Frugal Friday: Let’s go shopping! (long)

In a comment on my recent money post over at, Sheryl asked me to talk about how we manage to get by on $700 a month for groceries.

I’ve been trying to think of the best way to do this and decided that the simplest way is to take you on a trip to the grocery store with me. You see, to tell the story, I have to show you what I do not buy, as well as what I do buy.

So grab your coffee or tea and come along with me!

My favorite store, and the most affordable in our area, is Winco. It’s a basic chain grocery store with a good bulk food dept and a ‘bag your own groceries’ policy. That policy was a little hassle when I only had little kids, but now I have teenagers and rarely shop without at least one kid big enough to bag.

Straight inside the doors at Winco, customers are funneled down an aisle of ‘special deals’. Things in this aisle are placed randomly, so there’s no comparing prices to other brands of the same item. I grab only things I’m certain are great deals, like 99 cent corn flakes. When I see them at this price, I buy 6 boxes or so.

At the end of this aisle isPRODUCE Staples I always keep around include bananas, carrots, onions, potatoes, garlic, ginger root, and cabbage. These items are almost always a good value. Things I buy occasionally for specific recipes or when on sale include mushrooms, bagged lettuce, broccoli slaw, grapes (if $1/lb), broccoli, egg roll wrappers, green peppers (if 3 for $1), green onions, limes, and cilantro. Things I buy only in season include strawberries, peaches, watermelon, oranges, and canteloupe.

Things I don’t buy: pretty much everything else. And keep in mind that because of our garden and greenhouse and extensive canning, we almost always have some form of tomatoes, apples, lettuce, and corn on hand.

From produce I move on to BULK FOOD. Here I always buy chocolate chips, coconut, barley, cornmeal, lentils. Cinnamon and other spices are MUCH cheaper than the expensive jarred spices in the baking aisle, and for 25 cents or so you can even buy little containers for the spices. Also here they sell 25 lb. bags of oatmeal and rice. Very occasionally, I also buy gummy bears here, but I really try to steer clear of the other candy.

Next is MEAT.
This is a make or break department as far as the budget goes, in my opinion. First I get cheese–anything that is $2/lb or less is fair game- usually Winco offers 2 or 3 kinds of block cheese for that price, as well as 5 lb bags of grated cheddar. All else I pass up. (And actually, whenever possible I buy my cheese at Costco– as they consistently have the best prices – 5lb of grated mozzerella for $8!) And people, did you know you can freeze grated cheese? Works great. There’s no excuse to buy those expensive weensie bags- not if you’re on a budget, anyway.

Next I look for hamburger. I try to stock up when it is $1.50/lb or less. Recently I found 5 lb ‘logs’ of hamburger for $1/lb. I bought 40 lbs, thus saving me from higher prices for weeks. I don’t buy the more expensive lean burger– I just drain off the obvious fat and call it good. We use meat more as a condiment than a main dish anyway. A pound and a half is enough in a stirfry along with a ton of veggies for everyone.

I sometimes buy thin-cut top round steak when it is $1.75/lb or less- I use this in stirfries. I also buy a couple meals worth of hot dogs each month. I’m picky about my hot dogs– they’ve gotta be Falls Brand Beef– and that brand is expensive enough that I don’t serve them super often. Sometimes I get those ‘little sizzler’ boxed sausages to go with eggs for breakfast.

Going over to chicken, I buy whatever is less than $1/lb. Sometimes I buy the fryer leg quarters in 10 lb bags for 49 cents/lb. I freeze thighs in packets big enough for a meal (14 or so) and then boil the legs and freeze the meat for casseroles. Lately I have seen some really good prices on chicken breasts- 89 cents a pound recently for bone-in breasts, and yeah, I bought a bunch. It really helps to stock up when the price is right. Several times each winter I buy a whole turkey when they are on great sales, and do a turkey dinner just for us.

