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Budgeting for food as a family

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

Updated post: 4/26/23 - Original post: 8/21/22

How to Budget When Your Spouse Won't: Part 7 of our 10 part budgeting series

Which do you believe is the most important consideration when budgeting for food?

  • The experience

  • Cost

  • Health

  • Time

The Experience

Fried bologna sandwiches were a mainstay in our home – I still remember my mom cutting slivers around the edges so the bologna didn't bubble while it was fried. I can't recall a time in my childhood when my parents purchased hotdog buns or hamburger buns – it was plain white bread for everything. The only fish I ever tasted before high school was frozen fish sticks with gray goo on the inside. We rarely ate out, but when we did, it was on Tuesday nights for the special Wendy's All You Can Eat Superbar where kids ate for $2.99.

My father takes great pride in being exceptionally frugal. Despite this, he has always prioritized traveling and experiences. One summer, he came from cycling and camping in the Swiss Alps and told us about the Schilthorn, a revolving restaurant that sits on the top of a 10,000-foot mountain.

He promised to take us there, and he did, multiple times for brunch. Of course, he hunted down a special price.

Pictured are my father, my family, and my brother's family. Also pictured are his partner and many from her family. This was just outside at the Schilthorn after finishing brunch. The food was excellent. The experience was majestic.

We know that experiences, particularly shared with others we love, are essential drivers of our happiness. Some of our most important ceremonies in life are done as we break bread together: Thanksgiving turkeys, Christmas cookies for Santa, birthday cakes, and chocolates on Valentine's Day. In each case, it's not necessarily the food we cherish; it's the company.

Here are five ways to use food to create joyful experiences or lifelong memories.

1. Prepare the meal together.

I love to grill, and I love to smoke meat even more. I find every step of the process fun, from placing a prepared hunk of meat on the smoker to 30 hours later when you pull the bone out with ease as your friends huddle around you with smiles on their faces in admiration. In the hours we spend together waiting for the meat to finish, we swap stories and details about the process while drinking beer and bourbon.

2. Start a tradition.

My wife has always insisted on carrying forward a tradition with our children of making noodles from scratch for holidays. As it usually is, her intuition is correct. It's not the noodles that she is trying to create. It's the conversation with the kids while making the noodles that she values most. Starting and holding on to traditions such as these will create memories.

Eating similar food together brings us closer together. As reported in the paper A recipe for friendship: Similar food consumption promotes trust and cooperation:

  • Strangers assigned to eat similar vs. dissimilar foods are more trusting of each other in a trust game.

  • Similar food consumption further influences conflict resolution.

  • Food serves as a particularly strong cue of trust compared with other incidental similarities.

I love a good chili cookoff during football season in the fall. Standing around with buddies comparing chili, swapping recipes, and drinking beer while watching football – it doesn't get much better than this. Here are a few tips for running an annual chili cookoff:

  • Define chili. Do you allow for beans or not?

  • Do you require it to be prepared on-site?

  • Give folks an idea of how much they should make.

  • Make sure the end product is always anonymous.

3. Attend a charity dinner.

I'm from a small rural town. Growing up, my only impressions of charity dinners came from what I saw in movies. Some may have been impressed – whereas it appeared to me that many pretentious people were paying too much for too little food. I ended up being wrong.

Several years back, my buddies purchased a dinner "prepared and served by the teachers" as a charity dinner experience for our school. Having teachers "serve us" was not our style; besides, they had to put up with our kids all day. We took a different approach that included a tequila luge and one drinking game after another.

Charity dinners tap into the joy we receive when we give back, the social connections during dinner, and the purchased experience that follows.

4. Make it seem special.

For $10 in food, a blanket, and a cheap bottle of wine, you can make a memory from a meal if you can find the perfect spot for a picnic. Regarding the wine, spend $18 and tell your partner it was at a much more expensive price point. I do not see this as financial infidelity but rather as using a science-based approach to the experience.

The field experiment Price information influences the subjective experience of wine and found that price impacts the experience.

"A total of 140 participants tasted three different low-, mid-, and high-priced wines with open, deceptive, or no price information and rated them for taste intensity and pleasantness. They found that the deceptive up-pricing of low-price wine significantly influenced ratings for pleasantness, whereas deceptive down-pricing of high-price wine did not affect pleasantness ratings."

