The Government’s Recommended Monthly Grocery Budget For A Family Of 4 Has People Feeling

No matter what income bracket you’re in, we’ve all noticed it — grocery prices have skyrocketed in the past couple of years, and practically every trip to the grocery store produces sticker shock.

Meanwhile, the messaging from Washington about the economy is pretty consistently good news that doesn’t jibe with many Americans’ experiences. What’s going on here?

The USDA’s recommended grocery budgets have people feeling gaslit by the government. 

Food prices have undergone a drastic increase since 2020. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index, food prices rose 2.9% from November 2022 to November 2023 — an improvement compared to the staggering 10.6 percent rise between 2021 and 2022, but an increase most people can’t afford nonetheless.

However, the government and most media maintain that the American economy is booming like never before. Inflation is down and wages are up, but nevertheless, as the 2024 election looms, polls show consumers’ attitudes about the economy seem intractably dismal, leading many pundits and politicians to wonder why.

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But you’re not imagining things — food is shockingly expensive, and the USDA’s recommended food budgets clue us in on at least part of the reason for this deep disconnect between the government’s messaging and what we’re all actually experiencing at the grocery checkout line.

The USDA’s recommended grocery budgets bear little resemblance to what most of us are actually spending. 

Multiple times throughout the year, the US Department of Agriculture releases a set of “food plans,” supposedly based on actual food prices, to “[illustrate] how a healthy diet can be achieved at various costs.”

These plans are broken into four price tiers: Thrifty, which is used to determine food-stamp benefits, Low-cost, Moderate-cost, and Liberal. Any way you slice it, the budgets are out of sync with what many people are truly spending.

TikToker Sarah Biggers-Stewart, whose videos frequently focus on issues of motherhood, is one of those people. She often uses this data to try to analyze her own spending, but the USDA’s most recent data struck her as absurdly out of touch. 

“These numbers are [expletive] crazy,” Biggers-Stewart said in her video. “I’m realizing based on these numbers, that unless you’re literally willing to eat ramen, potatoes, and rice for every meal, everybody is spending a [lot] on groceries.”

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The USDA’s recommended grocery budgets are based on the types of food you eat — and the lower budgets allow for very few nutritious choices.

The USDA’s food budgets are based around the types of groceries considered “affordable” for different income levels. For instance, fresh fruits and vegetables are a large part of the “Liberal” food budget — for those who don’t have to worry much about food costs — but a small proportion of the thrifty and low-cost budgets. The same goes for meats and whole grains. 

As Biggers-Stewart pointed out in her video, this makes a healthy diet essentially something only for big spenders. “Fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, those should not be luxuries,” she said. Indeed, it’s not like we’re talking about caviar here. 

And the actual monetary figures for the budgets themselves bear little resemblance to most people’s realities. For a family of four, a “thrifty” food budget is about $975 per month based on the USDA’s plans. The moderate plan is about $1,300, and the liberal about $1,600.

“I mean, some people spend like three grand a month on groceries,” Biggers-Stewart said. She also pointed out that financial experts usually recommend you spend no more than 15% of your income on food. “I just don’t see how that’s possible based on the USDA’s own numbers,” Biggers-Stewart said.

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We asked parents to share their monthly food bills. They bore no resemblance to the USDA’s recommended grocery budgets.

If those numbers don’t seem right to you, you’re not alone. I am a single, 40-something man in suburban Detroit who cuts all the corners he can to save on groceries. I typically spend about $500 a month — $50 more than the USDA’s recommended budget for a single man like me who doesn’t even bother trying to save money on food.

For people with kids, the USDA’s figures become downright absurd. Food costs vary greatly from location to location, so we asked parents from different states what they’re paying for groceries (all names have been changed for privacy). All said they spent moderately. None of their budgets came close to the USDA’s.

Jenny spends roughly $800 a month in Texas for her family of three, not the USDA’s recommended $730. In Michigan, Addie spends $1,200 a month for her family of three, instead of the $983 the USDA advises. She recently signed up for HelloFresh meals because she found it would save her on groceries.

Photo: lunopark / Shutterstock

Maria, another mom in Michigan, spends a staggering $2,400 a month for her family of five — which, according to the USDA, should only run her $1,600 on the most liberal spending scheme. And Ted and his husband spend $1,500 a month for themselves and their toddler in ultra-expensive Los Angeles — $350 more than the USDA’s most expensive recommendation.

Commenters on Biggers-Stewart’s video were in similar situations. “My 1-year-old will eat $36 of berries and cheese in 2 days, much less a week,” one parent wrote. “It’s just my husband and me,” another said. “We spend over $1,000 a month.”

Even those living on the food stamp-like Thrifty plan were nowhere near the USDA’s budgets. “Family of 7. $500 a WEEK for ramen/hot dog level meals,” one parent wrote. The USDA claims that the budget should be more like $358.

There is a very simple reason for the disconnect between public sentiment about the economy and the economic numbers supplied by our leaders — they don’t accord with people’s lived realities. And that’s before we even talk about the impacts price-gouging and “greedflation” are having on food costs.

Someone might want to get a memo to Washington that continuing to insist we should be feeling better about the economy isn’t going to fix these disconnects or the problems they stem from. The constant gaslighting is getting tiresome, to say the least.

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John Sundholm is a news and entertainment writer who covers pop culture, social justice and human interest topics.

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