Living where grocery costs are high

As I shared the prices I paid for various items in September, often people would say, “_________ is never that cheap in my area.”   For example, apples for 33 cents a pound.  Well, ten months out of the year, I can’t find apples that cheap either.  Most of the time I pay at least 89 cents a pound for apples.

During apple harvest, I can find better prices.  But 33 cents a pound is an exceptionally good price for apples, even in my area.  It was available at only one store, and was advertised on the front of that store’s sales flyer for the week.  That leads me to guess it was probably a ‘loss leader’ for the store– an item that wasn’t actually making the store a profit, but that they were selling at that cost to bring buyers into the stores to hopefully also buy more expensive items.

My 33 cents/pound pears were the same story, at a different store.  If I’d done all my grocery shopping for the week at that one store, my grocery bill would have been much higher.   But by knowing my prices and cherry-picking the best sales at various stores, I am able to keep my costs as low as possible.

BUY SINGLE-INGREDIENT FOOD

If you happen to live in an expensive area of the country, you can still save money on groceries.  A big key is to buy as much single-ingredient food at the store as possible. For example, instead of buying canned chili, buy dry beans along with beef. Make a double or triple batch and freeze some for later. Instead of buying Eggo waffles, buy flour and eggs and milk, have a waffle-cooking morning, and stick a bunch in the freezer for busy days.

COOK

Obviously this ‘single-ingredient’ approach means being willing to cook, either a little every day, or by doubling a few recipes each weekend and sticking extra food in the freezer. Some people love to cook.  Others don’t.   But even resistant cooks often feel better about cooking when they realize cooking can reduce expenses so much that they can afford to work less outside the home, pay off debt faster, or afford that vacation they’ve been dreaming about.

MEAL PLAN

Cherry-picking sales and shopping at a variety of stores is also going to be an important key to success. I know — you don’t have time to go to 5 stores a week.  Neither do I.   But think about how often you go to the store right now. Many people do a big shopping trip every weekend, then still find themselves running to the store 2 or 3 nights a week after supper, for a total of 3-4 trips per week.

I average 2 trips to the store each week.  By planning two weeks of dinners ahead of time,  I can usually get by on 2 ‘big’ shopping trips each month.   On a big trip I will stop at CostCo for milk, cheese, butter, flour, rice, and sugar. Then I drive a mile or two to WinCo and get the rest of the food.  (I love it that those two stores are so close together now!) 

CHERRY PICK

In between those big trips, I keep my eyes open for good sales at other stores.  In my area, it is most often meat and produce at Paul’s, and various random things at Albertsons. These smaller trips are almost always paired with other errands– doctor’s appointments, or soccer games, or church. I run into the store with a very short list, and only buy on-sale items. An average ‘small’ trip takes 10 minutes in the store, and happens once or twice a week.

These tips will work no matter where you live. If you live in an expensive area of the country, your total costs may not be quite as low as in farm country. But you’ll still save money. I’d love to hear from readers who are saving money while living in big cities. What do you do that helps you save money?

{ 23 Comments }

  1. My family lives in the Denver CO metro area and our biggest money savers are being willing to cook at home and a store here called Sunflower Market. It’s a mainly produce market that routinely runs much cheaper than other grocery stores on fresh foods as well as usually having a few sales each month on meats or other higher priced items. I’ve also recently discovered that many of the ethnic markets here are much cheaper. The middle eastern market, or the Korean market or etc. It keeps us in produce, which keeps us healthier and my budget intact.

  2. I live near Chicago-where prices are high (if I see apples less than $1.29 lb I jump for joy). But I do have some cost savings tips-
    -decide what to be brand loyal about–certain things I care about, others-store brand is just as good
    -stock up on dried and canned goods when they are cheap–I bought a lot of pasta today at the local store, it was cheaper than at Sam’s or Costco
    -don’t overbuy on perishables–if your family is not going to eat the fruit and veggies, don’t buy them-no matter the price–throwing away rotten food is throwing away money
    -if you are very busy (I have a family, husband works out of town and only comes home on weekends, I work full time and am completing a 2nd masters degree)–think about how much your time is worth, and the cost of gas, before you make a special trip to one store to save 15 cents on box of spaghetti. I save money buy not running all over town to get the best price.
    -buy bread when it is cheap and freeze it (don’t put in fridge)
    -this is not a cost saving measure (well, in a way it is) if something that is nonperishable and nutritious and is a great price–buy it even if you don’t eat it–and take it to your food pantry or hold on to it for the next food drive.

