per year = 6,570 meals per year. We budget $500 per month for groceries x 12/mo per year = $6,000 per year. That $6,000 x 6,570 meals = $0.91 each. Not too shabby.

    Like MMM I think we eat quite well. Chicken, steak, pork chops, ground beef, turkey, fish, potatoes, rice, cheeses, etc. + fresh veggies &/or fruit w/ every meal. I’m quite proud that I’m doing better that the MMM family in at least one area! Yeah for me!

    Also, my $500 budget INCLUDES things like diapers and cleaning supplies for the house, so my $0.91 per meal is probably closer to $0.84.

  • Aubrey June 13, 2014, 8:56 am

    I didn’t hear any mention of organ meats! These are the most nutrient dense meats on any animal and are much less expensive than other cuts of meat. Try liver, heart, and kidney to start with and explore from there. There is a whole “eat the whole animal” or “nose to tail” movement that can provide lots of amazing recipes if you just google.

    • CheerfulAdventurer November 18, 2014, 1:36 am

      These are mostly organs the task of which is to strain poisonous materials from the animal’s body.

      The father of a colleague was a slaughterer (so naturally he was exposed to and knowledgeable of every kind of meat). He recalls that his dad never ate harslet nor gave such to his family to eat.

  • Burak June 16, 2014, 3:15 am

    I’m new to MMM, and read quite a lot within this short time-frame. I enjoy the good stuff. I recently read some about your frugality articles, and stoicisim-related posts together, which made a good picture of renewal of the mind-set for me.

    Recently, I also read a piece on frugality written by a Muslim scholar. It was few pages (extremely interesting in all parts) but a specific portion of it got my attention because it was like an additional idea (and mindset) on top of your tips and tricks on the issue (it’s a modified translation of the original text):

    “…we shall now imagine two mouthfuls. One consists of nutritious food like cheese and egg and costs $1 and the other is of the choicest baklava* and costs 10$. Before entering the mouth, there is no difference in these two mouthfuls with respect to the body, they are equal. And after passing down the throat, they are still equal in nourishing the body. Indeed, $1 worth of cheese sometimes is more nutritious. Only, in regard to pampering the sense of taste in the mouth, there is a half-minute difference. You can see from this what a meaningless and harmful waste it is to increase the cost from $1 to 10$ for the sake of half a minute.”

    * Baklava is an extremely delicious yet expensive Turkish desert.

  • Darrell June 19, 2014, 4:06 pm

    I shaved my mustache in response to this article. I checked out mint.com…I spend $1,500 a month on food, which is 2/3rds of your entire family budget. Crazy. This is the food version of a debt emergency! I need saving!

  • sterlingmom3 October 11, 2014, 6:22 pm

    How do you eat beans, rice, and pasta on a low carb diet? My husband and I are low carbing and we are a family of 5 ,which includes 2 teenage boys, and I am trying my hardest to accommodate all that at $500 a month. Any suggestions is much appreciated!

    • GregK October 13, 2014, 5:30 pm

      I completely understand cutting out refined carbs like bread, pasta, sweets – they’re essentially empty calories. You might as well be drinking soda for dinner. But rice and beans?! I think it’s hard to argue those aren’t very healthy foods to be eating. Heck, rice and beans is a complete protein. Add some green vegetables and a salad (I really really hope “low carb” doesn’t mean “low vegetable”), and you have a very nutritionally complete meal.

  • El October 16, 2014, 7:01 pm

    Great article indeed! I usually spend about $400 Canadian per month on food for me and my son. I used to do a meal plan as well but found it pricey and have switched to having good basics on hand. We order out only a few times per year and I go to a restaurant with friends about once per month. We eat mostly vegetarian, so that saves quite a bit and plant-based foods keep better as left-overs. We also live in a part of Canada with incredible choice and access to food. There must be at least seven grocery stores within 15 minutes (driving) of my home. I choose the store (almost always one) based on what I need and which has the best deals for those products.

  • partgypsy November 3, 2014, 4:51 am

    I would take the frightening health claims about canola oil with a grain of salt. As others said, canola oil has been used unrefined for many centuries for cooking, It now has a much lower erucic acid content than before. But there is little evidence even that acid would be particularly harmful in the levels presented in food. In fact isolated long chain acids from rapeseed oil was used as a “miracle cure”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lorenzo's_Oil. I feel there is some kind of agenda regarding the canola oil claims. In our house, we use olive oil, canola oil, and butter. So does my Dad, who is 80 plus years old and doing well. Avoid the margarine though! I swear if everyone took every single health scare seriously, the only safe thing to eat would be air.