Let’s see, what else in the meat dept? Always cream cheese, generic brand. Formed hamburger patties– these are about $1.60/lb but we always BBQ them and I really like the uniform sizes for BBQ-ing. When I form them by hand, they are uneven in size and it is harder to make sure they get cooked right. Sometimes I get generic-brand thin sliced ham in family packs, and less often, bacon– maybe a pound every month or two. Sometimes I’ll buy a roast. Sometimes, if I’m planning to make meatloaf, I’ll buy ground turkey to mix half and half with the hamburger to make it lower fat.

I never buy steak, or any other meat that is more than $2/lb. Thankfully I have a hubby who is fine with skipping steak. If he wanted it, we’d buy it, but I’d probably serve him steak and give the kids hamburgers. I’m just cheap like that…
From meat I move on to dairy. Usually I buy eggs at Walmart. You can get mediums for 50 cents a dozen there– a great deal, though you have to look for the mediums. They don’t stock many, and they DON’T put the price on the shelf- sneaky people! We go through at least 4 dozen eggs a week. A dozen is enough for one meal– you can’t beat 50 cents for a whole meals’ worth of protein.

Several in our family drink soy milk instead of regular milk, which thanks to our soy milk machine is cheaper anyway. But we go through a couple gallons a week of regular milk. We also always buy real butter for baking, light sour cream, and margarine. Sometimes we buy yogurt or cottage cheese.
Next to dairy is frozen stuff. We always buy ice cream ($5/gallon or less-NOT Ben and Jerry’s!!) and calcium-fortified OJ- (88 cents a can for concentrateWe drink probably 4 gallons a week.)

Sometimes I buy Asian-style frozen veggies for stir-fry or generic cool whip to top pumpkin pie. Once a month or so I buy fish sticks or corn dogs or frozen salmon. I love salmon, but I am such a tightwad I just can’t stand to spend $10 JUST for the meat for a meal…

In the frozen department, my NEVER-BUY list offer me pretty significant savings. I never buy TV dinners or burritos or chicken nuggets or steak fries or Lean Cuisine or fancy brands of juice or mini-pizza-whatchamacallits (well, OK, twice a year or so I’ll buy those 2/$4 pizzas at Walmart. But really, it is extremely, extremely rarely.) Premade ‘convenience’ food will put your grocery bill thru the roof in nothing flat.

I’m aware I may be coming off as a bit obsessive. I want to make it clear I’m not making value judgements against people who DO buy things I don’t. I am simply (and apparently very long-windedly) explaining how we keep our budget low. I’m used to shopping this way– I like the challenge. We eat lots of variety, we’re all healthy (PTL) and it works for us! Hopefully it might offer insight for others trying to work within a budget as well.

Speaking of long-winded, I think I will wrap this post up, while I still (hopefully) have one or two readers with me. Next week I will talk about the center aisles of the store.

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  1. Great post! I only buy certain things as well. And we have lots of variety in the dishes I make. Sometimes I wonder if I’m frugal or just too set in my ways to change up the grocery list!!! Oh well, jit works for me.:-)I’m guessing you are in the Pacific Northwest if you shop at Winco. My family is from Oregon and they shop there all the time. I miss a store with very reasonably priced bulk items. SC just doesn’t have much of that.:-)

  2. It, not jit.OOPS!!!

  3. I cannot believe how LITTLE you pay for meat! Or chicken! Prices in the UK would make your eyes pop out.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this – thanks for the thorough explaination. We too usually just shop around the edge of the store, avoiding the prepackaged foods and convenience foods. I don’t manage to do as well as you do in the budget category . . . but what great inspiration this was!

  5. Good idea on the tiny bit of meat. We have friends who are vegetarian and learned much from them about how to make a meal tasty. It’s good for the budget and aging digestive tracts.

    Although one Labor Day when youngest son was about 15, we decided we wanted steaks on the grill. Oldest son had spent the summer in Great Britain for his college requirements for foreign studies, and he really wanted some meat, American Mid-West style.
    I went to the specialty meat market and bought $65 worth of sirloin steaks.

