How to Split Food Expenses With a Significant Other

By Austin Morgan on 30 June 2010 (Updated 27 June 2011) 13 comments

When couples first start living together, a lot of questions about money arise that you don't really think about when you're living on your own. For example, who pays for grocery and food costs?

When you're living on your own, you buy groceries maybe once a week and pay for yourself when you're at a restaurant. Simple. But what do you do when you and your significant other are both eating and paying for a portion of the groceries and dinners out on the town?

It can be frustrating trying to divide food into his and hers or figuring out how to pay for the amount of food that you ate at the Olive Garden last night. Luckily, my girlfriend and I figured out an easy way to do away with this problem and keep the food budget as simple as possible every month.

Finding How Much You Spend on Food

We moved in together in September and quickly realized that, since food was such a staple in our lives, we needed to keep our food finances as simple as possible to avoid a huge headache and potential money fights. Before we could do anything, we needed to get an idea about our food spending habits.

We decided to run a two-month trial where we ate what we wanted, bought food when we wanted, and didn't really hold back or attempt to cut pennies. We wanted an accurate picture of what a month's worth of food for two people would cost us. Trying to excessively save money or cut coupons would only hurt our data and make it impossible to accurately predict what our food expenses were going to be every month.

For two months, we documented our spending on food related items in a Google Doc. When we went grocery shopping, we came home and wrote down how much we spent and what we bought. When we went out to eat with friends, we kept the receipt and documented it when we got home. When we bought wine, we brought the receipt home and wrote the price down.

It wasn't as tedious as it sounds because we knew we'd only be keeping track of the spending for two months. It was a fun experiment to see how our habits changed from one month to the next. (It's also a good idea to get an idea about your spending habits in any category from time to time in case you're significantly overspending and not knowing it.)

Analyzing Your Spending

After our trial period, we sat down and looked at our data. We found a couple areas of our spending where we could cut expenses (cereal and potato chips), but for the most part our monthly totals were reasonable in our minds, and most importantly, for our salaries.

We averaged the two months and decided that was the amount we would budget every month for groceries, restaurants, and alcohol. To make sure we had some buffer room we added 10% so we wouldn't run out of money if one month went a little over. We have different salaries, but since we both eat a similar amount of food, we decided to split the food expenses 50/50, instead of each paying a percentage based on our salaries.

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Using the Food Money

My girlfriend then created a food money box and placed it in the kitchen. On the 9th of every month, we go to the food box, split what's left in the box, and throw in our monthly food money that we found during our two-month documentation phase. (You would think that the expenses would fluctuate pretty often. It's actually the exact opposite: we're always within $20-40 of the previous month, so we never have a problem.)

If we go grocery shopping, we pick up some cash from the box, and head to the store. If we're meeting friends for dinner, we take money from the box. When my school lunch bill comes at the end of the month, I take out 5,000 yen ($50) and pay the bill.

The great thing about the two-month documentation phase was that it allowed us to better understand our food spending habits. We could see what we bought on paper, and it ingrained in our minds what was an acceptable amount of an item to buy.

Make It Your Own

Our spending is pretty similar from month to month, but your spending may be different, so mold this system to your situation. You can add a larger buffer — maybe 20% — if you find your spending is fluctuating. Maybe you want to treat yourself during the summer months? Go ahead and add some extra money to the food budget for those months.

The framework is here for you, but you'll have to do a little bit of calculating to figure out how it works best for you. At first you may find it difficult to control your spending since you initially put hundreds of dollars in the money box at the beginning of the month It can be easy to go food crazy and buy a bunch of unnecessary items. I know you don't want to hear it, but there is some money discipline involved in this process. We don't buy 25 bottles of wine every month. We may only go out to dinner less than four times a month. But we know what is acceptable to buy and what isn't, which allows us to keep our funds going for the entire month.

I would suggest this method to any couple who is having problems figuring out their food expenses. It's efficient, easy, and will save you loads of time and worry over the course of your relationship.

This is a guest post by Austin Morgan. Austin teaches English in Japan and writes about the money topics that affect all 20-somethings at ForeignersFinances.com.