  • Parker November 8, 2014, 7:58 pm

    Love that you wise-cracked on whole foods. They are such a rip-off. I do question your ‘$80/wk’ food bill for a family of 3. That’s $11.42 per day for 3 people. If you’re actually eating well-balanced diet with produce and fresh meat, $3.80 per person a day seems highly unlikely.

    • JB March 31, 2015, 1:26 pm

      Why do assume they have to eat meat on a regular basis?

  • Mitzi December 10, 2014, 9:39 am

    Don’t forget about the frozen food aisle! Frozen spinach mixed in to just about anything adds nutrients and color to soups, stews, and sides.

    My favorite frozen broccoli soup:

    Often times, frozen foods go on sale! 10 packs for $10 is the going rate.

  • Hannah December 27, 2014, 8:05 am

    Great article, I would like to share one of my recipes. My husband and I have a grocery budget of $70 per week, and we eat very well. Thanks to a freezer full of venison (he hunts), we are able to enjoy 3 full meals a day around $1.50 per meal. Here’s our favorite one, we eat it almost every week and we love it every time!

    Pressed Venison Burritos

    1/2 lb of venison grind, 1/2 cup dry black beans soaked and cooked, large flour tortillas, 1 cup brown rice, cheese (I use pepper jack) cumin, paprika, onion powder, chili powder, taco seasoning packet, 1/2 can diced tomatoes with chilis (or salsa), can be topped with sour cream, mashed avocado, lettuce, and taco sauce.

    Start with the rice. We have a rice cooker so I just get that started first and it’s done by the time I need to use it. I have the beans soaked and cooked ahead of time.

    Next, brown the venison. A small amount oil can be used but it’s not necessary. While the meat is cooking, add all the spices list above except for the taco seaoning packet.

    After the venison is cooked through, add 1/4 cup of water and the black beans. Then mix in the taco seasoning packet until everything is coated. Next, mix in the tomatoes and chilis. Shred cheese over the pan, add as much as you prefer. Stir in the cooked rice, and let the pan sit for a few minutes on low heat.

    The next step is to press the burritos. (We use a panini press, but baking them might work too) After the panini press is warmed up, fill a tortilla with a generous amount of the meat mixture, gently fold in all the sides, brush the outside with olive oil, place it in the panini press, and lower the top so it is compressed. After a few minutes, when you can see brown grill lines in the tortilla, you can remove and place on a plate to cool for 2-3 minutes. Then top it with whatever you want! I prefer lots of sour cream and a bit of avocado. The lettuce adds a nice crunch, and the taco sauce adds flavor.

    And voila! An amazingly filling, inexpensive, and crazy delicious meal that will make your mouth water!

  • Marc Wood December 28, 2014, 2:57 pm

    Hey all. I just started reading the MMM blog. I am committed to lowering our grocery bill and still eating healthy foods with extra to splurge on a few bottles of wine each week. Wish me luck. I do have good news though… my goal is to spend $125/week for a family of 4. I just left TJs spending exactly $100. Before reading MMM I couldn’t get out of TJs for less than $150/visit.

    Also, I am guessing the multiple times I go back to the store each week easily makes our monthly grocery bill over $1,000/month. My goal is $500 for the month of January. I would love to here how much everyone else is cutting their food bill each month.

    I am keeping each grocery receipt for the month of January to see how things go. Thanks for starting this blog!

    • Mr. Money Mustache December 28, 2014, 4:32 pm

      Good luck, Marc! “A few bottles a week” can turn into a pretty massive wine budget, unless we’re talking about Three Buck Chuck. You might also check out Black Box, Bota boxes and other 3L wine boxes that have good quality at low prices per bottle.

  • David January 6, 2015, 7:46 am

    Oh, wow, this is a great article! One of my favorites.

  • Catherine January 13, 2015, 6:38 pm

    Thank you Mr.MM for all your great comments and ideas on living frugally. I think my husband and I have been living the Mustachian life since we got married 25 years ago. We are both professional accountants – and being accountants I guess we come by our frugalness by nature. As an example, we used cloth diapers and air dried them for both our children. Your blog is refreshing! But I digress…I wanted to share a very similar soup recipe with you. It is almost the same as Mrs. MM’S recipe but includes a couple of small chili peppers, another 2 cups of water and 1 cup of dried lentils. The chili adds a very nice spiciness and the lentils are very healthy and make the soup more hearty. I also often will use your french fry recipe but using sweet potatoes.
    Thank you for your blog!

