A food bill is unique among bills when compared to the rest of the required expenses within a household. Unlike a $70 cable bill or a $200 electric bill that a household pays on a specific day of every month, the amount of a grocery bill often fluctuates much more than other necessary costs, with a trip to the store for milk and eggs priced at only around $10, and a full-cart trip priced at upwards of $100 or more.
The Food Marketing Institute, which studies the grocery shopping industry and shopping trends, says the main types of trips to the grocery store are stock-up trips, when people fill up carts with items they’ll use over the next week or more; fill-in trips, when people buy items they run out of between stock-up trips; special purpose trips, when people have a party or special reason to visit the grocery store outside of regular household needs; quick food trips, when people buy just a few quick food items; and quick non-food trips, when people buy a few non-food household items like trash bags or toiletries.
In a more recent report, the institute also reports that shoppers are turning to a number of methods for their shopping: Some use online apps and delivery services, while others use digital services to help plan meals and other food-related tasks. Not only that, but many households are splitting the shopping between two or more people, with a shared shopping load.
Because people go to the grocery store so often and use different methods, determining exactly how much is spent from month to month is a kind of a pain. The average consumer visits the grocery store approximately twice a week, and of course, the bill on each of these trips is seldom the same amount. Plus, how many times has someone gone to the grocery store planning to spend $50 and then came out of the store $200 poorer with a cart full of food they didn’t plan to buy?
Most households also eat away from home at least on occasion, which adds to the overall food bill as well. With all of the trips to the store, both large and small, and all of the trips out to restaurants, an out-of-control food bill can send someone to the poor house. Do you feel like you’re spending too much money on food? Here are a 10 signs that you may be.
1. You spend much more than the average
In the past, people would track food spending using receipts, by writing down spending, or by using a checkbook ledger. These days, we have apps and online bank statements that make food budgeting a little easier, but it still requires a commitment. If, at the end of the month, your spending is substantially higher than other similar households, this is a sign that your food bill is too high.
Each month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture publishes a food cost report, which indicates the typical cost of food at home for various different household sizes and spending levels. For instance, if you are a household of two 30-year-old adults and you spend $761 or more per month at the grocery store, your spending is considered liberal. Looking at the chart in the report, you can see that a thrifty grocery plan for your household size only costs around $381 per month.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer expenditure surveys, the typical household spends $7,023 each year on food, which works out to an average of $585 per month. Of that portion, about $4,015 per year (or $334.58 per month) is spent on food at home — likely the average grocery budget across the U.S.
2. You spend more on food away from home than on groceries
According to the BLS data mentioned previously, the average American household spends about $3,008 per year (or $250 per month) on food away from home. This includes lunches from the food truck outside your office, the bagel you pick up on your commute, delivery orders, and dinners out with friends and family.
Though spending on food away from home dipped during the tightest economic years of the Great Recession, that trend is a distant memory. In 2015, Bloomberg reported that spending on food away from home overtook spending on groceries for the first time in history.
Of course, that’s not the story for everyone. But in most cases, meals are more expensive and less nutritious in a restaurant than in your kitchen. Portion sizes are larger, as are the fat content and sodium levels in most dishes. Regardless, the percentage of food dollars spent on dining out has increased from 34% in 1974 to 50% in 2014, according to one Forbes article. If you’re compensating with a much lower grocery bill that’s one thing, but in most cases the bottom line for your food spending simply grows, too.
3. Food is your largest expense
For most households, housing is their largest expense, followed by transportation. In the most recent data from 2015, households spent an average of $18,409 on housing, which equates to around $1,534 per month.
If you eat at restaurants on an almost daily basis, or you buy expensive grocery options and frequently eat at restaurants, you may be surprised to see just how fast your overall food bill can add up. If you and your significant other eat dinner out at a decent restaurant five nights per week, that’s 22 restaurant meals (give or take) at a cost of around $45 per meal, or $990. Once you add in the cost of a few groceries, your food cost may end up exceeding the cost of your housing. At the very least, it would overtake the average cost of transportation, which right now is about $792 per month. If food is your biggest expense, then this is a sign that you’re spending way too much.
