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Saving Money on Groceries: Picking the Right Store

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In most places in the United States, there's at least one grocery store that can supply most of your grocery needs at a good price. In New England, I used to shop at Stop & Shop or Shaw's. In California, I prefer Safeway. On a rare visit to Florida, there's a Publix. For the most part these stores are interchangeable. One or two might have better deals depending on your prefences, but they are minor. From when I started shopping on my own until about four years ago, I did about 98% of my shopping at these places, until I found a better place to shop. In the last two months, I have found yet another place better than that. What is the grocery store hierarchy when it comes to "expensiveness"? Read on...

  • Convenience Store - This is the place that might be just across the street. They'll happy sell you a 12-pack of soda for $6 when you might be able to get it a grocery store for $3. It kills me to shop here, but with gas being expensive, if you only need one item, it might be worth it. I try to plan ahead to avoid the convenience store
  • High-end Gourmet Stores - Whole Foods is probably the best well known, but there's a Draeger's near me that bills itself as "an Epicurean Adventure." You are paying more at these places but you often get more as well. Much of the food is organic and/or of the best quality. For some people this is a fair trade and I respect their decision... it's just not for me.
  • Standard Grocery Store - These are the ones that I mentioned in the opening paragraph. You can usually find some good prices, weekly specials, and a variety of generic foods that are just as good as the brand name. Where I've lived there has always been at least two competing stores. I usually find that I like one much better.. doing 70% of my standard grocery shopping there. The other has occasional deals which make up the remaining 30% of this category.
  • Bulk Wholesale Stores - These are your typical warehouse stores: Costco, Sam's Club, or B.J.'s (a New England chain). You can get some good values here, but the problem is always the bulk. Do you really need a keg of ketchup? Most people don't. Whenever I go to Costco, there's always something that I didn't plan on buying that finds it's way into my cart.
  • Wal-Mart - This is the tip that four years ago changed how I shop. In Boston, Wal-Mart hadn't really made a name for itself. There are some in the suburbs, but it's not like the rest of the US, where it is THE place to shop. I was surprised when my friend said that started carrying groceries. I was more surprised about the prices. I could pick a case of Sam's Club soda (the 24 pack) for $3.96. I know it doesn't taste the same as Coke or Pepsi, but for the price it stretched my dollar more than ever before. All the generic foods are good and the prices are right.
  • Military Commissaries - My wife and I have been together for more than 4 years now. Though we stop at military bases a few times a year on vacation and such, we never went into the military commissary. She said that it wasn't that great a value and the hours are limited. I believed her until a couple of months ago when we went to San Deigo. We stayed the base and my wife used the car to get to the professional conference she was attending. That left me alone to fend for myself.I was shocked at the prices in the commissary... Hamburger Helper for 75 cents, 93% lean hamburger for $1.89 (even in small one pound packages). Earlier in the month, I bought some Snow's Clam Chowder for $3 a can at a grocery store... 99 cents at the military commissary. There a military commissary about 20 minutes from my house. Yes, I buy my groceries where Google parks it's airplanes... I never would have thought. I wish more of you could take advantage of this deal, but you need to be in the military. If you are in the military, don't miss out on these savings like I did.

Where do you shop? Did I miss a place? Let me know in the comments....

Last updated on June 18, 2008.

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27 Responses to “Saving Money on Groceries: Picking the Right Store”

  1. Patrick says:

    You completely forgot Super Target. Every store that converts to handle groceries is busier than ever after reopening.

  2. ADD says:

    Great post, although I am wondering how you feel about the ethical implications of shopping at Wal-Mart. My wife does the bulk of our grocery shopping there, and I wonder, once they’ve driven all the other supermarkets out of town, will the prices remain the same?

    What about the fact that import many of their products from countries paying slave wages to people with little choice but to work there?

    I am sure knowledgeable folks could come up with a dozen other reasons why shopping at Wal-Mart is ethically questionable…just wondered, seriously, if that factors into your decision at all.

    Thanks for your ongoing great work on LM&M.

  3. Susanna K. says:

    I agree, Super Target is a great place to get non-perishables.

    Also, if you have a local Farmer’s Market that can be a good place to get produce. If you go toward the end of the day (e.g. our local market runs from 8-12 on Saturdays), the seller might cut you a deal to avoid having to cart home extra produce.

  4. Lazy Man says:

    I thought about Target, but I really haven’t found a lot of good deals there. They seemed very much like a grocery store with their pricing. Perhaps I’ve been wrong and should check it.

    I dropped the ball on the farmer’s market. My wife shops at one every Wednesday because it’s near her work. She gets very good deals on very good quality food.