  • Janie January 18, 2015, 7:42 pm

    Love this soup–it’s become a family favorite.

  • Kirsten February 25, 2015, 7:58 pm

    Buy a dehydrator and your fruits and veggies will never go bad AND you don’t have to take up freezer space. You seriously cannot mess it up.

  • Gena March 5, 2015, 6:13 pm

    HI MMM!
    I have a question. What do you spend on other household necessities such as toilet paper, laundry soap, etc? I looked at my expenses for the past two months and for my husband and I (plus an 80lb dog, and two cats) I spent around $400 per month on what I called “grocery”. But then I thought, I can’t differentiate what on my $80 albertsons receipt is from food and what was dish scrubbers. What do you spend on these items?

    Also, do you have pets? Is their food included in your low grocery bill? How big/how many pets? Do you feed them organic? My dog has bad skin allergies. We’ve tried the all natural diet and are now back on bagged organic. *expensive* =( Any advice?

    Is it safe to assume you folks do not drink alcohol? I think I read you make your own beer? Is the price of those material in your low monthly “food” budget too? I just want to compare what I’m doing because I feel we are pretty like-minded.

    I really LOVE your blog so far!

    • JB March 31, 2015, 1:25 pm

      Create a spreadsheet, keep your receipt and log food from other stuff.

  • Just sayin March 7, 2015, 9:37 am

    I read that 30% of all produced food is wasted! Much of this from our fridges and tables. Even if this estimate is 2x high it’s still ridiculous. The societal costs of this are enormous if you want to think about ethics, Whether it is produced organically or not.

    As a rule we never waste anything. Waste not, want not, right? good grocery management is important. You can reinvent almost anything in small enough quantities. Just make sure you have high enough ratios of the dominant flavors so your reinventions don’t taste like crap.
    Thing of your kitchen like an efficient restaurant -You can bet the “specials” are 1) what they just bought for cheap + 2) what they need to use to turn over in their inventory, including what didn’t sell last night…

    I found you can use or “hide” anything in your kitchen in one of the following categories, just get creative:
    – a smoothie (cereal that the kid didn’t finish goes into his mid-am smoothie snack, all of that zucchini that people are trying to give away make up ~15% of our smoothies year round + add a few strawberries and yogurt, voila!)
    – “stir fry” or “burritos” or “sandwich” can be ANYTHING
    – soups and stews can be ANYTHING
    – omelette are another amazing option

    In the rare event that you should have to throw something out, feed it to your pets, birds or compost it and feed it to your garden!

    …and all of our food is delicious. People ask for the recipe for something and my husband laughs at the inability to reproduce anything. Start with some leftover pork chops diced up. Add the remaining celery from the fridge. Throw in that 1/4 cup of frozen cauliflower that you found in the bottom of the freezer from last summer…

  • JB March 31, 2015, 1:23 pm

    We have never spend $1,000 much less than $300 on a month on average on groceries. yes, a trip to Costco, but that will last a good month or so. Maybe $200 a month in general. Food is the easiest thing to go cheap on.

    • Jenn March 31, 2015, 2:59 pm

      How is that possible I have 4 kids 3 of them teenagers no way I could feed all of them on $300 a month… do you guys include like toilet paper and other stuff like that in grocery budget or is it separate?

  • Justin April 14, 2015, 10:15 am

    Great post. A few more tips for saving at the store (sorry if these are obvious to you all or repetitive): 1) NEVER buy pre-shredded cheese. Buy a block and shred yourself (cheddar, parmesan, whatever). It will be so much fresher, more flavorful and WAY cheaper. Also less packaging in a landfill. 2) If you buy deli meats or cheeses, make sure you buy from the people at the deli counter, not the prepackaged stuff in the cooler section. Not only is it way cheaper (sometimes 1/2 the price of the pre-sliced stuff), but it is also much fresher and you get exactly as much as you want. Also, less landfill. I don’t understand why the prepackaged stuff exists. 3) Buy spices in bulk from an international grocer. The spice aisle in a typical grocery store is full of absurd spices. You can get a huge bag of bay leaves from the Mediterranean store for WAY less than a tiny jar costs at the supermarket. Even if you go to the international section of the supermarket, the spices will be so much cheaper than the typical american brands a couple aisles over. Ideally, your spices will come in a plastic bag, not a little expensive glass jar. If you are cooking at home for most meals (which we all agree you should), it really helps to have nice spices, but that doesn’t mean you should fork over tons of $$ to McCormick as though the Dutch still held a monopoly on the spice trade. 4) For protein, eat the cheap cuts. Filet mignon is really overrated. Get a skirt or flank steak instead if you are going to treat yourself. So much more flavorful and cheaper. I’d take a pork shoulder over a pork tenderloin any day even if it weren’t a fraction of the price per pound (which it is). Offal can be great if done right, and butchers practically give it away. I’m getting carried away so I’ll stop now.