  3. ArdenLynn says:

    I believe that there are good prices to be found most places. I’ve lived in the DC area, B’ham, AL, Dayton, OH and now we are in Columbus, OH. Each place had something different to offer but there were deals to be had.
    I buy in bulk. I shop every two weeks for my family of 10 and I have two huge chest freezers, a 26 cu ft fridge and an extra fridge outside. I spend a good amount of my time making sure I am getting the best food at the best price. We average $150 a week for food. I cook. A lot.

  4. We live in apple growing country. Right now you can pick apples for $.89 a lb. That’s a cheap as it gets……ever. I’m just glad when they are less than $2.00 a lb the rest of the year!

    I do cook a lot and I think that i spend very little for groceries. But not compared to you!!! LOL!!!

    One of the things that adds up our grocery bill is making school lunches. I do buy luncheon meat and juice box types of things. I know they could eat PB&J every day, but I’d have more complaints. It’s cheaper in the summer when we don’t eat many sandwiches.

  5. We are now in the Omaha area, but we have also lived in the DC area, and in Alaska. Expensive! But there were always ways and means! In Alaska we found an AMAZING U-Pick farm, with really cheap prices, and we would freeze a lot of things for the winter. In DC there were things like the ALDI store, and ethnic markets that would get in great things for cheap (like coconut oil!). My dear friend lives in the DC area and feeds her family of 6 for about $150 a month. She buys wheat to grind for flour, she makes her own maple syrup, and rarely spends more than $5 on dinner for everybody. She’s my hero!

  6. I also grind wheat and bake our bread. I save money mostly by cooking and baking…alot. I only have 6 kids, but they are home all day and eat 3 full meals plus snacks.
    I also shop sales. I am lucky to have several stores within a few miles.
    Additionally, I keep a 3 month food storage. It took a year to get it where it is, but it makes things easier because I have meal plans “set”.
    I am also in apple country, but they are rarely less tgan $1 a pound! We planted 10 dwarf apple trees a couple of years ago..hoping for a harvest in a couple years!

  7. I live in Baltimore and as mentioned, Aldi saves me lots of money. We also buy a quarter of a beef at a time from a farmer in PA. We can’t raise our own but beef in the freezer is the way to go!

  8. We are limited in some ways because we don’t have a deep freeze so freezer space in limited. We also don’t have a big backyard or very good soil for growing anything. But we have saved in the past by having me grow basil and red bell peppers in containers in the backyard (since we use a lot of those in recipes). We’ve frozen blueberries from a you-pick farm and we use those for pancakes.
    I used to cook more pre-baby and I’m starting to try to get back in the swing of it.
    One problem we have had a lot here is this…a store will put it’s fruit on sale, but then the fruit isn’t any good. For example, peaches are on sale but then you get to the store and they are hard as rocks. OR, this happened recently, they look great and smell great, but when we got home, they were all mostly rotten inside. I suppose we could have taken them back to the store for a refund, but that would have taken gas and lots more time. It’s really a pain having produce be so hit or miss. I’d like to buy more produce locally i.e. farmer’s markets but they only have a very limited selection of fresh veggies/fruits for sale.

  9. this is great! thanks, Mary.

    it’s late and I need to be in bed too, so no fabulous ideas from me. my brain is DONE.

