How To Budget for Food on a $50K Salary

Woman unpack and check list of groceries received from supermarket stock photo
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Thanks to inflation, it’s becoming more and more challenging to stretch your paycheck to cover all of your basic needs, including food. So it’s now more important than ever to stick to a budget when shopping for groceries, dining out or ordering in.

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To create a food budget, first figure out how much you should be spending. Experts advise spending 10% to 15% of your total take-home pay on food, so that would amount to about $300 to $500 per month based on a $50,000 salary. Here’s how to make sure you get the best bang for your hard-earned cash based on this budget.

Can You Afford To Dine Out on a $50K Salary?

It’s easy to blow your entire monthly food budget on dining out and ordering in, but this isn’t the best use of your money. How much you can actually spend on restaurant and takeout meals depends on your household situation.

“If you’re a single person, you could easily spend half of [your total food budget] — so $150 to $250 per month — on dining out,” said Julie Ramhold, a consumer analyst with DealNews.com. “However, if you’re shopping for a larger household, then obviously that’s going to cut down on the amount you can spend on dining out and still be able to afford enough groceries for the month. In that case, you’re better off spending no more than $100 per month on dining out, or even less.”

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How To Make Dining Out Affordable on a Budget

If you are trying to limit your total dining-out costs for the month to $100 to $150, you may have to get creative to stay on budget. Here are a few expert-approved ways to do it.

Go Out for Lunch Instead of Dinner

“You can usually get slightly smaller, but still satisfying, portions for less on the lunch menu, so it’s worth going out for lunch instead of dinner,” Ramhold said. “Sometimes there are even lunch specials where you can get multiple items as part of one meal rather than having to choose just one thing — and, again, it’s usually cheaper.”

Share Everything

“Appetizers and desserts are things that are commonly shared,” Ramhold said, “but you can also agree with your partner to share entrees, especially if you’re both interested in a couple of things but can’t afford to try them all in one sitting.”

Opt for Pickup Instead of Delivery

“Delivery is far more convenient; but, if you can manage it, opt for pickup instead,” Ramhold said. “You won’t have to worry about tipping a driver. This may be easier if you can walk to a nearby restaurant or if you’re already out and about and can just swing by to pick up your order on the way home; but, either way, it can really help to save money overall.”

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Use Coupons

“When you eat out, look for coupons and ways to save,” said Greg Wilson, a chartered financial analyst and co-founder of the frugal living site Cha Ching Queen.

You can search for coupons online or sign up for your favorite restaurants’ email lists to get exclusive discounts.

“Take advantage of these discounts and specials,” said Kate Shungu, food blogger and founder of Gift of Hospitality.

How To Stretch Your Grocery Budget

Depending on how much you dedicate to dining out and takeout, you likely will have roughly $100 a week to spend on groceries, based on a $50,000 salary. This is definitely doable for a single person, but it might be more challenging if you need to feed multiple people in a household. Here are some tips for making sure your grocery spending stays in check while keeping everyone satiated.

Be Strategic About What You Buy

Before shopping for “nice to have” food items, stock up on staples.

“Nonperishable staples like dried beans, rice, pasta and canned goods are all good to purchase regularly and keep on hand,” Ramhold said. “These are easy to turn into a variety of meals — including casseroles, soups and more — without too much planning ahead, so they’re good for last-minute lunches and dinners.”

Make Your Money Work for You

Ramhold also recommends buying simple foods such as oatmeal and grits.

“The good thing about buying the plain versions is that they can be easily dressed up with seasonal items you have on hand,” she said. “For instance, you can add peaches and brown sugar to oatmeal in the summer, or maple syrup and cinnamon in the fall. And when it comes to grits, those can also be customized based on what you have on hand and what your tastes are on any given day.”

Dr. Joan Salge Blake, a nutrition professor at Boston University, cautions against overspending on proteins.

“Keep pricey meats to the minimum,” she said. “You don’t need more than about 6 to 8 ounces of cooked lean meat, fish and poultry daily.”

To save even more, go meatless at least once a week.

“Beans are an inexpensive protein source to add to meals,” Salge Blake said.

Shop the Sales

“Hands down, this is going to be the easiest way to save on groceries,” Ramhold said. “Be sure to create your shopping list of items you know you need, then go through the weekly sales to see what kinds of items from your list are discounted for the week.

“While you’re at it, you can also add other sale items to your list to stock up on things you may not need yet but would still [like] to have on hand, especially if they’re non-perishable.”

You can easily peruse sales ahead of time by browsing your supermarket’s website or app.

“Ten minutes of planning can save you 10% or more on your food bill and valuable time once you’re in the store,” Salge Blake said. “The more time you spend aimlessly walking around the store, the more money you will spend. Get in and out as quickly.”

Opt for Generics

“This is the other easiest way to save on groceries, as generics are always at least somewhat cheaper than national name brands,” Ramhold said. “As far as taste goes, generics these days are just as good [as], if not outright better than, their name-brand counterparts, so it’s worth trying generic alternatives to see if you find something you like better.”

Use Cash-Back Apps

Ramhold recommends using apps such as Ibotta and Checkout 51 to get cash back on your grocery purchases.

“Be sure before you shop for groceries that the store you’re visiting is covered, but Ibotta and Checkout 51 are pretty extensive, so most big chains will be eligible,” she said. “Browse the offers in these apps, save the ones you’re interested in, then shop as normal and submit a picture of your receipt after the fact to redeem the offers. It might not seem like much in one trip; but, if you use them regularly, they add up over time.”

Buy in Bulk When It Makes Sense

“Another way it might help to save is by buying in bulk, but only when it makes sense to do so,” Ramhold said. “If you know you won’t be able to eat 4 pounds of apples, there’s no reason to buy that much, even if the price per pound is better. At the same time, if you like having shredded cheese on hand and find that the giant bags at Costco are a better price per ounce, stock up on those as long as you have the freezer space to store them. Those kinds of things will last indefinitely as long as they’re stored properly.

“Be mindful about your bulk purchases,” she continued. “Remember that, if you have to throw any of it out, the value of the deal is diminished significantly.”

Create a Weekly Meal Plan — and Stick To It

Julia Kim, a freelance theater designer and founder of Passion Satellite, sticks to a $100 budget for her weekly grocery run by creating a meal plan.

“This way you only buy the grocery items that are needed for your recipes,” she said. “I always try to create a plan that involves reusing ingredients to avoid having too many unused items rotting in my fridge.”

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About the Author

Gabrielle joined GOBankingRates in 2017 and brings with her a decade of experience in the journalism industry. Before joining the team, she was a staff writer-reporter for People Magazine and People.com. Her work has also appeared on E! Online, Us Weekly, Patch, Sweety High and Discover Los Angeles, and she has been featured on “Good Morning America” as a celebrity news expert. 
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