  • Rob June 19, 2015, 12:34 pm

    Here, in Germany, food can be as cheap or expensive as in the US. The only thing that’s always cheaper is alcohol. You can get a six pack of good beer for 3 Euros. In the US, a six pack of PBR starts at $5!

  • Jessica June 22, 2015, 7:37 pm

    Okay I always laugh when they say the average family. We are a family of eight. There are no averages for our family. And doubling the number for a family of four doesn’t work quite right. We are spending 600 a month or less on groceries and household stuff. We are a year away from having our house paid off. I am 41. I would love to see numbers for families my size.

  • Lamont Cranston July 17, 2015, 10:10 am

    My wife planted butternut squash this year, now they are ripe.
    So I made the “Thai Curry and Coconut Butternut Squash Soup” yesterday, it turned out good.!
    I have some in the fridge and some in the freezer.
    But what side dishes can I add to make a meal?

  • Meghan Cross July 25, 2015, 11:33 pm

    Of course this probably goes without saying… to plan for meals. We spend about $120 week for four of us, and our boys are roughly waist-high… so we’re not on the low end of potential spends. However what is key for us financially and for me as the cook, is planning once each week for everything that will be prepared. Going through all recipes and coordinating ingredients (I’m not ultra-specific about it, but it seems to just work out organically ) is great. Then on that Wednesday night when you normally would not think of what to cook or what you have in the house, you can pull out your sheet of noted recipes and say, “Oh yeah, we already bought food for tonight and I know exactly what I’m going to make.” And if you don’t, like I do sometimes, the memory of that food at home reminds me that it’s still waiting for a next meal, as long as it doesn’t spoil… a definite kick in the butt to get ‘er done. :-)

  • Dividend Wisp August 6, 2015, 9:58 pm

    I like the list of staples you have. I need to try cooking with blackbeans, my mom always put them in quite a few things and they seemed to go well, while being very filling as well. Perhaps that will be recipe project to end the summer with for me. I have fun sometimes roughly breaking down the cost per meal sometimes, although it is a bit higher than your $1-2, in part like you mentioned due to eating more meat, but I think its also partly more expensive food/US/CAD FX rate/prices in Canada. Boneless chicken is quite expensive, so I usually wait for a sale, or get it frozen(big discounts and still stir-frys great!). And for spaggetti with meat sauce, I use ground pork instead of beef, same taste(as far as i can tell) but easily half the cost. It also works great for homemade burgers so long as you season properly with herbs and Worcester sauce.

    Thanks for the post and inspiration, now to look up some black bean meals :)

  • ReadingLearner August 7, 2015, 1:52 pm

    I don’t have a car, but in the winter time, I don’t like grocery shopping because I don’t want to bring by toddler out with me in the stroller. Anyone have tips on how they grocery shop in the winter? What do you think of grocery delivery?

    • Beth W August 28, 2015, 10:05 am

      My brother doesn’t have a car, so he uses Amazon Fresh as his sole grocery provider. The pros are (in addition to the convenience) that they often source from local farms BUT the con is that he pays more than we do, for everything (from staples to hoarding stuff). I can’t guess how much, but he does a lot more impulse buying with it, and buys premium grocery items, and doesn’t have that access to “stuff is expiring soon” sales that you get in a physical grocery store. My mom used Safeway with their grocery delivery program while recovering from surgery. They’re one of the most expensive grocers in our area, but she said it was exactly like shopping at the store, with delivery….so maybe that’d be a good option? Before winter weather hits, I’d double-check that their delivery prices are comparable to their in-store prices.

