Smart Shopper

The Coupon Lady: How much should you be spending on groceries?

Have you ever filled your shopping cart with your normal weekly groceries, only to be dismayed at the high total at the register?

Have you ever wondered how your family’s spending compares to other families?

How do you know if you are spending too much on groceries?

Can you eat healthy foods on a “thrifty” eating plan?

These questions do have answers. We can compare ourselves to the national average and compare our spending levels to other families across the country.

The USDA publishes monthly reports on the cost of food. There are four designated spending levels: thrifty, low-cost, moderate and liberal.

The amount your family should spend on groceries directly relates to your family’s size and ages, so in order to determine your specific numbers you must look at the chart at www.cnpp.usda.gov and click on the tab that says USDA Food Plans: Cost of Food.

The government uses the thrifty level to determine Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) allotments. The national weekly food cost average for a family of four at the thrifty level in September was \$126 for a family with two kids younger than 5 and \$144 for a family with two children younger than 12.

My own family has one male age 19-50, one female age 19-50, one child aged 6-8 years and one child aged 4-5 years. The weekly food costs at the thrifty level for each of my family members is \$41.70, \$37, \$30.80, and \$24.10, respectively, for a total of \$133.60.

The low-cost, moderate and liberal totals for my entire family are \$172.10, \$213.90 and \$262.90. These numbers only represent what my family should be spending in food costs and do not include any personal care or household items.

So, now that we know how much we are supposed to be spending, what kinds of foods would be in these “thrifty” meals? One of my favorite thrifty meal cookbooks is Cheap! Fast! Good! written by Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross and published in 2005. Mills and Ross looked all the data from the 2003 USDA’s thrifty plan and challenged themselves to both make a healthy meal plan (with recipes) that would feed a family of four for a week for \$100.

At the time, the average weekly plan for a family of four at the thrifty level was \$107.70. The ladies’ menus included a daily breakfast of an oatmeal and milk, a simple lunch consisting of a sandwich made of either egg salad or peanut butter along with a seasonal fruit, a serving of chips and a small serving of cookies, and dinner with sides. Most of their money went for dinner, which accounted for almost 60 percent of their daily budget. They did not include beverages other than one glass of milk at breakfast, and they used leftovers at lunch to help budget for an occasional dessert. Dinner recipes included meatloaf, ham and broccoli pasta toss, spinach pesto pizza, chicken soup and several casserole-style dishes.

I use couponing to stretch my budget even further and to control our other costs, such as for laundry detergents, cleaning supplies and personal care items.

This week, I picked up two 55-load bottles of HE laundry detergent for \$2.99 instead of the regular price of \$7.99. At that price, it will cost just over 5 cents to wash a load of laundry. Those savings are critical to providing my family with healthy and balanced meals.

I will buy convenience foods as long as they fit into a nutritious meal plan. This past week, Publix had Progresso soups on a buy one, get one free sale. Progresso soups are \$2.39 each and contain two servings in each can. The sale made them \$1.19 per can. I had four coupons from The Augusta Chronicle inserts for \$1 off four Progresso soups and purchased 12 cans. After sales and coupons, the soups came to 94 cents a can – or47 cents a serving. With salad or a sandwich and fruit, my family has six meals of thrifty, tasty and nutritious lunches.

So, how do your food expenses compare?

If you find yourself spending at the moderate or liberal cost levels, I challenge you to eat well and save money.