The Average Cost of Food Per Month for One Person Is Surprising!

Posted September 26th, 2011 in Budgeting by Jeremy Waller

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
  • Cheese
  • Milk drinks and milk desserts
  • Beef, pork, veal, lamb and game
  • Chicken, turkey and game birds
  • Fish
  • 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
  • Soups
  • 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?

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16 Responses so far.

  1. Great new bloggers think alike. And here I thought I was the only blogger nerdy enough to go through government webpages looking for statistics related to personal finance.

    You will note that I did beat you to presenting the statistics by 3 whole days.

    You’ve got a great blog, I’ll be sure to be back.

  2. Andy says:

    Its a little deceptive, because in the budget, you normally lump food into groceries which is a bigger spend. So if you take out other stuff you get from the grocery store like garbage bags, paper plates, soap, razors, etc it’s not far off the mark. Also if you have a bambino at home, baby stuff can swell that category (formula and diapers aint cheap).

    We put our grocery envelope at $500 / month and rarely use it all. At the end of Q1 of this fiscal year, we had only used 1000 of the 1500 allocated.

  3. Andy says:

    oops-my bad- we only used 800 of the 1500. We took that other 200 and put it into the envelope for our upcoming vegas vacation.

    Normally we plough the extra money at the end of fiscal into a “capital expenses” envelope to use for future unexpected big stuff around house like the furnace breaking or to buy a new stove.

  4. PKamp3 says:


    Actually used those numbers before to come up with a ‘bring lunch vs. buy lunch calculator’. In reality, even with a mind on cheaper eats, I find myself sticking to the outer rows of the supermarket. I don’t think I’ve had a month where I’ve been under double that for myself.

    Eating healthy is hard, haha. Also, it doesn’t help when I’m putting down 3,000 to 3,300 calories a day, but circumstances dictate I’ve got to eat a bunch (got to gain some weight, long story).

  5. Brian says:

    Is the above just the cost for groceries? Don’t people eat out? I was hoping to see a total food cost per month. What about costs for eating at restaurants and fast food, etc? My wife and I are small (30 years, 90 pounds and 160 pounds) and we spend $350 per month on food groceries plus $350 per month eating out. We spend near $8000 per year on food for the two of us. We eat out frequently and liberally (hence the high expense). Food cost depends on your lifestyle, but $150 per month for groceries… sorry! I spend $100 per month just for drinking milk. We are both small, so our food intake is not unreasonable and we don’t do organic. My brother is huge and eats 50% more than me, so I can only imagine his costs, he could easily spend $5000-$6000 per year on himself.

    • The above is just for the cost of groceries. You spend about the same and what my wife and I do on groceries. I think a grocery budget in the $300 – $400 rage for two people is reasonable.

      The $150 number above is for one person. That’s only $25 less per person than what you are spending now.

  6. Deborah Hemphill says:

    I don’t know where you live and shop but $150 won’t buy fresh fruit or vegetables where I live. I get $115 in food stamps…way lower than the thrifty plan. I don’t buy beef. I eat the same 4 meals a month because I can use my slow cooker so they go farther. But I still can’t make it through the month. So I eat a lot of Cheerios and milk. Twice a year I splurge and buy potato chips and dip, but then I don’t have the money to buy milk so I live on popcorn…not the microwave kind…for the rest of the month. When I have to buy the staples like sugar, butter, etc I am down to 3 meals a month.

    • For the last 6 months our (my wife and I’s) grocery budget has averaged about $350. We’re very careful about our meal planning, but there’s very few times we’ve had to change our meal plans because the items were too expensive. Most of our meals come out to around $2.00 per serving.

      Over the last week we’ve had homemade pizza, creamy chicken burritos, from scratch mac and cheese, homemade lasagna and homemade chicken pot pie.

      We very rarely buy premade or frozen type dishes as those are usually much more expensive per serving. But, I’ve found very few things that cost more than $2-$3 per serving when you’re making it from scratch.

      We live in the mid-west. I don’t think our food prices are all than different than anywhere else in the country (excluding places like the middle of NYC or San Francisco.)

  7. Todd says:

    I created a free calculator that will calculate your monthly spend based on the USDA averages (without requiring the PDF lookups and complicated adjustments based on how many family members). It’s accurate and up to date with the most recent annual average posted (currently 2011).

    It’s at http://sohelpmetodd.com/blog/food-costs/ if you want to check it out.

  8. Gary says:

    Curious as to how long it was when you were spending $25 to eat per week. Do you know how much it would cost today?

    • It was around 2004. While food prices have increased since then, most of the increase is in things that I couldn’t afford back then to begin with. I ate a lot of hot dogs, ramen noodles and canned food.

  9. Joe says:

    We need a post-Obamanomics version of this. Thanks to the Fed addressing the failed economy by printing more money, costs are rising exponentially at the store.

    Funny how there is no mention of this phenomena on the evening news.

  10. Anexandrea says:

    I’m a recent graduate and have been living on my own for over a year now and I can safely say i spend approximately $100 per month on food (and that is a liberal estimate. Honestly, the last time I went grocery shopping was in the beginning of May and I spent $160. That was almost two months ago and the only thing I’ve done since is pick up around $30 in fruits and veggies. With what I have left I can probably be fine until mid to late July with maybe another $40 towards fruits and veggies and maybe some fish. But I don’t buy any microwaved foods of snacks for the most part and I eat out once a week. I cook everything from scratch (including baking) aside from pancakes every now and then. Also though I am not a vegetarian I do not eat a lot of meat which cuts cost a lot. I eat healthy and pretty cheaply. What sends grocery bills up is pre-made foods (microwaveble) for the most part. I’ve gone shopping with friends and come out with twice as much for half the price. Once you have the essentials things don’t cost much. And fresh fruits and veggies are really cheap, at least where I’m from (the midwest), I eat about 2 pieces of fruit a day and veggies.

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