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Grocery bill blues

Grocery carts

Ever since I started freelancing full-time, I’ve been tracking all my expenses. I like to make sure the money going out isn’t greater than the money going in, because that would be a very bad business plan indeed. (Unless you’re the federal government.) This is how I know that my food/grocery expenses have gone up since I moved from Indianapolis to Chapel Hill, though I don’t exactly know why. The first month I was here, I expected it to go up because I had to buy basic staples that I hadn’t bothered to move across the country, and I had to eat out on the road. But August’s bill was about $40-$70 higher than it averaged in Indy.

I’m not sure if the prices at Harris-Teeter are higher than they were at Kroger. I don’t know if I mooched more food off of my old roommate than I realized. I’m spending more time at coffee shops to get out of my apartment, which has bumped the sum a bit. In college I would always run out of money on my meal card before anybody else, so maybe I just eat more than other people. I dunno.

I don’t like this problem, but I don’t like the solution either, which is to analyze prices, sales, and coupons and plan how to buy things at the cheapest rate. Near Lord, that sounds like so much work. I just want to go to the grocery and get what I need. Waiting for bread to go on sale annoys me. It should be on sale all the time!! I also realize this is an incredibly spoiled attitude. I should be grateful food is abundant and easy to acquire at whatever cost, especially when people starve to death every day on this planet and in popular young adult novels.

I know there are web sites that help you figure out when is the best time to buy things, but again, this sounds like work even if it’s less work than without the lists. You have to strategize and figure out what to stock up on things and make meal plans that match what’s on sale. I guess I’ll just have to get over it and start putting more work into my grocery shopping, but BLEH, I’m still annoyed. I have to work at so many other things in my life—my weight, exercise, blogging, emails, web designing, doctors appointments—I wish I could just go buy food without a huge amount of pre-planning.

On the bright side, at least the cartoon dragon at Harris-Teeter is always here to give me free cookies. (I told you animated creatures were going to start following me to the grocery store!)

Save me from the dragon!

(I know it says they’re just for kids. I am a kid at heart. And I would run over anyone who tries to stop me with my grocery cart, which you have to admit is very childish.)

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39 Comments

Natalie • September 9, 2010 at 8:32 am

I wrote a reply about menu-planning from the weekly sales catalogue, then decided that it was totally and utterly boring so I deleted it. But hi!

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Lisa@Pickles and Cheese • September 9, 2010 at 8:51 am

I am a NC transplant too but have lived here for 10 years and I have found Harris Teeter to be the most expensive store almost 30 to 60 cents more than Food Lion…but they have good buy one get one free deals. Food Lion is the least expensive but has a smaller selection than the Teeter. I shop basics at Food Lion, Trader Joe’s when I am in Chapel Hill, and Harris Teeter if there is something I can’t find at the other two. And Food Lion has the best Romaine lettuce. :) Good luck finding what works for you!

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Nellig • September 9, 2010 at 8:55 am

That level of focus on grocery prices sounds ridiculous and not the best use of your time.

To drive grocery expenses right down: master, say, some sort of easy vegetable curry, lentil soup (yummy) and quick, soy-sauce-seasoned vegetable stir-fries (using a cheap Chinese wok). This is easy enough. Easier than obsessive couponing and sale-chasing. Useful, delicious recipes abound online.

Routinely make enough for 2 or 3 meals every time you do a soup or curry or whatever. When you do rice, do extra and use the leftovers next day for delicious veggie fried rice.

Seriously, watch those grocery bills plummet.

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Vicki • September 9, 2010 at 9:20 am

Harris Teeter is definitely more expensive but they offer the widest variety. Stay away from their organics/ health foods! I learned that I could buy almond flour at Trader Joe’s for $4.99 while it was something like $13.99 at Harris Teeter!!! All their whole grain, organics, natural foods are extremely over-priced, and I’ve saved so much money just by shopping at Trader Joe’s for that stuff instead ($0.99 whole wheat pizza dough!!).

As to regular, every day groceries, Food Lion and Bi-Lo are going to be cheaper.

This from a Charlottean, so I don’t know what you have available in your area.

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KitschenBitsch • September 9, 2010 at 9:47 am

I have to agree with the previous commenters about the grocery store prices as someone who lives in the Triangle. Food Lion is cheapest, with Kroger being a shade more expensive but having stellar manager’s specials (shop on Tuesdays and look for yellow markdown stickers on packaged produce, meat, cheese, frozen goods, etc.). Trader Joe’s is an excellent resource, especially if you need to buy frozen lunches that are actually healthy (that is, additive free).