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Guest's picture
Shawn

Great post. My fiancee and I got on a strict budget when we became engaged. We had always split things 50/50 when it came to expenses, but never standardized who paid for what and how much. We always just split it up on the spot and figured it would even out in the end. The wedding budget forced us to tighten our systems and spending. We got on the envelope system with three separate envelopes for groceries, entertainment, and blow money (misc spending). On the first of each month, we each contribute 50% of our respective budgets to each envelope. Then, we have all the money we need for the rest of the month in the envelopes. When we go to the grocery store, we take our grocery envelope and pay cash all at once. It's a great system and has really saved us money, as well as time discussing who should pay for what.

Guest's picture
Guest

Hey why create such a fuss. The person who has a greater salary should take care of bigger expense for example (monthly rent/mortgage house/car) and electricity bill and significant other with less salary should take care of groceries and internet/cable bill. Pay your own phone bills and buy your own clothes. There is no room for potential fights and also this is justified. What do you think?

Guest's picture
Tricia L.

This is exactly what me and my hubby do instead of pooling the money he makes more so he handles the big stuff & I pay the groceries, internet and small stuff. . This way we both retain our own financial freedom without having to bicker over who spends what or ask each others permission to buy things . We have been married 5 years and probably had 2 minor financial disagreements since we married. I do think it is important though to have some kind of mutual savings where both are aiming for some kind of mutual goal.

Guest's picture

Austin here - author of the post.

This is obviously a case by case situation. Do whatever works for your relationship.

The one potential problem I see with your example of the higher salary paying the higher bills is that some resentment may build up if someone feels like they're paying too much. If it builds up for a long time it could create a big problem.

My post requires some time and it's not for everyone, but that extra time will make sure every one feels like the food bills are fair compared to salary.

Thanks for the comment!

Guest's picture
Kathy

When my boyfriend and I moved in together we opened a joint checking account simply to deal with household expenses. (We maintain our own bank accounts and finances.) Each month, each of us transfers a set amount of money to the account (in our case it's equal, but if others want to have one person paying more that would work too). Then we use our bank debit card to pay for our groceries, and all our household bills, rent, cable, utilities, are paid from that account. We also have a little jar of cash for the odd cash purchase. The system works really well for us.

Guest's picture

I have found that people who are married that pool their money tend to do better financially than those who do not. The reason being they tend to talk about their finances on a regular basis instead of these are my bills those are his mentality.

Guest's picture
johnk

My food expenses are still mostly separate after a year. I'm vegetarian, and she's a meat eater. I tend to buy a lot more vegetables, obviously, and can't buy so much to store in the freezer, so I have to shop often. Also, I'm very cheap and try to eat through all my food and hate to toss any into the trash. She's not so worried about that, and tosses stuff out if it goes bad. We alternate on buying things like eggs, oil, flour, and other staple items. Also, I don't care if she (or her sister) go through and eat my food, as long as I have enough left over for a couple meals, but the opposite is not true.

Guest's picture

My SO and I maintain separate residences for reasons too long to go into here. We split food costs by planning meals together: hers, mine, ours. We're careful not to "grab n go" with food in each other's pantry for lunches/snacks to avoid messing up dinner plans.

Guest's picture

Great idea! When I moved in with my boyfriend, we just divided it evenly without even looking at spending habits. Luckily we enjoyed the same foods and were not excessive with our other eating out expenses.

Guest's picture
Guest

splitting food 50/50 does not seem fair to me at all. I am 100 lbs boy friend is 350 lbs. Most woman eat about 1/3 of what a man does. So under this assumtion a woman should pay 1/3 of the food cost.

Guest's picture
Mary

My boyfriend and I take turns buying groceries. I buy one week, he buys the next, and so forth. As far as food choices go, he makes it a point to get fresh veggies and fruits. I'm kinda a picky eater, especially when it comes to fish. He loves all types of fish. Eating salmon or tilapia once a week was unheard of to me. But now I see the health benefits of it. Tilapia I can do now, salmon is still a feat for me, haha. We also plan our grocery list around meal planning too. Save so much money that way, I think.

Guest's picture
Kristen

I really like the method suggested for couples who have never lived together at all. Some couple though, let's be honest, are basically living together for awhile and need to figure this out quicker than their official move-in date later down the line. We resolved this by setting up our bank accounts to link to each other. Neither can take from the other (just in case!) but we can both transfer to each other. Then we just set our budget together, based on what we're both comfortable with, and once a week or every other week we even up on who paid for what and whoever owes money transfers it. Now that we live together we do this for all of our expenses and it works great!

Guest's picture

Nice post! I'm keeping this in mind when I decide to move in with my SO. I love the idea of keeping a food money box. I do this too but individually.