  10. I live in one of those small expensive areas. We’re remote too which contributes to that pricey factor. Also, we live 20 minutes outside of town, so I really try to only go to the store 1x/week & stack it w/other errands because of gas. Costco is a 1 1/2 hour drive, meaning its usually just a 1x/month trip (boy is that a pricey trip). But, you are right with your advice that if you watch the adds and stock up when something is on sale, then you can indeed save. We only have two grocery chains in town, and I mainly stick to one because in general their overall prices are better & produce is better too. But I’ll shop at the other for their 8 hour sales that happen bi-weekly or some other sale on something we need. Things I watch for are when boneless skinless chicken breast goes on sale for $1.79/pound or tri-tip for $2 something/pound, or london broil @ $1.79/pound which I get ground up because its much leaner & cheaper than even lean ground beef. Also, we do have a farmers market once/week spring through fall…not super cheap prices because we are in the hot desert, but still often cheaper than the grocery & definitely better quality.
    One interesting thing I’ve found is that we used to live in a large city and we ate out A LOT because there were so many fabulous ethnic restaurants all around us and that was expensive even though we spent less on groceries because prices were better w/all the competition. Now, we usually only eat out when we are out of town because the local joints really aren’t all that good, varied, or worth the money…I cook A LOT more now and even when I end up spending money on special items for a certain new recipe that perhaps we don’t typically stock at home, its still a lot cheaper than eating out so that makes me feel better. What I really need to get better at is menu planning so that I’ll have zero waste on produce that goes bad too quickly.

  11. Thanks for the tips! They’re all spot on ( : I’ve lived in many regions, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, and the Metro DC area. It’s been a challenge to adapt to Hawaii and the DC area, but like you said, there are ways. Having recently moved (a few months ago) I am still trying to figure out my grocery shopping strategy- I love Trader Joes and Aldi, for example, but don’t know if they’re worth the 30 minute drive each way with a car full of tinies. On the other hand, Costco and Safeway are 5 minutes away, but not always the cheapest. Thanks for the reminder about cherry picking- I need to start picking up the paper with the grocery ads again! I appreciate the encouragement ( : Also, Lauren- $150 in the DC area for a family my size is insane!! That is an amazing woman. I’m hoping to have producing trees, bushes and garden next year- we’ve been preparing this year, and it should help supplement our mostly vegetarian diet a great deal!

  12. Amber Howard-McGinnis says:

    Here in Wa (state) milk is kinda expensive ($1.99/ gal is the cheapest) but on top of that my family of 5 can easily drink a gallon a day. So what I do is buy whole milk and and dump about a third of the gallon into a different pitcher and then refill the gallon with water. It makes it about the same consistancey as 2%.

  13. I am not sure if I have any new tips…we do shop sales…don’t really do much with coupons…the things we like aren’t generally the things you get coupons for. I buy alot of things bulk…flour, sugar, chocolate chips, spices, etc…and then I have gleaners which provides quite a bit for our family.
    I just heard a tip for shampoo though that I think I will try…mix 1/4 of a bottle of shampoo with water to almost fill and a couple of tsp dish soap…my friend said that it makes good suds because of dish soap…probably smells good too and really stretches the shampoo…we also have washed hair with baking soda and brush teeth with it too…it is really salty tasting, but my teeth feel so clean after wards…

  14. The crazy thing is that when I lived in MI ( sooo cheap!) I didn’t appreciate it. Now we live in Manitoba and I have found lots of ways to cut our costs. I’ve found that things like cleaners and toothpaste are cheaper here, and staples like dried beans and rice and spices are very reasonably priced. Some things are more expensive, Since our milk is never under $4.50 a gallon I water it down a bit, I’ve cut back on the amount of cheese and butter we eat, since cheese is very expensive and butter is usually $3.60 a pound. We eat meat every day, so I stick to mostly beef (which is reasonable) and if I do buy chicken instead of buying boneless skinless chicken breast ( which is over $5 a pound) I go for the whole chickens which can be priced down to $3 a pound, or better yet get a whole turkey which can be priced down to $2 a pound.
    I limit our shopping trips to 2 times a month, since every other time we make a little trip to get “just one thing” other things magically make it into my cart.
    I never shop at Safeway or Sobey’s which are closer to my house since they are ridiculously over-priced, I go to the Superstore in town because they are most consistantly lower priced than everyone else. I’ve also found that they will let me double coupons if I happen to be buying something brand name, which I only do if I can get it for less than the store brand. (Or if I just can’t do without it, like Crest toothpaste with scope, I’m addicted!)

