Help! Teens Are Eating My Paycheck

Got hungry teens (and their friends) parked in your kitchen? Here's how to manage your food costs as your family changes.

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One of my girlfriends has a very singular type of financial problem – her teenage boys are practically eating through her paycheck. As fall athletics ramp up, her kids’ appetites are escalating and their buddies – often around the home after sports practice – routinely raid her kitchen. As her grocery bills spiral out of control, she’s struggling to determine how to manage her budget so that her savings goals aren’t (quite literally) eaten away.

I absolutely understand her plight. There were many things that I was unprepared for when I became the stepmother of two teenage boys, but the grocery bill was unexpectedly among the most staggering day-to-day expense I encountered. I value healthy eating, but I quickly learned that feeding a bunch of teenagers requires a different type of menu planning, snack strategies and sneaky techniques for hiding expensive treats from the teeming hoards of friends who stopped by and plowed through the cupboards.

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Raising kids is expensive in many ways, and food expenditures – a substantial portion of that overall cost – are not getting any cheaper. According to a recently released USDA report, a middle income family with a baby born in 2011 will spend $234,900 on average to raise that child to age 18 (excluding the cost of college) – and food costs account for 16 percent of that total, or about $37,440.

While $37,440 over 18 years may not seem overwhelming, the per-year cost is highest when children become teens. What a typical family spends varies, of course, depending on the number of kids, household income and general eating habits. If you’re wondering how you stack up against a typical family, check out the USDA’s Cost of Raising a Child Calculator, which enables you to enter your family profile. I entered a sample family (middle income, two adults, two teenagers aged 13 and 15) and determined that the average family of this make-up spends $5150 per year (or $429/month) on food just for their teens. This comparative information can provide a guideline for budgeting and give you a sense of what average Americans are spending – but the dollars and cents are clear; feeding teenagers can become a major expense.

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Regardless of your income, it’s important to understand your own expenses and to be smart about you’re spending so that you can continue to save for your financial goals, even with ravenous teens. Try these steps to help manage family food costs.

Create a monthly food budget. First and foremost, understand what you can afford on food based on your monthly income and other expenses. Remember that your overall food budget includes more than just groceries- factor in how much you and your kids spend at convenience or specialty stores, restaurants, school lunches and special events. If you don’t know what you’re already spending, track your costs for a few months and then sit down and evaluate where your dollars are going. Include your kids in this process to help teach good money habits.

MORE: Guide: The 31 Healthiest Foods of All Time (With Recipes)

Plan home cooked meals ahead of time. Meal planning in advance can save you time and money. We’ve all resorted to the drive-through at the end of a hectic day with no dinner plans in mind. But even cheap fast food for a medium sized family can set you back $25 or more and may not provide the nutrition you’d like for your family. These costs can add up over time – especially as your kids begin driving and spending time (and money) on their own. To avoid a “convenience” hit to your wallet, plan menus in advance and have food thawed out or prepped so you can start cooking when you get home.

Fill them up. Complex carbs are your friends when it comes to getting the most value from your dollar. Whole grains and healthy starches (like sweet potatoes or squash), tend to be reasonably priced, are nutritious and will fill your kids up as part of a balanced meal. When friends come over, plan a filling meal that includes a serving of carbs such as whole-grain pancakes for breakfast or pasta for dinner.

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Feed the herd – for less. If your kids have neighbors, friends, teammates or club members who regularly come to your house and snack or eat meals, it’s imperative that you have an inventory on hand. This should include readily available snacks – otherwise they may eat everything you have planned for meals during the week. Buying snack food like granola bars, fruit snacks, crackers or chips in bulk can help keep your budget under control, and cost effective snack options like popcorn, hard boiled eggs, bananas, and even tubs of hummus are all relatively healthy treats that can be a hit with hungry friends. For crowds that drop by for dinner, stock up on pasta and sauce or keep frozen stashes of taco filling, chili or soups that can be prepared quickly.

Be discriminating with the pricey items. It may sound unfair, but if you’ve ever had a hungry teenager, you know that the boundaries are… well, fungible. If you’re entertaining and purchase some expensive items for that occasion, do not tempt fate; hide the gourmet meats and fancy cheesecakes until the event – and then, by all means, include your kids if they are so inclined. Similarly, know your guests; while my kids would eat most anything, not all of their friends were adventurous eaters and to avoid wasting food, I stuck to crowd pleasers when I knew I’d be feeding groups.

(MORE: Kids and Money: Is It O.K. to Play Financial Favorites?)

October is Eat Better, Eat Together Month which provides an opportunity to come together as a family to share good food and enjoy meals in each others’ company. It’s also a good time to look at your family food budget, engage your kids in conversations, and come up with sound financial strategies to ensure your food spending makes good sense.

De Baca is vice president of wealth strategies at Ameriprise Financial.

3 comments
frugalCassandra
frugalCassandra

Great ideas!  The trouble can be that teens like "fun" food and want to eat it at all times.  I have had to curb over snacking by the teens during odd hours that would lead to not eating regular meals.  That has helped the grocery bill.  As well as including the teens in the conversation of what they are eating so that they can understand the health consequences.  Not always an easy task but can have come effect.  Again does help the wallet when they eat less "fun" food and instead eat fruits and veggies and other healthy items.  Finally, it is always important to include the teens in your budget for them to really understand what is going on.  Sometimes that means to set aside an amount for teen snacks and have them help decide what will be purchased that week.  After the snacks have been wiped out, that's it.  No more until next week.  That can help a teen learn that the pantry is not a bottomless pit that will magically provide.  They will learn to balance social times when it is appropriate to pull out a goodie tray and when it's better to not.  What great life lessons for them.