Food occupies a significant portion of a family's budget. While you can turn off lights, park the car and cancel the cable to cut down on these bills, everyone has to eat. Yet the food budget also represents an area where families can exercise more control, cutting back on more expensive purchases and treats when money is tight and splurging on steak or imported cheese in good times. You can look at amounts you've spent in the past to determine how much you should budget for food, or you can consider how much others spend for food as a guideline.
The United States Department of Agriculture considers average food expenditures in four categories: a thrifty plan, a low-cost plan, a moderate plan and a liberal plan. They break down amounts for representative families and for individuals, based on sex and age. In 2010, a family with two adults ages 19 to 50 and two children ages 6 to 11, spent $582.60 a month at the thrifty level, $758.90 for the low-cost plan, $949.20 for a moderate plan and $1152.10 for the liberal plan. This is averaged across the continental United States, with higher costs in Alaska and Hawaii.
The Federal Student Loan Servicing Agency, in offering advice on budgeting, allots 10 to 15 percent of net income for food purchases. Net income is the amount in your paycheck after deductions. If you bring home $36,000 a year net, this leaves you $3,600 to $5,400 a year for food, or $300 to $450 a month. To find out your annual net pay, check your final pay stub of the year.
Another way to determine your food budget is to look at your family's spending habits. Go through your checkbook or save up grocery receipts for a few months and add up everything you spent on food during that time to arrive at an average. If you feel this amount is too high, aim to reduce expenditures a modest 10 percent and set this as your budget. You can gradually decrease this amount every few months until you arrive at the level at which you're not comfortable. Books and articles about saving money at the grocery store can help you find ways to save.
When you look at national averages and percentages, remember that food costs vary across the country. If you live in an area with a lot of farms, where food doesn't have to be transported long distances to the store, your food costs may be lower. Some areas of the country have higher costs for everything, including food. If someone in your family follows a special diet, that may add to your food budget.
Cynthia Myers is the author of numerous novels and her nonfiction work has appeared in publications ranging from "Historic Traveler" to "Texas Highways" to "Medical Practice Management." She has a degree in economics from Sam Houston State University.