How to Grocery Shop Like a Baller on a Budget

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Image Courtesy of Dylan M Howell.

Grocery shopping is the bane of my existence.  My husband is a stay-at-home-parent these days (on the job market) but he’s not a cook.  Also, grocery shopping is not his game – it’s really hard to effectively grocery shop for meal prep if you are cooking-averse.   Instead, I have elected to pay for some services to help and plan like a boss.  He picks up slack in other areas and, eventually, hiring a housecleaner is going to alleviate some stress moving forward once he’s back in the workforce.

Meanwhile, I look for ways to make this less awful.

If you haven’t read about my basics to meal prep, check it out.  It’s essential that you shop with a menu in hand and a dedicated list of things you need.  Heck, you might even need SEVERAL lists for several places.  And why should you shop several places?  Because it will save you money.

Here are my secret weapons in shopping so far:

  1. Club stores.
  2. Aldi.
  3. Delivery and Pickup Services.
  4. Shopping sales at frou-frou natural groceries.
  5. Buying from bulk bins.
  6. Rewards programs!

So, let’s start with why you should join a club store and, also, where your pitfalls will lie in shopping there if you do!  I love Costco. I hadn’t had access to one since I moved to Missouri for graduate school.  But now that I’m within an hour of one, we make a monthly pilgrimage. Sam’s is closer but I prefer Costco because they have more things we would normally buy – but in bulk.  Of course, we also did Sam’s for more than 2 years in Missouri and it was still a great option for us.

So, what to buy at a club store?

  1. Baked goods – bagels, buns, tortillas, and cupcakes/cakes if you’re having a party!
  2. Meat. Essentials for us are food service portions of frozen chicken breasts, thighs, and whole chickens (the whole chickens at Costco are AMAZING).
  3. Stuff for “Fend for yourself” nights where you aren’t cooking. Bulk amounts of various things exist like great prices on Mac N Cheese, Ramen, and, in the case of Costco those damn frozen pizzas.  My husband swears by them and they are GOOD.
  4. Potstickers if that’s your thing. Both Sam’s and Costco have great ones for FAR less you’d get with takeout.  I live for these and have them in a “FFYS” capacity on their own.
  5. Produce. Sam’s and Costco have GREAT prices on produce – well, some of it – from bell peppers to potatoes and broccoli. Avoid the asparagus.  Costco, in particular, has the same brand as Aldi.  The quality is superb but it’s twice the price as Aldi and $1.00 more a lb than Kroger.
  6. Dairy. Butter, organic milk, cream, yogurt.  All cheaper.
  7. Wine! The wine is great at Costco.  I find really nice options for reasonable prices – cheaper than wine clubs and higher quality!
  8. If Costco, those dang rotisserie chickens. You can eat them and then make stock with them later.  I can make stock with anything but the stock is fine from these if you wondered!
  9. Rice and beans. We cook rice A LOT.  Basmati rice at the store is so expensive (even at Aldi when they have it) and it’s 10 times cheaper in bulk at Costco or Sam’s.  Also better quality.  Pick good storage containers, obviously, but this will last you 6 mo-year.  Beans are great, too, if you use them.
  10. Baking products. Maybe you don’t bake as much as I do, so flour is out, but you will probably use as much sugar or brown sugar as they offer.  Again, buy airtight containers for storage.  Cocoa and vanilla are MUSTS.  Oh, and a huge bag of chocolate chips.  I love to bake, though.

There are non-food-related reasons to join, too.  Are you the parent of a child who takes formula or diapers?  Great.  You will save 10 times your membership on these things.  Have a dog?  Tons of saving on high-quality, grain free food.  Want to buy a car?  Costco will help you get a price below invoice.  We’re looking to buy in the next year and plan to use the service.  Oh, and gas is cheaper if you have a car. This doesn’t matter as much for us as we fill up every 3 weeks in the Prius but if you have a large family-lugging vehicle, it may help defray the costs of a membership completely.

What should you not bother with?  Well, anything not on your list.  RESIST.  There are so many samples, sure, but they will just distract you.  Yes, feed your kids samples.  Ours lives for samples but keep these things out of your cart.  Stick to your list.  Full stop. But that’s the case for shopping ANYWHERE, to be honest.

Also, I’m not mentioning it here, but I should plug GFS for bulk buying. If you live in the upper Midwest, the products are fantastic and no membership is required!  I worked here in college and can attest to its quality. If treatment of employees matters to you, know that they care about their employees and provide benefits even to entry-level employees!  It may be the best bulk option for you.

 

Aldi.  Oh, how I love thee.  I know Aldi has become popular among the Millenials and Gen Z (I’m a Millenial, full disclosure) but I loved it before then.  I’m an Aldi hipster, I guess.  My mom always shopped there so I was indoctrinated young.  We were not poor but were frugal.  I always hated the assumption that Aldi was “low class” or “low quality”.  I loved Aldi so much that I visited Aldi in Germany and made a weekly trip there while a student in the UK.  Their selection of international, free-range, organic, and allergy-free options has expanded as their popularity has.  I have food allergies, so their clear labels and many nut-free products has been a wonderful thing.

So, can you shop completely at Aldi?  No.  I don’t feel like you can.  I am a huge believer in generics.  I do not find myself brand-conscious at all.  Still, there are just some things I can’t get there.  Yes, you can find Aldi meal plans on Pinterest.  If that works for you, go for it!  But, I find that assuming it is a one-stop-shop is challenging.  Products there do change by season and, again, generics may not ALWAYS suit.  I do feel like, though, you can buy many things there.  And if you aren’t able to join a club store, it might be a good replacement!  You can’t buy in bulk but you can buy many affordable generics that are of great quality for less.

