Buy Your Groceries Sensibly

I live close enough to the Des Moines area that I often shop in the city for groceries. In Des Moines, unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of grocery competition. You can find all kinds of grocery stores there, from Whole Foods to Hy-Vee, from enormous grocery stores to tiny little out-of-the-way shops, from expensive stores to bargain-basement stores.

The vast majority of the time, when I’m shopping for groceries on my own, I shop at Fareway. Fareway is a discount grocery store – they make this clear on their signs and grocery bags. Their selection is sometimes hit and miss, but I can usually find all the produce and other items that I need there. However, when I shop at Fareway, I always feel really good at the checkout – the total is usually very low.

We supplement that store with some warehouse shopping (Sam’s Club is the closest to us by far) and sometimes at local ethnic grocery shops. On occasion, we’ll go to other stores to look around, but we rarely buy much at those stores because, frankly, when you’re used to a discount store, everything seems expensive. Really expensive.

Sure, stores like Whole Foods provide a very nice shopping experience. There are lots of very tasty goods on sale there and they seem to constantly be offering samples of their wares. It feels like an upscale grocery store and it can be fun to go there and wander around.

The catch is that the prices are incredibly high. I can buy virtually the same exact items elsewhere for literally half as much in many cases. Sure, those high prices are subsidizing the open layout and the samples and other things, but, frankly, those aren’t things that I need when I’m buying my food for the week.

It does not make sense to pay extra for things like an open floorspace or “free” samples or a “hip” environment when you’re struggling to pay your bills.

If you shop at such a place, view it as a “treat” and figure that half of your bill there comes out of your monthly entertainment or hobby expenses.

Instead, here’s a much better approach. Go to your usual grocery store and buy the things you usually buy. Check out, save that receipt, then stop by a few other grocery stores in your area. Go to “expensive” ones, sure, but also go to some of the dirt cheap ones. Bring a notebook and a pen along with you.

When you’re at these other stores, jot down the prices of everything you bought at the store you regularly shop at. If you bought a gallon of milk, go see what a gallon of milk costs. If you bought a head of lettuce, go figure out the cost of a head of lettuce. You get the idea. Write all of these down as you find them.

This is a good Saturday afternoon activity when you don’t have much going on. Alternately, you can simply choose to shop at those other stores in subsequent weeks and simply use the receipts for comparison.

When you’ve written down all of the prices at various stores, take that notebook home and bust out your calculator. Add up the total price of all of these staples for each store and see which store is the cheapest.

I’ll virtually guarantee you that the difference between a place like Whole Foods and a place like Fareway or Aldi will astound you. For a person buying food for a family, the difference in price for just a week’s worth of groceries will measure in the three figures, and I’m not exaggerating. Over the course of a year, that’s thousands of dollars saved by simply buying the same food items at a different store.

Once you’ve figured out the comparative prices, start shopping at the store with the lowest total price. Make that your usual store. Feel free to stop by the others once in a while, but treat that as an entertainment or hobby excursion and, as I mentioned above, apply half of your bill there to the entertainment/hobby spending portion of your budget for the month.

As my father once said as we were strolling through an expensive grocery store: “If you want fresh guacamole, buy yourself an avocado at the cheap store.”

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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