Food budgets vary widely, even for similar families living in the same city. As we’ve discussed in the past, one family of four might budget $800/month for food, while another budgets $300, and a third spends $520. Many people wonder how it’s possible to eat so inexpensively. Mallow’s recent post in the forums is typical:

I have no idea how you guys are living off of $120-$150 a month for food. Either the groceries around here (Davis, CA) are extremely expensive, or our eating out once or twice each week inflates our budget by 200%. My current food budget is $350 a month, and my girlfriend’s is the same. That’s $700 a month for two people. In August, I spent $199 on groceries and $161 on eating out.

I don’t buy any instant or frozen things. I’m a very healthy eater, and I almost never buy chicken or beef. I am Asian, so I make a lot of meals with rice (which is dirt cheap). The most expensive thing that I buy per meal is salmon — I love salmon. But even that costs about $6 dollars per meal to feed two. Aside from that, I make a lot of pasta (various kinds) averaging about $3 a person as well, plus leftovers. Stir fried veggies, cheap veggie omelets, veggie soup (The soup costs about $18 to make, and lasts about four dinners for two. We are going to try to make it cheaper by not using stock and just adding water.), tofu dishes, salads, fried rice, cereal, sandwiches from deli meats and sliced bread, PB&J sandwiches, and a few new dishes a month.

Some of you spend about half what I do! How do you do it? Can you guys list the things you buy over the course of a month? I want to figure out what you guys are eating for a month to see what I’m doing differently.

When I last mentioned our food budget, we were spending $400/month on groceries and $200/month dining out. That’s $600/month for two people. In the past year, we’ve cut back to about $500/month, though our restaurant budget has increased slightly. (I’ve found a local restaurant that I love — Gino’s clams are amazing!)

We spend a lot on food, but that’s because we eat well. There’s a lot of room to cut back. We could certainly dine out less often, or go to less expensive restaurants. We already practice a few habits to help us keep our costs down:

To my mind, the latter is most important. We don’t have a huge garden, but it’s enough to save significant money. For example, the $30 apple tree that I planted three years ago is currently sagging under the weight of its crop. We’ll harvest at least 20 pounds of fruit from just that tree. Not everyone has space or time to grow their own food, but for us it’s a great way to save money and eat well.

How do you keep your food costs down? Where do you shop? Do you use coupons? Go to multiple stores? Wait for sales? Have you developed any shopping tricks?

(Note: In May, I mentioned the U.S. Government’s Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals.)

This article is about Ask the Readers, Food, Shopping