My answer is that I fed my family of 6, including 4 teenage boys, on a budget of $130-150 per week for years. We were focused on saving as much money as we could, given the looming costs of college and the bills we had to pay.
But even now, with only my husband and me at home, and our financial situation much more financially secure and comfortable than it was with four children in the household, I never spend more than around $30-$35 per person, and often less.
And that's including some indulgences that we never would have allowed ourselves in earlier days.
It's interesting to see the reaction I get from people when I quote these figures. I often get very strong resistance - even dismissive contempt - toward the notion of trying to eat on that amount of money.
And sometimes those people who express the most skepticism are the very people who illustrate the benefits of my more frugal approach to food budgets.
Here's a case in point.
I was attending a leaders' meeting for the boy scout troop I've volunteered with for about 20 years. We were discussing the budget for an upcoming camping trip, and I pushed -- as I always do -- for a modest food budget to help keep costs down.
My argument is always the same. It's our responsibility as adults to teach our charges about fiscal prudence.
And let's not forget that "a scout is thrifty", after all.
But I am usually fighting an uphill battle in my efforts to educate my charges about money matters. We live in an affluent area of the country, where conspicuous consumption is something of a badge of honor.
And I know many of the boys in the troop are members of households where it's fairly common practice to spend $100 or more per person on their family food "budget".
Now I view that as profligate spending and a downright unsound financial practice that sets the children up for unreal expectations and a difficult time when they strike out on their own.
And I also am keenly aware that we have families in the troop who actually do have to weigh trip costs when making a decision about letting their child participate.
So I always argue for a conservative meal budget for these trips --- so much so that I've developed a reputation as a Frugal Fannie. It's a moniker I don't mind at all.
So I said my usual piece about the budget and how it's possible to eat well for far less than the amount proposed.
And this one leader literally snorted. And then informed me that he’d hate to have to eat what was on offer at my house for the kind of budget I use.
I politely replied that nobody has ever gone hungry in my house.
In actuality, though, the thoughts running through my head at at that moment were not nearly so courteous. Not at all.
The truth is that this fellow volunteer is a poster child for the perils of the typical American diet. He is overweight, on blood pressure and cholesterol medication, has suffered a heart attack, and has had bypass surgery.
In other words, he would very well benefit from a little thrift in the food department despite his high income and wealth.
And that’s my point in a nutshell.
Just because we can afford to do something does not mean that we should indulge ourselves. It can actually do us good to eliminate a lot of the stuff we put in our grocery carts every week.
Our diet has been no small factor in the fact that my husband and I are both in excellent health. We have reached well into middle age without any of the myriad diet-related health problems reportedly suffered by so many of our peers.
We maintain a healthy weight with our regular menus and diet, without having to avoid entire food groups or endure fad diets, or do anything special for that matter.
And to our medical providers’ apparent astonishment we do not require any prescription medication to control our blood pressure, cholesterol, or blood sugar.
In fact, my husband is the only male in 3 generations of his family to avoid the onset of Type 2 diabetes in middle age. His doctor even told him he wished he could bottle whatever it is we eat to pass it along to his other patients.
I think that’s a pretty good indication that we’re doing something right diet-wise.
It's always struck me as odd that people often overlook grocery expenses when trying to cut their costs to meet budget goals.
Food is of course an essential, and typically a big part of any household budget, but there’s usually plenty more room than people realize to lower the bill.
In my own case, I could have chosen over the years and decades to spend more on groceries. My family is at a far different income level than we were as young, married graduate students beginning our lives from scratch, with very limited financial resources.
But here’s the thing. Yes, in the beginning, we might have had to eat frugally out of financial necessity. But we found that the practice was actually quite painless, and we weren't deprived eating the way we did. Not at all, in fact.
So we made a habit of sticking to the basics, shopping with nutrition and value foremost in mind, and avoiding fads, marketing hype, and processed foods.
We figured it made more sense to essentially “pay ourselves” by saving, rather than purchasing products that were not going to contribute to our personal or financial well-being -- and in fact could be quite detrimental to both.
Over the course of years and decades, I calculate that this choice has allowed us to save tens of thousands of dollars on groceries.
Yes, you read that right. It’s not a typo. Those are the savings that can easily be realized over time – if not more. This is not chump change we are talking about here.
We also put those weekly savings towards retirement, which has helped us weather an unexpected lay-off and forced early retirement in remarkably good shape and with minimal effect on our quality of life.
I think those are good signs that we’re doing something right, budget-wise.
Less IS Often Better
Our financial and physical health are pretty solid evidence that applying the simple principles of thrift when it comes to food and diet can have a very positive effect on your health and your bottom line.
That is to say that you don't have to -- and probably shouldn't -- ratchet up your food expenditures just because you can.
Far too many family food dollars are spent on processed food, sugary drinks, excessive portions, and junk snack food. And far too many families are taken in by slick marketing campaigns urging them to buy the latest expensive trendy product or fad food.
It is absolutely possible to eat very well and very healthily by focusing on simple, nutrient dense foods and skipping the huge portions or products that encourage us to spend and eat way more than we should.
So, yes, while we could well afford to spend more at the grocery store check-out than we did as poor grad student --- why the heck would we? If it ain't broke, why fix it?
It’s something to think about when planning your next grocery run.