  15. Here in Philly, Shoprite can be a bit pricey, unless you are shopping the sales and stocking up. The front page (of their ad) usually lists a bunch of 1/2 price items: boneless/skinless chicken for $1.99/lb., boxes of pasta at 1/2 price, canned goods on 1/2 price. If you are careful and stock up whenever they are on sale, the prices are reasonable. However, if you’re out of everything and go to stock up, you will easily double/triple your grocery bill!
    The coupons in the Sunday paper often coincide with the sales at Shoprite too. My mother-in-law buys the Sunday paper and clips the coupons she wants and gives the rest to us.
    Coupons + sale prices = extra savings! 🙂
    We also have two Aldis within 15-20 minutes of us, and Walmart and Target sell a lot of non-perishables cheaper than the grocery stores.
    There are some local places/stands that sell fruits/veggies, and my mother-in-law finds good deals at a cash-only local meat place. (I usually try to just go to Shoprite, Walmart/Target, and Aldis, because with the kids it can be complicated going to 1/2 a dozen places.)
    I suppose it’s pretty much the same everywhere: Find the stores with quality foods for a decent price, use coupons, and shop the sales!

  16. I am in the Philly suburbs and have found many wonderful resources to keep our budget at $45 for 2 (includes pet/ cleaning/ health aned beauty/ scripts also). I shop the loss leaders as whichever chain has the best deals of the week, shop our local farmers market and also shop a grocery outlet. I also combine trips with other outings. My favorite local store doubles and sometimes even triples coupons and also takes competitor coupons. In the case that we run out of something, we substitue or make due without until we can stock up at my target price which I compare using my price book. We do not eat all organic, but I make about 90% of our food from scratch. This is what works for us but I am always looking for ways to further reduce our spending!

  17. Grocery shopping is one task I really hate. I have 3 boys age 2 and under. The 2 year old is autistic and he will only eat certain foods. He needs to be gluten free and casein free to help offdet some of the autistic symptoms. The one year old is allergic to food colouring. There is food colouring in everything. The doctor says that my infant will have a lot of allergies and we already know he’s allergic to soy. The baby has to have expensive hypoallergenic formula. (And please, no snotty comments from anyone about nursing – some women really are unable to nurse).

    My husband fusses about what I spend on groceries even when I spend hardly anything. I have been begging him for a freezer as I believe it would reduce our grocery bill considerably.

    We have only Walmart and Winn Dixie in our town, and Rouses in a town 30 minutes away.

    Now that we own a house I need to plant a garden next year, but I also need to get canning supplies.

    • Mrs. W: has your husband ever done the shopping? He might be a good deal more sympathetic to the problems.

    • Crystal says:

      My Husband used to be like this..till i was laid up and couldn’t go do it..and He had no choice.. now he goes with me when its grocery shopping time and so do our 4 kids and he realizes now just how expensive that stuff he just so needs for his lunch is and will do with the cheaper no name brand .. or not at all..

      Sometimes for the person not shopping it takes a reality to realize…

  18. Hi Mary!
    I was so happy to discover you’ve written a wonderful book. Picked up a copy at Powell’s here in Portland, right next to the Winco where I shop. I used to read you a bunch a couple years ago when we were looking at adopting. We put that on hold for a while to welcome our youngest.

    I am with Mrs. W on hating to shop with my boys (3.5 and 1.5 years old- their behavior is kind of a gamble still and it makes me feel too rushed to think carefully) and I’m most excited about implementing a bit more planning to reduce my trips to the store. I have to admit the deeper motivation for me is to reduce my frustration level even more than it is to trim my bill. I have no problem planning those trips for when the kids are sleeping if it’s not too frequent- I just hate to feel like I put them to bed and then run out to shop in my evening free time every night.
    Anyway, congratulations and thanks!