 

Things I think you should buy at Aldi:

  1. Produce. Hands down. People overlook this but they have great produce for cheap.  In particular, if you like asparagus as much as we do, you can get it for cheap.  Potatoes and peppers are good, too.  Also, if you do steamer veggies, the individual packs are cheap and better quality than Target or Kroger.
  2. Cheese and dairy generally. Butter, cheese (so many cheeses!), milk, cream, etc.  All cheaper than the grocery.  And seriously with the cheese, I could live on the cheese!
  3. International sauces and spices. Asian spices for stir frys and curry spices help you with “cheater meals” (more on that later).  I highly recommend the teriyaki and butter chicken options.
  4. Salsa. It’s legit.
  5. Grain-fed beef. $5.00 per pound is unbeatable.
  6. Baking products – Not baking all the time like me? Have at these normal-sized products!  They are cheap.  I recommend you buy better quality, fair trade cocoa, though.
  7. Chocolate.
  8. Toddler snacks.

Unrelated to food, Aldi has baby products.  Yes, they are high-quality.  We have used their diapers a lot.  They are dye-free, chlorine-free, latex-free, and scent-free.  Our kiddo is sensitive so they are good options for those kids.  R also did well on their Enfamil dupe.  Sam’s formula was cheaper but this was a close second for value.

 

Delivery and pickup options.  This is up to you.  It depends on your budget.  Most services at grocery stores is about $5.00 per pickup.  But hear me out.  Do you end up spending more on crap you shouldn’t be buying anyhow?  Impulse buys got you down?  If you spent more than $5.00 on those purchases, then your online order was worth it.  We find it helps our budget more than it hurts it.  And your time is worth it, too.  I am a fast shopper.  I usually write lists based on parts of the store and aisles and get in and out in 30 minutes but that is worth something.  Some places like WalMart or Hyvee will waive your fee if you spend a certain amount, too!

Delivery is a blessing for many of us.  Instacart and AmazonFresh are options (depending on where you live).  Instacart at Aldi has been a lifesaver.  It’s more expensive than pickup but still saves me money and time.  If I am hosting people, it’s a godsend.  I probably do not have time to shop, cook, and sit still for the hour it would take me to shop and travel to/from a store.  So, this is worth it.  I use it about monthly with Aldi deliveries.  My Instacart shoppers have been polite and thoughtful.  It could be a gamechanger and could stop the impulse buys, too.  Also, the thing I love about Instacart that I can’t do with other outlets is that I can set an order up days in advance (say on my lunch break on a Wednesday) and then add items as we need them up until my shopper begins shopping!  That allows me to double check things and take things off we actually don’t need or add things we do.  No one wants to run out for milk if they can avoid it.

 

Yes, you CAN shop at frou-frou stores.  I feel like shopping at Kroger sucks out my soul slowly.  We have 0 “traditional” options BUT Kroger here.  In my hometown, I did ANYTHING to avoid Kroger and I still feel stress upon entering their stores.  I know there are “nice” Krogers complete with Starbucks and such because I have family in the Cincinnati area but our local stores are not those stores.  Buy shopping at Aldi and Costco, though, I save enough to “treat” myself to a frou-frou grocery and break free from the chains of Kroger’s dominance here.

Here, the key players are Lucky’s and Fresh Thyme. I prefer Lucky’s (and it is 3 min from my house which helps) but your favorite natural grocery will substitute just fine.  Their produce, beer, and meat selections are great.  If I need a standing rib roast properly trimmed, I know I can rely on them (unlike Kroger).  I know that their selection of fresh herbs is, you know, FRESH.  I can buy local, wonderful coffee and beer.  And sometimes, I can make it my weekly stop thanks to careful planning of their ads and coupons.  I try to shop there the first week of the month and plan that meal plan week around their sales.  You can do the same if you shop weekly.  Many people do with high-low buying for meal prep.  Save where you can (Aldi, Sam’s, Costco) and then get the rest of your stuff at Lucky’s for the same price or lower than you’d pay for lower-quality products at a traditional grocer.

 

Bulk bins should also be mentioned here.  If you are concerned about waste or just want to save a buck, most natural food stores and even some traditional grocers (I miss you, Hyvee) have bulk bins.  You can even bring your own bags, fill them up, and save money on anything from confections to beans, to coffee.  I buy all my lentils in bulk (I make a mean lentil soup) at Lucky’s for half the price of Kroger.  It may be a way to make frou-frou natural grocers more affordable and reduce your environmental impact.

 

Finally, utilize those rewards programs.  Leverage points.  Lucky’s offers $5.00 cash back when you spend $100.00.  If I do a large trip at the start of the month and buy basically all of our dry goods I can’t buy at Costco, I will get this money towards my next trip.  Many groceries offer fuel points which can save you lots, too!  They also may give you special coupons (Kroger targets coupons this way) on things you regularly buy.  If you think they are tracking you with those cards, I’ve got news for you, they can track it on the credit or debit card you pay for.  There are actually research services that my employer (a large Carnegie R-1) subscribes which can tell you about anyone’s consumer preferences.  Guess what?  No matter what you do, you’re probably in a system just for shopping unless you pay cash.  At Kroger, I don’t even know how you’d afford to shop without their card.­­­

So, this is how you get your shopping game on!  If you want to hear about peripherals which can make your life easier (like electric pressure cookers), recipes, and how to incorporate “cheater” meals into your arsenal; these are also in this series!

 

 

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