  • Beth W August 28, 2015, 9:30 am

    This, absolutely! When I was unemployed for a year and we had a budget of $150/month for all food for the two of us, we ate like royalty. The key is absolutely spices of all kinds. Other things: ask for ‘seconds’ at the local produce stand or farmer’s market (these are ugly fruit and veg at about 50% savings), ask for expiring produce (“for my rabbits”) at the grocery store (sometimes you can get these for free!) and toss into a soup or smoothies, buy bone-in meat on those BOGO sales (Albertson’s, in my area, is the best for this) and use those bones to make stock/broth, utilize your freezer for those times you find meat or milk ridiculously cheap, grow your own staples (like potatoes!) if you can, etc. Of all the ways to cut costs, we found grocery to be the most adventuresome (challenging in a fun way) and rewarding.

  • stacy humphrey September 3, 2015, 8:35 am

    FYI, this resource was published last year – great cooking on a SNAP budget: Eat Well of $4/day


  • Eric September 25, 2015, 6:12 am

    Mt wife is vegetarian and has discovered this awesome, heap and nutritious one-pot Mexican rice recipe. Our only variation is to bring it to a boil on the stove and finish it in a 325 degree oven for about 30 min: http://damndelicious.net/2014/08/27/one-pot-mexican-rice-casserole/?m

    Chicken thighs are also a great money saving tip and can be had for cheap at Western grocery stores. Here is an AMAZING recipe for them:

  • Annette October 14, 2015, 12:10 am

    I just started reading MMM after my husband told me about it and came across this article. We’ve recently started charting our expenses on Quicken and I was shocked, really shocked, to see how much we rack up a month on groceries. We live in one of the most expensive countries in the world (Singapore) and sadly there aren’t a lot of farmers’ markets and Costco-equivalent places unlike the US. But I’ve learnt that you can get really good-quality and cheap provisions from the local markets, and we’ve since cut down on expensive meat and eating more vegetables which has proven to be healthier.

    I also did want to share a tip. When I was younger, I apprenticed in a French restaurant with a chef who was very conscious about cost. While it was a high-end fine dining restaurant, he made use of everything and somehow made everything taste good. We had a huge supply of ducks once that went on the menu, but he kept all the hearts and turned them into little skewers which we barbequed and served, and while it may be a bit too adventurous for some, surprisingly people actually liked it. Waste not, want not!

  • Randy October 14, 2015, 1:15 pm

    If you are in an area like the midwest and are inclined you can get meat quite cheaply. Deer are very good sources of protein and are running around everywhere just outside of cities. Sometimes in the limits as well. Its about $26 for two bowhunting tags in my state. The tags are over the counter and you can freeze the meat. Granted it costs money up front to get a bow, arrows and some appropriate clothes. But if you butcher the deer yourself, you can save quite a bit of money. Videos on how to do it are available on Youtube. I hunt for my venison and don’t usually buy any beef at the store. We eat Mexican, Italian, American recipes with the meat. The meat is similar to Bison, in that it is very lean. Similarly you can go fishing and get meat good lean protein. I once ran into a guy that shoots several deer a year since he had 4 young boys to feed, plus the wife. He was manual labor guy and that allowed him to spend on the children ‘s other needs. I personally give some to my aunts that don’t have a lot of money in retirement as well.

  • Amicable Skeptic October 18, 2015, 7:28 am

    The other day I was in the grocery store and saw AP flour on sale for just 25 cents a pound. I bought 15 lbs right then and there. Now doing the math I see that this flour is just over 10 cents per 667 calories, thus making it even cheaper than canola oil!!! It’ll take a while to eat 15 lbs of flour but the freezer should keep is good and I’ll enjoy it bringing down the average cost of every meal it’s used in.

  • Cheryl October 22, 2015, 9:58 am

    I would never claim this is the healthiest meal, but it is our favorite “fast food”. Use a store brand pizza pouch to make a thin crust pizza. Use lots of evoo and pre bake the crust. Sauce is 1/2 spaghetti sauce 1/2 Sweet Baby Ray’s Bbq sauce, cover with onion slices, cover with mozzarella, top with bacon/Canadian ham pieces, sprinkle with cheddar and homemade ba Nana pEpperson slices. Cook until crisp. So, so good and a fraction of the cost of delivery.

  • James October 24, 2015, 8:19 am

    You can also cut costs by growing herbs and collecting free food. My wife buys potted parsley – put this into a pot with fresh compost and give it a few drops of fertiliser and it will last for months instead of a couple of weeks. We also grow rosemary, kaffir lime, lemon grass, sage, mint, bay, chives, oregano thyme and perennial rocket, all in a small amount of space and with hardly any effort involved, as well as picking wild mushrooms, wild garlic, sanfire and collecting crabs, shrimps and mussels.

