How to Grocery Shop on a Budget

January 16, 2015

budget grocery shopping greensYou go to Whole Foods with the intention of getting groceries and end up spending $100. You come home and don’t have much to eat for dinner, let alone the rest of the week.  But you care about quality food and want to eat the best that way you can.

Piling your cart full of every nut, cracker, cheeses, pastured eggs, the latest supplement you think you need? It can make your grocery bill add up fast. Instead, I’ll show you how to grocery shop on a budget…

As a personal chef used to planning meals for others, I’ve had to learn how to start planning for myself – and not spend $50 5x a week at Whole Foods with still nothing to eat.

I wish I could create a city by city guide for this, because each place has a different set of grocery stores. Living in Fresno has helped me save a LOT because Whole Foods is far, produce at the farmer’s market is cheap, and I’ve figured out which ethnic stores have the cheapest (but high quality) stuff.

That said, I never shop at Safeway, Vons, Kroeger types of grocery stores – the big box stores that sell factory meat. They are overpriced (not that much less $$ than WF) and poor quality. I will shop at Whole Foods (not often,) Trader Joe’s, a specific Mexican, Indian and Asian store, and sometimes Winco (cheapest place to find coconut sugar!)

How to Grocery Shop on a Budget  

Stop shopping at Whole Foods

I love the experience of shopping at Whole Foods.  I love the branding, the clean stores, the beautiful produce, the better quality meat. But I cannot step in there without buying at least $50 worth of stuff I don’t need.  Most things, especially canned goods, grains, spices, flours sold at Whole Foods can be obtained for cheaper price elsewhere – without sacrificing quality.

Plan your pantry

What do you eat?  A lot of grains?  Beans?  Or mostly meat and veggies?  Knowing what you need to stock to be able to make meals from scratch is HUGE for money saving.

If you eat a lot of quinoa, buying it in bulk where it’s cheapest (Costco, Winco, Grocery Outlet) makes more sense than buying a tiny bag for $6 at Whole Foods or TJ’s (where it’s $$.)

If you eat a lot of meat, it makes sense to buy in bulk and freeze – especially getting 1/4 cow once or twice a year.

If you’re big on beans, keep handy a couple of your favorite varieties – and a few cans.

You can buy frozen fish in bulk at Costco.  Even WF has decent frozen fish for a good price (hello Mahi-mahi, cod, sole, tilapia.) I often keep some in my freezer for quick weeknight meals.

Instead of buying individual pieces of chicken, buy the whole thing – and use the carcass to make stock you can freeze.

I always have onions, garlic, and ginger on hand – but onions are VERY expensive at WF, so I buy a big bag of them in ethnic markets or TJ’s if I’m in a pinch.

Planning requires two things: knowing yourself well enough to know what you like to eat, and making a concerted effort have what you like on hand.

Oh, and spices at WF – the big containers they recently started carrying are a great deal.  BUT buying dried chile peppers or buying those little packets of spices for $3?  Ridiculous.  You can get these at an Indian or Mexican market for 1/10 of the price.  I have been buying large bags of cumin or star anise for less than $5 at the Indian market near me, where these things at WF would have cost me $30-$40 for the same amount.  It’s honestly ridiculous.  Indian markets for spices are great – whatever you can’t get, you can likely get in bulk for much cheaper too.  If in SF, Rainbow has the best quality for bulk spices and it’s worth stocking up there.

Map out a budget Grocery Plan

Muir glen tomatoes at Whole Foods are $3 a can, while at Grocery Outlet you can get them for $2. Kerry Gold butter is $3 for a half pound at Whole Foods or TJ’s, while it’s $2 at Winco. Buying a good brand coconut milk from the Asian store is going to be way less expensive than buying it at Whole Foods.

A huge sac of Royal basmati rice is $14 a Winco or at an ethnic market, but the same amount of rice at Whole Foods would be 3x the price – and a lower quality (WF doesn’t sell good basmati or jasmine rice.)

Vermicelli noodles at the Asian market are $1 for a large bag, whereas at WF you get half the portion for 3x the price.

Beans at the Mexican market are $.69 cents a pound, and you’ll pay at least double at WF.

Oh, and sweet potatoes at Whole Foods are $2 a pound.  The sweet potatoes at the Mexican market are $.69 cents a pound, and they are equally delicious.

While running around to 10 different stores may not be ideal, making a list of what you eat, the ethnic stores and the big box grocery stores near you that have quality but discounted ingredients is the best way to save.

You don’t have to go to 6 stores every week.  It just takes some planning to create a cohesive way to eat.

Pick your protein

Beef varies: $5-8 for grass fed ground beef (TF’s has frozen grass fed beef for $5.99 vs $7.99 for the fresh.)

Once you start getting into rib eyes, NY strips, filet mignon, you’re looking at $30/pound.

Shrimp can go up to $22/pound.  Mahi-mahi or cod is usually under $10/pound.

Protein cost makes a major difference in the final grocery cost.  Pick consciously, otherwise your grocery bill will skyrocket quickly.

It’s way cheaper to eat vegetarian.

Make a meal plan

I love to tell people to make meal plans, but unless you’re meticulously organized, you may not know how or want to take the time.

That’s why I offer Meal Planning Services – to get people jumpstarted on knowing how to do this.  Planning your meals will SIGNIFICANTLY reduce your grocery costs.

It will also prevent you from overspending when you’re hungry.  It’s a conscious way to save, eat well, and take the hassle of what to make for dinner.

Bring a pre-determined amount of cash at the Farmer’s Market

muffin with runny egg

This muffin with a runny egg in the middle was spectacular.

Last weekend at the Farmer’s Market, we spent $20 on two coffees, a muffin with a runny egg cooked inside, and a chocolate chip cookie. The $20 was worth the experience and incredible pastry coffee was worth the money.  But typically we bring $20 and buy $1 heads of kale, broccoli, bok choy, cabbage, little red potatoes.  I have stopped trying to bring any more than $30 at the market because I can spend $100 there on not much if I’m not careful.

How do I shop?

I go to the Mexican market once a month to stock up on sweet potatoes, dried beans, dried chiles, fresh salsa, onions, and limes (.79 cents each at WF, where I can get two pounds of lime for that price at the Mexican market.)

I go to the Asian store once a month to stock up on rice noodles, lemongrass, ginger, sushi rice, and coconut milk.

I buy most spices, lentils, and basmati rice in bulk at the Indian store.

I buy eggs + chicken at TJ’s – I had to stop buying $9 eggs at WF, but I do splurge on occasion when I see them at the Farmer’s Market. I also get sprouted bread at TJ’s.

I try to buy butter in bulk at Winco – this doesn’t always happen, but the Kerry Gold butter is dirt cheap there.

I buy 1/4 cow a year – ran out of this recently, but it saved a TON on groceries because I didn’t have to go to WF to buy meat. Minimizing trips to WF saves a LOT of money, as I cannot go in there without buying everything.

I shop at the Farmer’s Market for veggies – that said, I live in Fresno where it’s cheap, year round.

What kind of grocery shopper are you?!  Any tips on grocery shopping on a budget to add on this list?!

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