    The trouble was, it had been so long since we had cooked so much meat that I worried myself sick about ruining something so expensive.

    Never fear, a friendly 20 year old invited for the cookout stepped up to the grill. He shook on seasonings, turned the steaks with a long handled fork.
    That was the bestest steak I have ever eaten before or since.

    Later, I learned that the guy worked in a restaurant where steaks were cooked to order. I told him such skill could probably get him just about as far as his college class schedule.

  6. No, it was NOT too long winded. Actually, it was very facinating and thought provoking. 🙂
    Sounds like Winco is a GREAT store. I’d love to find a store here in the Midwest that has a large bulk food section that’s not an expensive “health food store”.
    I also buy all my meat at less than $2.00/lb. If it’s not lower, I don’t buy it.
    Thanks for sharing – I’ll be looking for the info on the center isles! 🙂

  7. Thanks for sharing…with 10 in our family, we’re having to be obsessive about every penny too! I hate to admit that after awhile, it becomes a little addictive!

    Your ideas and suggestions are great!


  8. Mary and others–

    Have you ever thought of looking for a farmer near your home? Often you can buy a whole pig or cow from him at a very reasonable price. My parents do this often (they usually buy a 1/2 pig at a time–we only eat venison, not beef) and the meat comes divided as you would like it and prepackaged. There are 2 additional values to this (along with better prices): you know where the meat your family eats is coming from, and you are directly contributing to a small town farmer (an occupation that is waning rapidly).

  9. I’m so with you. I LOVE Winco. I only wish there was one closer to my house. I don’t always feel like driving way out to it when there are closer stores, especially since I always have to take the kids with me when I shop. Thanks for all your tips.

  10. Jen — I was just going to say the same!! Another tip I really liked:

    If you get several families together, you can fish from purveyors/restaurant suppliers — that can bring the price down considerably and you have great stuff…
    Don’t know if you have Trader Joe’s out there — but that’s also a great discount shop!

  11. I have looked into buying a half or a quarter beef, but the best price averages out to $1.75-$2 a lb, which is higher than I can often find burger.

    We did purchase 1/8 of a beef years ago, but what I found was that with all that abundance in the freezer, we ate more meat than usual, and in slabs, which is NOT how we usually eat, so that probably made the monthly meat budget even higher.

    For people who eat a lot of steak and roast, I think buying a partial beef would be a great way to go. For us, using mostly hamburger and small amounts at that, it just wasn’t cost effective.

  12. Trader Joes– i keep hearing that name…I’ll have to check on it….

  13. You have that down to a science! I’m in awe. I will definitely remember some of these tips.

    Thanks again for playing yesterday. You sent my site meter to the moon. 🙂

  14. Phew! I had to buy groceries for a party for my husband’s students yesterday plus our weekly groceries. I had my lone child in the cart and the experience dang near killed me. Kudos to you and your weekly shopping adventures!

  15. What’s broccoli slaw?

    I don’t think you’d like Trader Joe’s, Mary, it’s a lot of convenience items (which are quite good and reasonably priced). Plus, they’ve got 2 buck Chuck which, I guess, you might be interested in.

    Excellent piece, BTW, we’ve been trying to get our food budget down a little since adding a fifth mouth.

  16. I stayed with you to the very end—my shopping is much similar to yours but I still gleaned some wisdom. thank you!!!

    Frugal moms unite! 🙂

  17. Oh how I wish I had a grocery store with the bulk food in it. It is an extra stop for me. I try to go about once a month.

  18. Thanks for the trip! A tighter budget is new with us, as we’ve added a mouth and my dh is transitioning out of the Air Force. I actually have been loving the challenge and find it great fun. A hardly used pressure cooker that my aunt gave me has been my new best friend. You can make unsoaked beans in about 30 minutes and soaked beans in about half. I am famous for not thinking ahead too much, so the pressure cooker is a real blessing. For those of you afraid of our bean friend’s famous side effect, here is my tip: Soak overnight, drain water, rinse, then let sit out on the counter for a few hours. If the beans begin their natural sprouting process they won’t be so gas provoking. Also, stick with it. Your body adjusts. You can’t get a cheaper meal than bean soup and cornbread. BTW, Mary, you “encouraged” me to post again! Thanks!