  • Susan November 20, 2015, 7:20 am

    Really good article! I keep re-reading it- it is one of my favorites…to inspire me to keep going.

    For a family of two, I spent $1034 on groceries in 2015 so far, and there are only 6 weeks left in the year. $900 a month! WOW! What are they eating- filet mignon and lobster every day? Or, all prepared foods and snacks most likely.

    I am disappointed in myself because this is the highest the grocery bill has been in 10 years. However, I was kicking it into overgear and working 6-7 days a week, due to a lot of enormous bills this year we wanted to pay in full- including paying off the mortgage. And no, these numbers are not a typo. In previous years I was a heavy sale shopper and heavy couponer and rebater. But my example is an interesting one to see, because even without any coupon use at all in 2015 (however still shopping sales), I was only $1,050 for the whole year..better than the average per MONTH!!

    2006 = $536
    2007 = $332
    2008 = $575
    2009 = $435
    2010 = $288
    2011= $33
    2012= $359
    2013= $345
    2014= $751
    2015= guessing $1,060

    These numbers do include paper goods, food, cleaning products, toiletries, coffee, all non-alcoholic beverages, everything. This does not include DH’s lunches, which try as I did, he will not bring to work. This includes breakfast, lunch, and dinner for me, and dinners for DH (he doesn’t eat breakfast). We eat out once a month. We never order takeout. We entertain a LOT. I mean, a lot. There seems to always be someone (or more like big groups of people) eating my food every week. :-)
    I cook from scratch. I never buy anything “inside the middle” of a grocery store unless it is free with a coupon. I make different foods all the time, always reading cookbooks, reading cooking blogs, trying different ethnic cuisines…so it never gets dull.

    I live near NY, and almost of my girlfriends do not cook (!). They eat out, takeout, and buy prepared foods. I can’t live like that. I would be overweight if I lived that lifestyle. My biggest advice to those who ask is:
    1. learn to cook. It is not that hard. Throw a pork chop in the oven. Boil pasta. Start there. As you get comfortable, start reading recipes online- then get fancypants. Some blogs have pictures showing you step by step instructions!! I shake my head when my girlfriends with Masters Degrees say they can’t cook. They can cook. They choose not to.
    2. read food blogs. I love love Budgetbytes.com. She rocks.
    3. cook from whole foods. Meat, vegetables, grains.
    4. shop sales for items you use. Every week every single store has loss leaders on sale. Go buy those. Freeze meat on sale. I never ever pay more than $2 a pound for any meat- and a pound can be streched to 2-3 meals for 2 people. I shop at 5 stores. I take my bike unless it will be a huge load. 90% of the time I buy one or two bags of food, that I can carry by hand.
    5. read “Not Eating out in NY” blog and book. Just do it. I completely stopped buying occasional lunches, and cut back the eating out every week habit to once a month after becoming a convert. And it is actually fun! I love cooking for people, and that satisfies my social tendencies. And I save $100 a pop per couple by avoiding NYC restaurants.
    6. its funny when you cook for people. They cook for you! Start a schedule of dinner parties, or organize a lunch club at work with a group of 5 colleagues where everyone brings lunch one day a week (giving you free time the rest of the week)!
    7. if you do eat meat, try to make 1-2 meals a week with no meat. It adds up.
    8. Don’t forget eggs are a cheap protein. Even with the prices high in 2015, it is still pennies per egg.
    9. eat like a non-American. I have been all over the world. Nowhere in the world do people eat the volume of food we do.
    10. learn from different ethnic groups. Every culture stretches their food with something. In Italy, it is pasta. In Asia, it is rice. In Ireland, potatoes. In Latin countries, beans and rice. Cheap staples, with a taste of meat. Not 1 pound of meat on your plate every night.
    11. know prices. I keep a list in the notes on my smartphone – a “price book”. I know exactly which store carries which item cheapest, so when we get low, I know where to go. If I see it on sale somewhere, I know it is a good price or not.
    12. keep an inventory. I know what I have in my huge stockpile.
    13. stockpile items when they are on sale or free. Know how long items really stay fresh. For example, tissues never go stale. You should never ever buy items like that full price. That is poor planning.
    14. have fun with it.

    As you practice, it gets easier and becomes habit, second nature. Actions become habits. Habits become lifestyle.

