JLP’s recent post about groceries got me thinking about our own shopping patterns. My husband and I mostly cook and eat at home, and we did it in the beginning to save money and eat healthier, but later on, we found we actually preferred the foods we cooked to restaurant food. When it came to saving on groceries, Walmart wasn’t much of an option because there was nothing conveniently close to us, and Costco didn’t help either because we don’t eat much packaged or processed foods, and their sizes are just too big for two people. So, if you’re single or a couple and looking to save money on groceries, here’s what we do:
Buy (and cook) ethnic: Because of our backgrounds, we cook a lot of ethnic foods (Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Dominican), which means going to “ethnic” grocery stores for items you can’t find in a typical supermarket. But many of these places carry your standard grocery items, especially when it comes to produce, meats, and seafood, at significant savings to Safeway or other well-known supermarkets. If you’re lucky enough to be close to a 99 Ranch Market, don’t get intimidated by the throngs of Asian shoppers there and check it out. We found that we easily spent 50% less on vegetables, fruits, and meats there than at Safeway.
If you’re not located near a 99 Ranch, smaller mom-and-pop-run markets are also a good bet. And who knows, you might actually find something you like that you’ve never tried before. I’d even venture so far as to say that many Asian dishes require less time and cost to prepare. (If there’s interest, I’d be happy to post some recipes). Like anything else, there’s probably a little bit of a learning curve the first time you cook, but do it once or twice and you’re good to go. Asian cooking is really far more flexible — a dash here, a clump of that — than a lot of dishes I’ve seen in recipe books.
Buy bulk: Winco Foods on the West coast is a great place to buy bulk. I’m not talking Whole Foods’ organic-semolina-and-organic-vanilla-beans-at-$50-per-pound kind of bulk, but real bulk rates. For example, a box of Turbinado sugar that you buy at Safeway costs $4 or more, but we always refilled the box at Winco for pennies on the pound. This a great place for staples, grains, and condiments (including honey) that you can buy at bulk rates. After shopping at Winco, you really understand how much margin must be going into packaging!
Buy alternative: I’m sure most people are familiar with Trader Joe’s by now, but we go here for European ethnic foods like olives, pasta, the occasional cheese, and other ingredients that cost more at regular supermarkets. They also have an excellent selection of high-quality (and sometimes organic) wines and meats that, again, are cheaper than what you find in mainstream grocery stores. Toiletry and cosmetic items, like Toms of Maine products, are also 25%-50% cheaper here than at Rite-Aids and other pharmacies.
There’s a ton of advice written already written about how to save on groceries — buy generic, use coupons, etc. This list obviously isn’t going to be the cheapest alternative of all, but it’s worked for us. And as mentioned earlier, I’ll try to post some tasty but frugal Asian dishes if there’s any interest.