When I was in college I lived on a very lean budget. One of the leanest areas was what I budgeted for food. My entire food budget was $25 per week. That included both groceries and any dining out. (Needless to say, I didn’t do much dining out.)
I always knew that my food budget was really low. What I didn’t realize was how low it was.
Each month the USDA publishes reports they call The Cost of Food At Home at Four Levels. These reports are supposed to track the food costs for a nutritious diet on four different levels – Thrifty, Low-Cost, Moderate-Cost and Liberal. These four levels are based on diets prepared by the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion which is a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Each of these plans include the following foods:
- Whole grain breads, rice, pasta and pastries
- Whole grain cereals
- Popcorn and other whole grain snacks
- Potato products
- Green vegetables
- Orange vegetables
- Canned and dry beans, lentils and peas
- While fruits
- Fruit juices
- Whole milk, yogurt and cream
- Milk drinks and milk desserts
- Beef, pork, veal, lamb and game
- Chicken, turkey and game birds
- Bacon, sausages and luncheon meats
- Nuts, nut butters and seeds
- Eggs and egg mixtures
- Oils and salad dressings
- Gravies, sauces, condiments and spices
- Coffee and tea
- Soft drinks
- Sugars, sweets and candies
- Frozen and refrigerated entrees
These food categories are weighted differently for each food plan.
The Thrifty Food Plan
From the report:
The Thrifty Food Plan (TFP) serves as a national standard for a nutritious diet at a minimal cost and is used as the basis for maximum food stamp allotments.
This plan is supposed to represent the least a person can get by on and still maintain a nutritious diet.
As of July 2011, the USDA estimates that it would cost $177.10 per month for a male and $157.60 for a female to follow this diet.
That is all home prepared, by the way. Dining out is not included in that budget. When you factor in how often most people dine out, it isn’t hard to spend another $100 without even thinking about it.
The Low-Cost Plan
The Low-Cost Food Plan (is often used by the bankruptcy courts) to determine the portion of a bankrupt person’s income to allocate to necessary food expenses.
From the description it sounds like the low-cost plan is still considered a cheap way to eat. According to the USDA though it will cost you $227.90 per month if you are male and $198.00 if you are female.
The Moderate-Cost Plan
The report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t give a direct definition for this plan, but it falls between the Low-Cost “Bankruptcy” plan and the Liberal Food Plan below.
To me, this sounds like it should be a middle of the road plan that the average middle-class American could follow. The problem is, it is estimated to cost $284.30 and $242.80 for males and females respectively. That’s nearly double what I would recommend that a single person budget for.
The Liberal Plan
The Department of Defense uses the value of the Liberal Food Plan to determine the Basic Allowance for Subsistence rates for all service members.
Finally there is the liberal plan. This recommended plan will set you back $348.20 if you’re male and $312.00 if you’re female.
A More Realistic Food Budget For One Person
For most single people, especially those who haven’t established a career, you shouldn’t need to spend more than $150 per month on groceries. If you shop smart, $150 will buy you just about anything you want. I’m not talking about living on rice and beans here.
Do you think these plans are reasonable? Could you live on a grocery budget $150 per month?