    • Kathy February 26, 2016, 10:31 am

      wow I would LOVE to know how you spend $20 a week for groceries for the two of you. My average is between $100 and $200 a week for the two of us. I’m totally impressed!!!

    • Jackson February 29, 2016, 9:43 pm

      I wanted to add that it is well worth investing in one good knife for chopping veggies and meats as well as a good knife sharpener. After that, check out various YouTube videos on how to chop vegetables quickly. I just hacked at vegetables, I am ashamed to say, for way too many years, and hated so ding the time chopping them…and no wonder..I was doing it all wrong. ,

      Then I learned the right way to slice, mince, dice them, etc. Now it is a breeze- and remember, you can chop up veggies for a stir fry a day ahead. Cold rice cooked ahead makes a stir fry even better.

  • Daniel F January 23, 2016, 5:19 pm

    Another tip: don’t throw out the seeds from squashes like butternut, spaghetti, acorn, etc.

    Spread them out on a tray or a piece of aluminum foil, add salt/spices to taste, and roast for 20min at about 350F (until very lightly browned). The seed shells are soft and edible, so no need to do anything else with them. Makes for a great snack!

  • Jonathan January 28, 2016, 12:03 pm

    What do you think about rebate apps such as Ibotta? For those that don’t know Ibotta is an app that allows you to shop as you normally would, see if the items are listed, add them to the in app cart, then scan your receipt. You will then get a pay out for the amount displayed.

  • Greg February 6, 2016, 7:07 am

    Starting to work on addressing the grocery costs – but I’d like to know how people are figuring the costs. Is it food ONLY? Or are you including the “household” items like cleaning supplies, toilet paper, etc? In my nascent efforts I am separating those into two categories.

    • Jackson February 29, 2016, 4:46 pm

      We spend no more than $320 a month on groceries for a family of 3 and this is possible mainly because I plan and cook every meal, make double or even triple portions of recipes, save one bunch of leftovers for the next day’s lunch , and freeze the rest. This also lets our oven or stove top cook 3 meals in the same time as cooking a single meal so there’s a bit of energy savings there.

      I plan a month’s worth of menus in advance. Probably would save more if I shopped the specials but I know what generally is on sale here or what is cheap and a fair price. The goal is simply to meet our target budget amount in a month.

      Some weeks we spend a bit more, some less…just make sure it evens out. If there’s a great sale, we might go over budget 1 month to save big the next. So one month we might be spending only $250 because of extra food we bough the previous month.

      Because I double recipes , by the time we reach the end of the month, I have at least 2 -3 weeks of freezer meals to carry us into the next month…and because there are sometimes crazy days with no time to spare it definitely helps to have those freezer meals at the ready! My family might be get tired of chili if I serve it too often in a single month before but they’re fine if I pull out of the freezer the next month.

      Now this budget does not generally cover dish soap,etc. i do save lots on laundry detergent because I make my own powdered detergent at a HUGE savings compared to buying the stuff found in stores..even the generic ones. I can share the recipe if anyone wants it. Works great, very cheap, got it from another frugal website.

      I do keep some bleach around for boosting the detergent when doing whites, .

      We also eat meat sparingly and stretch it with stir fries, or as a condiment for taco or tortilla fillings,(instead of mixing the meat into the sauce like some people do). I prefer plain bean burritos and so does a son so I just have some meet in he side for my spouse).

      We have at least 3 vegetarian meals a week. If I fry potatoes or any meats, I save the drippings in the freezer, A relatively plain potato,or vegetable soup gets extra richness if you throw a bit of seasoned drippings into the soup.,and if you lightly sauté onions before adding them to veggie soup, it jazzes up the favor.

      We use the drippings sparingly to avoid too much fat in any recipe.

      We eat out twice a month with friends and our friends have no idea we pay for those meals by donating plasma or blood plus selling items through an online and ongoing Facebook neighborhood garage “sale” ( a (great way to find everything from furniture to baby items at very low prices)

      When we eat out we bring half home for the next day.

      Baby steps add up,to big savings. Have patience. Takes practice. Our grocery bill used to be nearly $700 a month!