    As for Wal-Mart, I don’t know where I stand with them. I think it’s good that I can save money. I try not to question things that I haven’t fully researched. And researching Wal-Mart’s practices is likely a full-time job.

  5. Andrew says:

    People in San Francisco are crazy about Trader Joe’s. I’ve only been a few times, and the prices seem low, but I don’t like it because everything is packaged. Even the produce is packaged, for crying out loud…

    I guess I just like my food fresh, and without a pound of packaging (a.k.a. waste).

  6. Wade says:

    I like shopping at Aldi for non-produce groceries. It takes a few times to get used to the quirks of the store (quarter deposit on carts, no free shopping bags, the “cart swap” at the register) but the prices are consistently the lowest and the quality is the same as that in larger supermarkets. Also, since each store is much smaller than a Super Wal-Mart or Super Target, it takes much less time to do my shopping there.

    Cheers

  7. Our local Wal-Mart really isn’t cheaper than the local chain grocery store. For some things, yes, but overall it isn’t. At least last time I checked. It probably is time to check again. When I lived in another state, Wal-mart was my cheapest option.

  8. CRM says:

    I find I save a lot by doing nearly all my shopping at Trader Joe’s (even if most of the stuff is in packages!). I live in Southern California where groceries are quite expensive, and Trader Joe’s is often as much as 50% less than the big-name grocery stores, for the same stuff, or for better-quality stuff. I also love trying all their unique Trader Joe’s brand stuff – a lot of it is so good it’s addictive!

  9. MoneyBlogga says:

    If you have a Winco near you in Southern California, I’ve found that to be the most cheapest grocery store around. Forget Vons, Ralphs, Stater Bros., Albertsons …. I would spend 2-3 times as much on groceries there as I would at Winco.

  10. James says:

    getting my groceries from the convenience store is a last resort.. i go there when i need an ’emergency shop’.. the price hurts a lot though, but that’s the price of convenience i guess… wish i was in the military…

  11. Mobody says:

    The Super Walmart near me isn’t really cheaper than any other place. Most Walmarts price themselves competitively with stores in the area. So most things might be one cent cheaper than the Giant Eagle.

    I have been doing the CVS thing for paper products, I am still on the fence whether this is a deal.

    The cheapest place by far in Northeast Ohio is Marc’s. I have been going to them for decades and no one can beat their prices on just about anything. (I think they have some out east too)

    This guy started out selling Coke products out of a closed storefront, he was selling 2-liters for 39-49 cents (in the 80’s) by the trainload when everyone else was selling them for double or more. I think he is still the largest distributor of coke products in ohio, a few years ago he topped even Mcdonalds on sales. He expanded beyond soda and has a lot of closeout stuff like big lots, but a wide selection of meat, fresh produce and is a full blown grocery store.

    I used to shop the commissary when my ex was in the army. Some prices were better than others. We used to get better prices at Ft. Meade than at Walter Reed. So I think you just have to compare whereever you shop.

  12. Brantoc says:

    I don’t want to be a jerk or anything, but that article has more than a couple words just flat out missing from the sentences.

    I’ve noticed it for awhile now, is that your way of making people read a certain sentence because I have to stop and think about what word should go there.

    This is an interesting look at grocery shopping if price was the only thing you were concerned about. I tend to shop that way, but my wife cannot stand certain generic items. I can eat just about anything and not notice the difference so I have had to adjust my shopping to account for more than just price.

  13. Lazy Man says:

    Brantoc, I don’t do it on purpose, but I write how I think. Often times, my thoughts jump faster than my fingers. I often find that I miss the most crucial word in the sentence, the verb.

    I should go back and proofread, but then it wouldn’t be Lazy Man and Money.

  14. Brantoc says:

    I was just checking. I tend to make the same mistakes in my writing and it’s usually my wife that catches it because I fill the words back in mentally when proofreading.

  15. Lazy Man – I hear you, and your blog is aptly named. On the other hand I can usually fill in the blanks!

  16. FFB says:

    Trader Joe’s is like the frugal Whole Foods! Love the place. But you can get good prices at Whole Foods to. We do most of our shopping at Waldbaum’s (not sure how far out they extend). They usually offer coupons at checkout for your next order which is helpful. Target has some good deals too. We’ve found their house brand to be pretty good too.

  17. Anitra says:

    In Massachusetts, the convenience store is usually the cheapest place to go for milk – good if your family drink much, since the price per gallon has gone up $1 in the last year!

    Aldi’s or scratch-n-dent stores are great, if you have them in your area (we don’t).

    Trader Joe’s does tend to offer better prices on “specialty” foods than our local supermarkets do.