4. You throw out half your food
Are you constantly throwing away limp lettuce, weeks-old leftovers, and boxes of stale crackers? Food waste is a serious problem in the U.S., with the average family tossing $640 worth of food in the trash every year.
While the jumbo bag of lettuce might be a better price per pound than the smaller size, you’ll still end up wasting money if your family can’t eat it all before it goes bad. This is especially important for perishable foods like produce or dairy items, but apply common sense in every aisle of the grocery store. If you’re spending just $5 on 10 cans of soup, but they’ll languish in your pantry for the next year, don’t bother.
5. You never have food at home
Maybe you balance your love for dining out with buying few groceries. While that can give you a better bottom line, it might also mean that you’re paying a premium for snacks and other convenience items you pick up at gas stations or the check-out line of a non-food retailer.
You’re not just imagining that the snacks or gallon of milk you pick up at your convenience store is pricey. The U.S. Department of the Interior sets the limits for markups that convenience stores can use, and they’re often much, much higher than the suggested retail price you’d find in a grocery store. Milk can be marked up by 40%, for example, and you’ll pay 64% more for salty snacks. In fact, most items are marked up by at least 50%, with some items like candy or ice cream at more than 80% of their retail value.
6. The drive-thru worker knows you by name
Fast food can be a meal-saver in a pinch, and it’s up to each family how often they eat from Subway, McDonald’s, or Wendy’s. About one-third of the children in the U.S. eat a fast food meal on any given day, and the average American spends about $1,200 on fast food each year. (That’s included in the “food away from home” tally from the BLS.)
While organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are worried about an uptick in obesity rates because of this habit, it’s also not great for your wallet. Fast food restaurants aren’t immune to price increases, which is why you see Dollar Menus disappearing. An average meal cost of $5 or $7 per person doesn’t sound like a lot at first, but it adds up quickly.
7. Your wallet is stuffed with restaurant rewards cards — and you earn the rewards every time
Almost every restaurant now has some type of rewards program to keep you coming back for more, whether it’s the card you swipe at Panera Bread or the app you use at your local gas station or fast food chain.
Is it a problem to take advantage of these programs? No. But if you know you’re about to earn a free soda or pastry, you might be more inclined to spend your lunch dining out than brown-bagging it with a cheaper option. Those loyalty programs wouldn’t be giving you free food if the restaurant wasn’t getting more than its share of your money in return.
8. You always opt for delivery instead of takeout
When the weather is cold or you just don’t feel like facing another person after work, delivery can seem like a godsend. However, you’re paying a hefty tab every time you opt to have someone else show up at your door instead of getting off the couch and driving to pick up that pizza yourself.
According to most etiquette experts, you don’t have to tip much (if at all) if you’re ordering takeout. However, you should plan on an average 20% tip for delivery orders — a 10% minimum at the very least — as well as whatever delivery charges the restaurant already charges.
If you’re ordering through a delivery service like Postmates, that delivery cost can be much, much higher than going to pick up the food yourself. And more than one user of the now-popular service have complained that they ended up paying $30 or more above the estimated price. Some convenience just isn’t worth it.
9. You and your partner share the shopping, but pick up the same things
As the recent report from the Food Marketing Institute shows, more and more households are splitting the task of grocery shopping. Roughly a quarter (22%) of households share the responsibility of shopping equally, with a total of 58% of households co-shopping to some degree.
While misery loves company, this can lead to some “pain points,” as the institute points out. Many households report that this process goes well, but the main complaint is that the partners end up spending more than necessary or waste money on unneeded items. If communication fails, the partners might also take extra trips when one shopper didn’t pick up something that was needed.
10. You’re always the one to pick up the tab
It’s good manners to treat people once in a while — especially if the waitress has already handed your group the check. But if you constantly find yourself in the company of people who are waiting on you to move for the bill, it’s time to get new friends (or at least new dining company).
One pro tip: If you’re dining with friends or you think it might be difficult to split the check, make sure you have cash on you in varying denominations. That way, you can pay for your share without fuss — and leave the awkward pushing of the billfold to the others at the table.
Erika Rawes also contributed to this article.