I don't imagine they used Boones Farm as their low-priced wine, so I wouldn't go that cheap for your picnic. If you don't know what Boones Farm is, it's what middle-aged women drank in high school, and now they've transitioned to White Claws because they taste the same.

Foodie events, fish fries, and old-school potluck dinners can make the meal seem more special. Whatever venue you select, if it feels special, you're more likely to eat mindfully. When you eat mindfully, you are using all of your physical and emotional senses to experience and enjoy the food choices you make or eat. According to experts and Harvard, mindful eating is an important part of our relationship with food and happiness.

P.S. If you're going to drop a bunch of money on a fancy meal, reserve a table for three, not two. Eating a romantic meal with a partner is not as fun when you feel cramped.

5. Carry on or create a family recipe

Family recipes and traditions can symbolize family and nurturing that tie together generations. If the meal is prepared together, they can prompt conversations about the family that came before us.

My Favorite Recipes: Recreating Emotions and Memories Through Cooking: "(Family recipes) arouse nostalgic links…they encourage retrieval of emotions and experiences from the past that involve an inter-related web of associations across space and time, including people, places, and events."



What has been the change in the share of disposable personal income spent on food since 1961?

  • Decreased by 7 %

  • Stayed the same

  • Increased by 7%

  • Increased by 14%

1. Buy in bulk.

It's unlikely this is new to you. However, my problem recently was that if I saw more, I ate more and weighed more. We didn't end up spending any less. How much you save buying in bulk can depend on what you buy, what you don't waste, and how you store it in your home.

When comparing the unit prices at a store that sells in bulk to a typical grocery store, it's clear you'll usually save money. Avoid purchasing products in bulk that can spoil. Most importantly, have a system for making the food available in a way that the abundance of it is hidden. My wife uses food storage containers, which has made a difference for me.

2. Take advantage of grocery store rewards programs.

Most reward or cash-back programs are free and easy to sign up for at the register. The advantage of these programs for the grocery store is that they create loyalty and help collect data so they can better promote products. Most programs have special pricing after providing your rewards card number, so programs have coupons specific to the rewards program.

3. Utilize credit cards.

We love to play the credit card game. Each primary spending category has a different credit card to maximize rewards. Some credit cards offer up to 5% cash back on groceries. If you decide to do this, consider a card with a referral bonus that you can send to your partner when they apply for some quick cash. Equally important is to read our post, How NOT to Use Credit Cards: Couples Edition, for ideas on using the credit card responsibly and as a credit-building tool.

4. Make new meals from leftovers.

Of all the strategies to cut costs, this is what matters most in our family. I have three kids, one is a picky eater and vegetarian, and another is a picky eater with nut allergies. I eat their leftovers for lunch after using them to make new meals.

5. Avoid pre-prepared meals at the grocery store.

When you purchase pre-prepared meals, what you're buying is time. You have to decide which of your competing priorities is most important at the time – saving money or saving time.

6. Do not eat out.

Earlier this year, we doubled our kids' allowance but told them that the increase is for them to cover the cost if they want to eat out on their own. This eliminated the begging that teenagers who prefer Mcdonald's and Chick-Fil-A tend to do when they don't always love a healthy home-cooked meal. We have saved hundreds each month by doing this.

As far as the answer to the poll question, I think you're going to be surprised. Have a look:


In 2000, 15% of U.S. deaths were attributable to excess weight due to poor diet and physical inactivity. Estimates indicate that obese men are thought to incur an additional $1,152 per year in medical spending, while obese women incur an additional $3,613 per year in medical spending. In other words, purchasing cheap but unhealthy food will be far more costly in the long run.

Every day folks are often forced to decide between an affordable but less healthy option and a more expensive but more healthy option. Healthier options frequently take more time to prepare and have a limited shelf life. This problem particularly becomes poignant for working middle-class families who face time scarcity and feel guilty for resorting to eating frozen pizzas and fast food on the run.

Shortly, we plan on sharing a book review of Blue Zones. Dan Buettner of National Geographic discovered five places around the world where people consistently live over 100 years old, and these places came to be known as Blue Zones. Dan and his team explored what these areas had in common; as I'm sure you can imagine, it was their diets.

