Monday, March 16, 2009

Figure Out The Cost Per Meal

Tip #92- Figure Out The Cost Per Meal. In order to save money many people try to come up with a monthly grocery budget. To get their budget, they often figure out how much they spend each week at the market and multiply it by four. Then they try to cut it down from there. I think it is a great way to get started. But I have an additional hint. Why not try to figure out the cost per meal and then add it up that way? You can use it as a basis for when you are buying food.

For example, when you plan your breakfasts, figure out how long a box of cereal lasts you (and don’t go by the servings on the box. They are not accurate!). If a 15-ounce box of cereal costs $2.00 and lasts for 5 bowls of cereal, then that is 40 cents per bowl. Factor in the cost of milk for each of these five bowls. If you put half of a cup of milk into each bowl and a gallon of milk costs $3.20 then it is 10 cents for each ½ cup of milk (16 cups = 1 gallon). So, each bowl of cereal plus milk for breakfast costs you about 50 cents. If you have 4 people in your family and you each eat a bowl of cereal for breakfast every morning, then you can figure $2.00 per day for breakfast or about $60 per month.

Next, lets’ figure out lunch. Suppose you usually eat sandwiches for lunch – figure out the cost of the bread as well as the fillings you put inside. Don’t forget to factor in the drinks and sides. For example, a bag of bread might cost $2.00. There are usually about 20 pieces inside so that is 10 cents per slice or 20 cents for the two pieces of bread used in a sandwich. Let’s assume you alternate between peanut butter and jelly and deli meats for your sandwiches. Estimate that you can get 20 servings each out of a jar of peanut butter and a jar of jelly. If each jar is $2.00 then that is an additional 20 cents for the fillings in your sandwich. Therefore, the cost of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is about 40 cents.

If you generally put an ounce of deli meat and an ounce of cheese on your deli sandwiches and deli meat is $8.00 a pound and deli cheese is $4 per pound then figure 50 cents for the deli meat and 25 cents for the cheese so the cost of the deli sandwich is 95 cents. Now add in the sides. A side of fruit such as a banana or small apple costs between 25 cents to 50 cents. Pretzels may be an additional 20 cents and a glass of juice might be 25 cents for an 8-ounce glass ($2.00 for 64 ounces). So a peanut butter and jelly sandwich plus sides and a drink cost about $1.10. And a deli sandwich plus sides and a drink cost $1.90. On average, if you alternate evenly between peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and deli sandwiches for lunch, then you spend about $1.50 per lunch per day. For 4 people that is $6 per day for lunch or about $180 per month.

Last is dinner. Since dinner is usually consumed family style, I find it easier to figure out the cost of the whole dinner and divide it by the number of family members. Dinner prices vary widely depending on whether you are eating meat with your meal or not. For example, a spaghetti dinner can be very cheap. A 16-ounce bag of pasta is $1. A jar of sauce is $2, but usually only half of a jar is used. A portion of Parmesan cheese may cost 50 cents. A head of lettuce for the family will usually cost $2. Add some homemade croutons and some carrots and dressing for an additional 50 cents. A loaf of homemade French bread costs about $1.00 to make. Water is free. Dinner is $6 for a family of 4 or $1.50 per person for a full pasta meal.

However, you may only eat meals like that for ½ the week. With the other half consisting of meat meals. A family of 4 may eat 5 chicken breasts with barbeque sauce. If chicken breasts are $1 each, that is $5 for the chicken. A jar of barbeque may cost $1 on sale. If ½ of a jar is use, then that is an additional 50 cents. Sides may include baked potatoes and butter. If each potato is 50 cents and the butter is another 25 cents, that is $2.25 total. Veggies such as steamed broccoli may cost $1 if a bag of frozen broccoli costs $2.00 and lasts for two dinners. Suppose you eat dessert of homemade cookies for a cost of $1.25. Then the total cost of your meat meal is about $10 for a family of 4 or $2.50 per person. So eating pasta-type meals for half the month (for $1.50 per person) and chicken meals for half the month (at $2.50 per person) on average, you probably spend $2 per person for dinner or $240 for dinners for the month. You obviously have a lot more variety in your dinners than that, but it is a good way to estimate what dinner costs you.

Don’t forget to add in snack foods. If each person also drinks a glass of juice and has a banana or a couple of cookies for an additional snack per day, then factor in another 50 cents per day per person for snacks or $60 per day for snacks.

Now add up the cost of your meals for a family of four for the month - $60 for breakfasts, $180 for lunches, $240 for dinners, and $60 for snacks for a total of $540 for meals. Now you have a starting place and can figure out how to cut down on the costs of the meals. You can either eat less, get a better deal on the foods you are buying, or eat the cheaper meals more often. Assuming you want to eat the same amount of food each month, then try getting a better deal on the foods you are buying or eating cheaper meals more frequently or a combination of the two.

Can you try to get your cereal for cheaper than $2 per box for 15 ounces? If you can buy them for $1.50 consistently with coupons and sales, then you can knock of 10 cents per bowl of cereal, making breakfast only 40 cents per day. This would work out to $48 per month for breakfasts instead of $60, saving you $12 per month on your budget.

Suppose you want to cut back on expensive foods, then you may decide to eat deli sandwiches only 10 times per month instead of 15. Because the peanut butter sandwiches are cheaper to make, you may cut your lunch bill down to $162 per month instead of $180, saving you $18 per month on your budget. You might want to substitute eggs for meat on some days for dinner. Because eggs are generally a cheaper source of protein than meat, you may be able to shave even money off your dinner budget. Doing a combination of shopping for better deals, buying in bulk, making your own food from scratch, growing your own food, using coupons, and substituting cheaper (but just as nutritious) foods for more expensive ones may save you $50 per month on your grocery budget.

In Real Life (IRL) –
I admit that I have tried to figure out the cost per meal for our family of five. While five people sounds like it may cost a lot, it really doesn’t yet, since two of the children are 3 and under and one is a vegetarian (me!). I have figured out that we spend about $2.00 per day on breakfast, $6 per day on lunches and snacks, $8 per day on dinners/dessert. I don’t know if it breaks out exactly that way, but it’s pretty close. We spend about $400 per month on groceries. We eat out about 4-5 meals per month, which comes under a separate budget.

We are able to keep our grocery costs pretty low using various methods. We buy 20 pound bags of potatoes from Costco. I buy cereal with coupons – aiming to spend no more than 10 cents per ounce. I compare staple items to get the best price for the quality I want by shopping at various markets – Costco for bulk purchases, Trader Joe’s and Whole foods for organic, natural foods, and regular supermarkets for items I buy with coupons. Pasta is never bought for more than $1 per pound. Chicken and ground beef are bought in bulk and frozen. Waffles, cookies, pizza dough, and breads are homemade with flour bought in bulk. Fruit is bought when it’s on sale – the majority for $1 per pound, some for up to $2 per pound. Summer fruits are bought in season and frozen for use later in smoothies, muffins, and sauces. Tomatoes are grown in our garden – and we’re planning on growing more vegetables this summer. Most dinners are meatless, with about 2-3 meals per week including meat for those who eat it. We have room in our budget to go over our $400 if we want to, but based on what we eat, we generally don’t seem to spend more than that. (By the way, the picture is some sad-looking pears we pick off my mother-in-law's pear tree. They actually taste good.) How do all of you keep your grocery bills low?


Sharon said...

A great exercise to do...I will try and figure this one out myself!

Yves Sch said...

I think you mean $60 per month for snacks! Little mistake, just in case anyone was confused!