  • Materialist February 8, 2016, 12:49 pm

    Least you guys all live in the US, here in the UK everything is much more expensive :( – Our downfall is not planning meals properly and going to convenience stores and paying higher prices. Currently spend £200/week for family of 5, which is about $300/week…that does include my booze consumption though :)

  • Ryan February 25, 2016, 1:34 pm

    So, as a family of 4 we NEVER eat out. Because of this our grocery bill is approx. $200-$300 a week. We shop strictly at Trader Joe’s or Target. Mostly Target with red card discounts and coupons. We don’t splurge on obscene amounts of soda and chips and crap. We eat healthy meals that usually contain fish or chicken with some sort of veggie and rice. We get a few snacks like granola bars and fruit snacks for the kids, cereal, milk, cheese, eggs, bread, bottled water etc… We do like to juice so we buy quite a bit of fruit too. I just don’t see how I could get ever get a bill down to $300 for the month. That just seems impossible unless we starve. And we’re already a skinny family most of us right at our BMI. LOL… I can totally see myself asking my wife to drink olive oil for lunch to save a buck.

  • Kathy February 26, 2016, 10:24 am

    I really need to get a handle on my grocery spending. My husband and I are empty nesters. I am vegan and he is a meat eater, but he has cut back a lot on meat over the years and tries to eat only chicken and fish for health reasons. However just the two of us can easily spend $200 a week for groceries. (Well I can if I want to be brutally honest). I like to buy as much organic as I financially can, and I do NOT buy canned goods. So most everything I buy is fresh, with some packaged foods thrown in. I don’t know why, but the prices add up quickly and we have no Costco or anything similar anywhere near us. I do shop at Walmart, where I can get some organic foods, but they don’t carry everything I need so I end up going to other places also. We pack lunches, we don’t buy coffee at stores, and I try to save wherever I can, but I just can’t seem to get the grocery bill down to a reasonable cost. I even started menu planning, but that doesn’t always go as planned due to unexpected plans popping up. But I am making an effort to get it down as low as I can. I’m not giving up hope. I enjoy your articles. Thanks

    • Jackson February 29, 2016, 4:52 pm

      We eat organic too and I only buy canned goods that have the safe lining in the cans. No judgement but curious- why do you avoid canned goods? Also, if you plan meals, try making extra and freezing the rest. Works great for soups, pasta sauces, etc. Good luck! Our groceries used to cost well over 200 a week!

  • Ericka February 29, 2016, 5:50 pm

    If you’re going to use chicken in a recipe that can tolerate shredded chicken, skip the boneless skinless breasts, and buy whole split breasts instead. The price per pound is much cheaper in general. Then boil/simmer the breasts in chicken broth or water until they’re no longer pink, remove the skin from the breast (it peels off pretty easily with a fork), and shred the meat with 2 forks. Works well for enchiladas, chicken soup, curried chicken, lots of things – and you can make the shredded chicken ahead of time and store in the fridge to make weekday dinners quicker and easier.

  • Andrew March 11, 2016, 4:29 pm

    2000 calories per day?! What are you, an anorexic super model?

    • Mr. Money Mustache March 11, 2016, 9:13 pm

      Good point Andrew: I just ran it through a calculator and 1700-2000 calories is about what my wife (5’3″, 112 lbs) would consume on average to maintain weight. For me (6’0, 185) if I select “active”, it has me at 3500 calories.

      I’ve been tracking this stuff occasionally for myself using myFitnessPal, and I’m between 2400 and 3500. The lower figure is when I am deliberately burning off fat from, say, a vacation where beer was too readily available.

  • Amber March 17, 2016, 3:03 pm

    This blog post literally has saved us thousands in the last year. For myself and my son and fiance, we were budgeting like 200/week on food and spending even more than that. Slowly getting into Mustachianism has saved us a tremendous amount of money in just realizing what we DON’T need.

  • Olivia March 25, 2016, 10:36 pm

    I just completed a price comparison between six Longmont grocery stores and posted it to my blog. You can read it here: http://www.makesyouthinkblog.com/?p=3480 I was interested to find out where all my food budget was going every time I went shopping. If someone wants to price Costco or Sam’s with these products, I’ll be happy to make a blog post with that information as I don’t have a membership to either. I’m curious how they compare!

  • Zoe April 1, 2016, 11:14 am

    I see you updating your articles, MMM. ;)

  • Brad April 1, 2016, 11:27 am

    I have no idea how you do it… we buy zero packaged/processed food, shop 80% at Costco online, other 20% at the cheap grocery store.

    WE STILL AVERAGE 700-800/mo. Family of 5, sometimes spiking to 900 around the holidays.

    I should say that figure includes the occasional bottle of laundry soap, etc. from Costco.


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