  19. We are in Canada also, way on the West coast in the suburbs of Vancouver BC.

    Milk is never under $4 per gallon anymore…even on sale! And cheese and eggs($3 per dozen)…don’t even get me started.

    My husband and son are Celiac as well so that ads to the challenge. $7 at the store for rice bread, but I can make it at home for around $2 per loaf. That is $40 saved per month on bread alone! I try and buy what is on sale as much as possible and make our menu fit that instead of the other way around.

    Lately a huge savings across the board has been to go the US every other week for staples. Milk is $2, cheese is $6-7 per 2lb, and I have yet to pay more than a dollar for 12 eggs. So we stock up and buy whatever other loss leaders are on that week and we are easily $20 to $30 ahead per week. Fred Meyer often has 10 for $10 items that I stock up on if I can make them work or they are high use items. For example this week they have Hunts tomato sauce on for 69 cents! We are pastaholics so I will be getting my 6 as well as sending my daughter through too.

    Can’t think of anything else that hasn’t been mentioned yet. Recess is over at our house…back to the books.

    • Crystal says:

      I live in Canada also but Out on the Atlantic Coast. In NB.. Our MIlk is easily $6 a gallon, so I buy from a farmer who has raw Milk I get 12 Quarts Mason Jars for $10.. I can’t tell you enuff that is you have the chance to buy a side of beef or pork//DO IT it saves a ton of money.. We buy ours from a local Farmer and have ordered ours for Fall ..For $750 we will get 1 side of beef*300-350lbs*, and a side of pork*150-200lbs* We buy our eggs from the same farm and I am just waiting for them to have their Meat king Chickens ready so I can put in my order for my birds.. I can easily get 10 birds for approx $120… which isn’t bad when most look like a small turkey.. And the biggest thing is its all Free range,grass fed, organic meat… I can’t even buy it cheap at the super market let alone compete with these prices.. We know the farm, we know the butcher it goes to as we buy from him as well…

      Last time Whole wheat flour went on sale I stocked up I have 4 bags in my basement freezer and two more in the cupboard *25lb bags* and I picked up a bag of White today as we were completely out of white unbleached and I like mixing it with my Whole to lighten the taste.. When I buy sugar I buy it in the 50lbs bags at Costco it lasts me 6 months generally even thru jam/pickle/canning season.. Vinegar I stock up on when ever possible as i use it as a cleaner too…

      I purchase as much local as it out there and we attend the farmer’s market every week.. I ordered 50lbs of honey last week which will be ready this week… and I will most likely order more before the market closes for winter…

      Cryssie

  20. I have a friend who used to work in the restaurant business. She taught me about a NW chain called “Cash and Carry” that caters to restuarants. They are wonderful for buying bulk, and make Costco look bad. I live in the greater Seattle area.

    Y’know, I would have said that we can never find apples cheaper than $0.79 a pound here, but two weeks ago I stumbled across apples for $0.29 a pound at Uwijamaya (Asian store)! They were very small and not the best flavor, but perfect for our 3 1/2 year old daughters who often struggle to finish a whole larger apple but always want one for themselves.

    We’ve also found that buying eggs bulk is a real $$ saver around here – by bulk, I mean 5 dozen at a time. Eggs actually keep really well! Who woulda thought? I think of them as “dairy” and think they spoil quickly like milk does, but they really don’t, especially in the fridge.

    We got a wonderful chest freezer for $50 off of Craig’s List. This wasn’t an unusual deal, either – we saw 4 or 5 for that price, and responded to the closest one that included all the details we wanted in the ad (the person even mentioned kilowatt hours per month! So we could estimate the cost of running it before buying!).

    I should try canning. I don’t have the time to garden enough to can, but buying fresh produce cheap in season and canning it could pay off. I’d really have to watch the time costs there, though. I might want to look for a “canning mentor” to help me with that.