  19. That was great! Thanks for sharing all the tips – I use most of them but it’s great to see it written all in one place. I need to remember to stock up on stuff more if the price is right – makes a big difference.

  20. I’ve got a Mennonite Cookbook that I absolutely love. It not only has easy and cheap recipes, but it has ways of using food more economically and how to use leftovers. It’s a very “earth- and pocket-book- friendly” book. It has a lot of recipes using beans as the source of protein. I still have not figured out how to prepare them in a way that works for me since I’m hardly at home long enough at one time to cook them, but I’m working on it!

  21. I love Costco. I totally agree about the meat. Thanks for all the great tips.

  22. Thanks, that was helpful. I can see I need to save up for a seperate freezer :o)

  23. I’m impressed. Can’t wait to hear about the middle aisles.

  24. I have two questions:

    1: Soy milk machine?? do tell

    2: I have been reading books (ok, a book) about food and where it comes from lately (by Jane Goodall)… I kinda learned some disturbing things about how our food is treated before it gets to us (animal products and veg.) I am vegetarian already…. but I was wondering what you think about GMOs, Organic food, cage free eggs/ hormones in milk an dall that jazz.. and if is possible to eat organic and healthy veggies, eggs, etc without killing the budget….

  25. I blogged here about my soy milk machine

    I think super-organic on a budget would be tough except if you gre your own. Check Hilbilly Housewife
    for her experiments with budget organic food..

    she found it very tough.


  26. I so appreciate this post- thanks for sharing… is going to make me look even harder for a bargin and possibly join our costco or sams club!

  27. That was very interesting. I was wondering how you keep your food budget so low. That is probably close to what I spend on a family of four. But I NEVER see prices like you are talking about. Ever. Must be where I live.

  28. Meat savings= get to know your meat people at the store.

    As a military wife, they are the people I get to know first at new stores when we move. I usually ask WHEN (day and time) the reduce the meat and ask politely if they would get a box for me with say $25.00 worth of reduced meat. It always works and I usually end up with $50-60 worth of meat (steaks, stew, stir-fry, roasts, you name it) and all I have to do is ask. They’re glad to do it because it clears it out faster and I get what I need for pennies. Be nice to the meat people, folks. They can make your budget A LOT easier!

    I buy a box ince a month and very rarely have to buy more meat….

    Also I buy 6-8 frozen turkies (usually this time of year when they’re dirt cheap) and smoke them one after another. You know how long ONE smoked turkey can provide meals for? A LONG TIME. And turkey meat is very versatile. If you want the BEST smoked turkey recipe, just check my blog tomorrow and I wil post it. I would do it now but I am off to bed!


  29. Thankfully I have a hubby who is fine with skipping steak. If he wanted it, we’d buy it, but I’d probably serve him steak and give the kids hamburgers. I’m just cheap like that…

    My parents did this when my brother and I were growing up. We never noticed. We are both happy and productive people.

    BTW, I tried your pumpkin pie recipe. It is great. Thanks so much for sharing. My girls got a kick out of scraping out the pumpkin seeds.

  30. What an inspiring post … you’re certainly a savvy shopper! 🙂



  31. We do organic due to my eldest’s serious allergies that require an all organic diet. We are on rather a tight budget and have found that our best bet is our local Wholesale food coop for organic, that and for the non-frozen organic stuff. (I used to make everything from scratch for her but when she is in a picky mood she won’t eat it and the amount of time and effort is not worth the slight cost difference.)


  1. […] Last week I went around the perimeter of my grocery store, telling you which foods I find to be good deals and which I don’t buy. This week I’ll talk about the main aisles. […]

  2. […] I’d share a link to a couple posts I wrote awhile back describing my grocery shopping habits. Let’s Go Shopping, Part One | Part […]