    I find farmer’s markets and roadside stands are hit-or-miss; some of them don’t even get their fruit & vegetables locally, so I’m not sure what I’m “saving” by going there – most of the time, I just end up going to the closest supermarket (not part of a regional chain), since its produce quality has been consistently high (in the year I’ve been shopping there), and the prices are reasonable. Because they’re local, I’d be willing to bet that they get most of their in-season produce from local farmers, anyway.

  18. Austin Chu says:

    Great post. I found myself reading all the way though. I work for a company that manages and tracks gift cards and I blog about ways to save money on savvywallet.com. Couple things: Many americans are still sitting on unused gift cards. Last year around $8B was lost/unclaimed, online printable coupons can you save you tons on groceries and basic products. You can also purchase discounted gas cards online. As for myself? I run my car off waste vegetable oil, and it’s all free. I haven’t paid for fuel since Jan. You can check it out on austinchu.wordpress.com.

  19. Maha says:

    If you’re in the Sacramento, CA area, there is the Grocery Outlet. Although some of the brands seem experimental, they carry many items you see at Safeway and the like. At my last visit, they had coke for $1.99/12-pack (although it could have been for a 24-pack, I didn’t need to buy any, so I didn’t verify). Also found the Bimbo bakery outlet. If you like Orowheat, Bohemian Hearth or Boboli (and other brands), check it out. Oatnut bread sells for $4.09 at Safeway. At the outlet it’s $1.99. If you’re there on Wed or Sun, it’s $1.49. If you spend $7, you get a free item (I chose Oatnut again). If you have a freezer, stock up!

  20. There’s a great website in the UK called My Supermarket. When you shop online, you choose which supermarket you want to buy your shopping from & at the end it tells you if you could have bought your shopping cheaper at one of the other main supermarkets. You can then choose to purchase from them instead.

    It’s a great way to compare without spending the time doing it manually.

    Don’t know if there is a US equivalent.

  21. deepali says:

    Researching Wal-Mart’s lack of ethics isn’t really a full time job. There are two good websites that explore some of their issues – wakeup walmart and walmart watch. I think when a country reaches a certain amount of affluence, then it makes sense to stop and look at how many people we’ve stepped on to get that point.

    That aside, just going into a Wal-mart once convinced me I would never shop there again. Everyone was miserable. It was depressing.

  22. Tommy says:

    We primarily shop at a few places:

    99 ranch: cheaper produce and meats than safeway, plus all of the ingredients we need (we’re Asian).

    Monterey Market (in Berkeley, CA): Awesome selection of produce at very reasonable prices (even for organics!). Much cheaper than Safeway.

    Amazon.com: Some household items are cheaper with the subscribe and save.

    Costco: Toilet paper, tissues, etc here. Sometimes we get meat here because the quality is a little better than 99 ranch, but the prices are about the same or a little higher than the ranch.

  23. American says:

    Why do people hate Wal-mart? What’s wrong with a company that has low prices and thousands of jobs? Living in a free market means businesses that have lowest prices will have the most customers. Companies that can’t compete die.

    I guess I am the only poor person here.

  24. ADD says:

    People who hate Wal-Mart generally are disgusted by their poor treatment of their employees and the negative effect they have on the communities they move into (often against massive community opposition).

    Yes, they have low prices in the short term, but in the long term we all pay dearly for their monumentally destructive policies.

  25. jjs says:

    Ummm, my brother worked at Walmart in College, (a couple years ago) and they paid him better than any other grocery store around could (starting at $8.50 per hour to stalk shelves) They also donated thousands of dollars worth of products to my other little brother’s Eagle Scout Project of making hygene kits for victims of natural disasters without a problem. I think they treat their employees better than other grocery stores, and I know that they do a lot to help in the community (military, schools, charity ect…) not to mention all the jobs they give to people who would normally have a hard time finding a job (disabled, senior, no experience ect.) So, whatever…

  26. sonam says:

    Wal-Mart also gives away scholarships to college kids, provides jobs to people with no background in retail, and treat their workers well.
    They have a really good pay, provide pretty good prices for most things, they give their workers hours, and if you’ve ever talked to a Wal-Mart employee, most say they are happy in their current job.

  27. Kai says:

    To tag on, although Walmart imports products from third world countries for low cost, they are providing jobs in those countries where there would otherwise be a void. The people working in the labor factories are working there to feed and clothe their families, which would be difficult with no job, rather than a lesser paying one. Walmart did not create the indigent environments, the governments did. Walmart is helping to alleviate that.

    On topic with the conversation, I LOVE WINCO AND GROCERY OUTLET (Boise)!!!

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