When Carla Chery sat down to plan her household budget, she simply calculated the average she typically spent to feed her family of four.
The Manhattan stay-at-home mom never considered what percentage of the overall budget that $500 a month took up, or whether there is a "correct" amount to spend on food. "Ours is just based on what we can afford," she said.
If Chery searched for guidelines on how much she should spend, she would find no clear recommendation. For instance, while most budgeting books and Web sites say no more than 30 percent of spending should go toward rent or mortgage payments, suggestions for food spending fall in a wide range — from as low as 5 percent to as high as 15 percent.
That's because while food is a necessity, how much any family spends at the grocery store is highly discretionary, even if they have a set budget in mind. "A lot of times we don't stick with that," admitted Chery, who serves as a New York representative for the Web site MomsLikeMe.com.
It's hard to get an estimate for what most people spend. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates about 12.5 percent of the average family's spending goes toward food, while the Department of Agriculture puts the figure at 9.8 percent.
One thing that is for sure: Grocery prices jumped sharply in recent years — up 4.2 percent in 2007 and 6.4 percent in 2008, according to BLS. USDA projects they'll rise as much as 3.5 percent for the year.
No ideal number for any given family
Gary Foreman, a former financial planner who operates the Web site The Dollar Stretcher, suggested the typical family likely puts between 15 percent and 20 percent of overall spending toward food, including both groceries and restaurant meals. "I don't know that anybody can really tell you what the ideal number is for any given family," he said, noting the calculation has to take in variables like health concerns and location.
It's further complicated by myriad choices in the modern supermarket, estimated at around 50,000 products.
The $4.99 tomatoes are a good illustration.
That's how much one pound of organic tomatoes cost during a recent visit to a supermarket near Michelle Jones' Atlanta home. The founder of the consumer site BetterBudgeting.com said "there's no way" she would pay such a price. Instead, she searched the produce section and eventually found a non-organic variety that cost $1.69 per pound.
Groceries are "not a fixed expense like the mortgage and your utility bills, where you have to pay them and you can't change it," said Jones. "You can choose to spend $50 or $100 or whatever it is you have."
That flexibility has been recently put into practice. Jones said she typically spent about 10 percent of her household budget to feed her family of six. But because her husband's company is closing and he is about to lose his job, she has drastically scaled back. "Right now, we're saving up," she said. "We're just cleaning out the pantry."
The USDA tracks actual spending and breaks it down into four categories: thrifty, low-cost, moderate and liberal. For a family of four like the Cherys, with two kids under age 5, that spending ranges from a "thrifty" $524 per month to a "liberal" $1,014.
But while the Chery budget of $500 falls below even the "thrifty" amount, Chery does not clip coupons or travel from store to store to hunt for bargains. "Whatever is on sale, I'll grab like two or three of them," she said. "Especially if it's not perishable."
Clipping coupons not necessary to save
Careful shopping also helps Elizabeth Gibbons spend well below the "thrifty" estimate of $360 for two adults. The Stroudsburg, Pa., resident hands over about $200 a month, or 4 percent to 5 percent of her spending, for herself, her boyfriend and her daughter, who lives with her part time. "I'm a pretty darned frugal person," said Gibbons, a dance professor at East Stroudsburg University. "My challenge is always seeing how little I can spend."
She likewise doesn't clip coupons, because she finds they are mostly for processed food items she doesn't use. She shops at a discount store and focuses on fresh fruits and vegetables — but not those pricey tomatoes. "Eating well and eating healthfully is important to me, but I'm not going to go out and get organic things because they cost more."
From a nutritional standpoint, organic vegetables have no measurable differences than those grown with conventional methods, according to Bethany Thayer, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "It's more about the pesticides," she said.
Whether or not you choose to go organic, experts say there are always ways to cut back on the grocery bill.
Besides her budgeting site, Jones also operates GrocerySavingTips.com, which offers hundreds of suggestions. She said coupons are not necessary, although they can help, especially if used on sale items. Jones doesn't advocate "stocking up" and has joined warehouse clubs three separate times, only to decide they're not the best way to save — because in both cases she thinks people buy things they don't need. "I'm better off shopping the regular sales at the stores," Jones said.
Foreman's number one recommendation is to use a price book to track the costs for regularly used items. This works best for comparing between stores, but can also work for shoppers who tend to use only one. That's because by keeping track, when something is advertised as on sale, you'll know if it's really a bargain, he said: "It's not uncommon for people to cut their grocery bill by 15 percent by that alone."