The image above illustrates the diets of the people in Blue Zones. As you can see, they are primarily plant-based diets with very little meat, mainly fish, and no dairy.

You may find it interesting that the Department of Nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, also eliminated dairy from their recommended plate. As you can see above, these recommendations fly in the face of what the government recommends. As the son of a former dairy farmer, it pains me to share this. Unfortunately, the lobbying industry has influenced what the government recommends in our diets.



Which choice would make you and your partner happier?

  • $200 gift card to a fancy restaurant

  • $50 gift casual dining card + $150 home cleaning while out

This was the choice posed by Harvard Professor Dr. Ashley Whillans in an experiment on time, money, and happiness. What she found was that the folks who chose casual dining and a cleaning service were, on average, much happier with their decision. Not only did they enjoy each other's company over a dinner they didn't need to prepare or clean up after, but they came back from their night out to a clean home, which freed up time for the weekend.

This was one of several experiments they conducted to gauge the happiness we feel when we choose how we spend our time and money. Dr. Whillans' takeaway is simple:

"People who spent money to buy themselves time, such as by outsourcing disliked tasks, reported greater overall life satisfaction."

You can hear more great ideas from Dr. Whillans in our Modern Husbands Podcast.

Here are five ideas to outsource some time it takes to prepare food and clean up your mess.

"Lost time is never found again." – Benjamin Franklin

When you plan a budget with your spouse, you are not budgeting with Excel or other tools such as our Budget Template for Couples. You are using these tools. You are budgeting with someone you love and share your life with.

Our free Budget Template for Couples is designed specifically for couples. Each category includes linked graphic-centric short videos to help couples in the budgeting process, providing essential prompts to consider budgeting each categorically appropriately.

This 10-part series is dedicated to helping you work with a spouse to budget together and provide the information you need to make educated decisions with your dollars.


Learn More

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Modern Husbands Monthly Newsletter (engaged and newlyweds)

Everything you need to know about transitioning to marriage. The first gift you will receive is a guide to tackle the seven most asked questions about budgeting as a couple.



Copyright © 2011, Harvard University. For more information about The Healthy Eating Plate, please see The Nutrition Source, Department of Nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health,, and Harvard Health Publications,

Buettner D, Skemp S. Blue Zones: Lessons From the World's Longest Lived. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2016 Jul 7;10(5):318-321. doi: 10.1177/1559827616637066. PMID: 30202288; PMCID: PMC6125071.

Kaitlin Woolley, Ayelet Fishbach, A recipe for friendship: Similar food consumption promotes trust and cooperation, Journal of Consumer Psychology, Volume 27, Issue 1, 2017, Pages 1-10, ISSN 1057-7408,

Christoph Patrick Werner, Johanna Birkhaeuer, Cosima Locher, Heike Gerger, Nadja Heimgartner, Ben Colagiuri, Jens Gaab, Price information influences the subjective experience of wine: A framed field experiment, Food Quality and Preference, Volume 92, 2021, 104223, ISSN 0950-3293,

Cheung, Lilian. “Mindful Eating.” The Nutrition Source, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 11 Mar. 2022,

Stacey Menzel Baker, Holli C. Karrer, and Ann Veeck (2005) ,"My Favorite Recipes: Recreating Emotions and Memories Through Cooking", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 32, eds. Geeta Menon and Akshay R. Rao, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 402-403.

Caprariello, P. A., & Reis, H. T. (2013). To do, to have, or to share? Valuing experiences over material possessions depends on the involvement of others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(2), 199–215.

Dunn, Elizabeth & Aknin, Lara & Norton, Michael. (2008). Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness. Science (New York, N.Y.). 319. 1687-8. 10.1126/science.1150952.

Hruby A, Hu FB. The Epidemiology of Obesity: A Big Picture. Pharmacoeconomics. 2015 Jul;33(7):673-89. doi: 10.1007/s40273-014-0243-x. PMID: 25471927; PMCID: PMC4859313.

“Inflation-Adjusted Prices for a Few Food Categories Have Fallen since 1985.” USDA ERS - Chart Detail, U.S. Department of Agriculture: Economic Research Service, 21 July 2015,

Whillans, Ashley. Time Smart. Harvard Business Review Press, 2020.


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