I Tracked Every Single Cent That My Family Spent on Food Last Year and Here’s What I Learned

updated Jul 31, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

My name is Jen, and I love data. I don’t always know what to do with it, but I like recording it all the same. One year in my 20s, I wrote down every cent I spent in a notebook so I could track where my money went. I’ve kept a reading log for the past eight years. And in 2019, I tracked every single cent that my family spent on food, including both groceries and eating out. 

Before 2019, my husband and I used Mint, the budget tracker, but I wanted more detail. The app classified all Costco spending as groceries, for example, but not everything we buy at Costco are groceries (like car oil and potting mix and that time we impulse bought a bookshelf). When I thought about our family budget and what our expenses were, I decided I wanted more information about our food spending. Where did we spend the most money? How much did we spend eating out each month? What was our average weekly grocery bill? 

Why I Decided to Track My Food Spending for a Year

My main motivation in doing this wasn’t to save money; it was mainly because I was curious and wanted to know the data. If the results meant we could save money, that would have been a bonus. But when I started this, it wasn’t because I thought we were spending too much on food and felt we needed to cut back. It was simply because I didn’t know, and I wanted to know. So, my husband built me a spreadsheet, and humoured me further by keeping all of his food-related receipts. And away I tracked.

Here’s What You Need to Know About My Family

Before I get into the data and lessons, I’ll share a little bit about us, because this demographic information matters. Our household consists of myself and my husband, and our two-year-old daughter, and now newborn baby. My husband works from home as a computer security engineer, and I mostly chase after our toddler but also write for Book Riot and Baby Librarians.

This means that we are home a lot. Breakfasts seven days a week are at home, and lunches and dinners are also eaten at home usually five or six days of the week. We live in San Diego, California, and the grocery stores we frequent the most are Trader Joe’s, Costco, and Vons. Trader Joe’s and Costco are where we do the weekly shop, and we tend to go to Vons for things that neither Trader Joe’s nor Costco sell. I’m Australian, and still refuse to buy supermarket bread here (except sourdough) because it all tastes like cake to me. We are omnivores and cook most of our own meals.

Now that that’s out of the way: the data! The table below shows you the amount we spent on food at our three main grocery stores in 2019 (these figures do not include the amount spent on non-food items, or on alcohol).

The table below shows the exact amount we spent each month on groceries (August is especially low because we were in Australia for 2.5 weeks during that month; June is particularly high because my husband’s birthday was in July and I included the food and non-alcoholic drinks I bought for the party in the spreadsheet). Overall, we spent an average of $418.68 a month eating out, compared to $515.33 on groceries.

We spent $1,610.86 on fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, and specifically $96.60 on bananas (the one single item we probably bought more than anything else). At around 20¢ per banana, we bought roughly 483 bananas in 2019. Our toddler ate most of them. 

This is how much we spent on common grocery items.

The five things we spent the most money on were steak ($398.03), frozen vegetables ($314.27), protein bars ($293.93), salad kits ($268.86), and frozen fruit ($210.25). Foods we bought a lot of that are probably not as common in the average family’s shopping trolley were almond milk ($103.88), protein bars, toddler snacks ($126.48), and salad kits. 

3 Small, Random Things I Learned from Tracking My Spending

I learnt a few interesting facts from my year of tracking food spending.

  • The cost of half a gallon of milk from Trader Joe’s went up from $1.99 to $2.19 sometime in June 2019. Vons used to sell a half gallon of milk for $2.19 and that is now $2.49 (we don’t buy milk often enough from Vons for me to know when this increase occurred).
  • Costco is the cheapest place to buy bananas, but if you don’t want to buy 12 bananas that will ripen all at once on the same day, Trader Joe’s is a better bet. Target has the most expensive bananas.
  • Trader Joe’s stopped selling Weetabix at some point in 2019. As did Vons. The only two places you can now easily find the cereal I eat every morning are Smart & Final and Sprouts.

2 Things That Surprised Me About Our Food Budget Last Year 

  • I thought that shopping at Costco would mean less spent on food because in my mind, bulk buying means cheaper. But I can’t tell you definitively that shopping at Costco is cheaper for your groceries. I still assume that it is, but every time we go to Costco we still end up spending close to $100, even if it’s a “small” Costco shop. This would be mitigated by the fact that we aren’t bulk buying black beans and diced tomatoes every trip, so I think per item or per gram things are still cheaper at Costco than other supermarkets. But given how much we spent at Costco, it still seems like food is not cheap.
  • We spent more on eating out than I would have guessed. It feels like I spend most of my life cooking and meal planning and cleaning the kitchen, and that we only eat out once or twice a week, but it actually was more than that. And it cost more than I would have estimated, too, because the amount recorded included tax and tip, and we usually order a kids’ meal for our toddler. So even though we aren’t going to necessarily expensive places, it all adds up. In-N-Out is the cheapest eating out experience for our family. Unsurprisingly, Disneyland is the most expensive.

What I’m Doing with Food Spending Going Forward

This year of food spending tracking has revealed a few things to me about how my family eats and shops for food, and going forward there are a few things I would like to change. I do want to eat out less. This is partly because of cost, but also because of health and environmental reasons. I had thought we were doing pretty good with that, but this year of tracking showed me that we weren’t as good as I wanted to be.

I also want to eat less meat, primarily because of health and environmental concerns. I thought we were doing okay with having a few meatless meals a week, but tracking made me realize we could do better. Finally, this year of tracking has made me a lot more conscious of being organized when it comes to when and where we do the grocery shop. I didn’t set out to reduce food spending (and I don’t think it actually helped me save money), but if the data shows me how I could easily reduce our food spending, then heck yes I’ll take it. This means more Costco (probably) and more Trader Joe’s.

Do you track your spending like this for a whole year? Let us know in the comments!