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Kelly • September 9, 2010 at 10:48 am

I have basically one grocery store option where I live, other than Whole Foods (and you CAN find good deals at Whole Foods, but you do have to be aware of the sales and I’m not always that diligent when it comes to WF). I know it’s a drag, but I’ve learned if I don’t want to spend a fortune on groceries, I do have to hunt for the bargains. I’ve gotten very good at stocking up. Once a week, or once every other week, I look through the store’s sale flyer for deals, particularly when it comes to meat. I cook a lot of chicken for myself, for dinners and to bring to work for lunches, and prefer the organic chicken, which usually costs a lot more. So when I see it on sale, I snap up a whole bunch. Then I stick it in the freezer and have it on hand for awhile. I do that with meat generally because I know if I pay full price for meat, I will soon be completely broke.

So I know it’s not ideal, but it really only takes a few minutes to look through the flyers and see if the things you usually eat just happen to be on sale. Then, stock up! It may seem ridiculous to buy $30 worth of chicken at once, but when you consider how much you’re saving over the long run, it makes sense. Also, when you stock up, if you’re having a lean couple of weeks, money-wise, you know you have food on hand.

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Anne • September 9, 2010 at 11:04 am

I’m a freelancer who lives in the San Fran Bay area (aka – expenive place to live!) and has 2 kids to feed, so I know your pain! I’m also gluten-free for health reasons and eating paleo-style (meat,veggies, fruit, fat) so I have to be extra careful that my $200 to 225/month is stretched to its fullest.

I shop around a lot – I buy only the things that are on sale at the grocery chains and then suppliment with what I can find at the locally owned (and usually cheaper) ethnic markets, local produce market and Smart and Final. Oh, and I buy eggs and bread at Target – yes, the big box department store is the cheapest in town.

I also created a Price Book to track prices – that way, I can see where the cheapest peanut butter is and if the “sale price” at the store is actually a “sale price” and not the real price parading around in a disguise. It’s saved me a lot of money. IF you have a iphone or itouch, there’s apps that do that for you, you just have to enter the data.

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Mar • September 9, 2010 at 11:15 am

i totally agree that watching the sales papers can be annoying, but i would not throw out the idea of coupons just yet.

if you’re like me, you might buy a lot of the same things over and over and over again. google those items or go to the manufacturer website for coupons. after awhile those few $1.00 off (and even more if the supermarket doubles the coupons) add up on those items that you tend to buy all the time!!

also, not sure if you have tried buying some things at Target, but they have grocery and some staple items (peanut butter, tortilla chips, etc – the basics) are usually cheaper than the local grocery store.

and who doesn’t need a trip to Target?

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Amy • September 9, 2010 at 11:36 am

I was a coupon-clipping, sale-watching maniac after my husband got laid off. That lasted for approximately 1 month.

Then I got super bored, and now I just do my best when I’m at the store. If something I eat a lot of is on sale, I buy a lot of it. I try to buy real foods & organics as much as possible, but still try to keep every shopping trip close to $70 (per week for two people). I am moderately successful at that.

I’m sure once you get all settled in, things will start to normalize again!

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Helen • September 9, 2010 at 12:31 pm

I don’t know what else you have around you but there are less expensive stores. When my daughter was a student at Duke she shopped at a store called Lion or something like that. And I distinctly remember her complaining about what a nice store Teeter Harris was and how darn expensive it was too!

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Helen • September 9, 2010 at 12:33 pm

I meant to also add that I actually shop at two grocery stores every single week and also add in a warehouse club about every 3 weeks. Groceries in general have gotten out of control.

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Ana • September 9, 2010 at 1:02 pm

I have to agree with you re: Harris Teeter … too expensive. Between that and going to the farmer’s market, it’s been more expensive to get stuff here. I think there is a Kroger near the Kohls, so you could try that?

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Carbzilla • September 9, 2010 at 1:14 pm

I’m just down on my knees grateful that none of my grocery stores give away free cookies! Day-um!

I do use coupons but only cut out the ones for things we buy. I don’t try new things just b/c we have a coupon. I split up my shopping between QFC (like Food Lion), Central Market (like Harris Teeter), Costco and Cash & Carry for bulk. I almost never go to Trader Joe’s even though I LOVE it and there are two close by (unlike when I lived in NY and the nearest one was in Connecticut). I just find I buy red light foods at TJ’s, and it’s ends up a dietary disaster.

Sounds like shopping more at FoodLion might make a difference. Let us know! (yes, our lives are so dull that we want to know where you saved money on Peanut Butter)

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Ruby Leigh • September 9, 2010 at 1:15 pm

I purchased a freezer a while back and it was the best thing I did. If you have space for one, I think it might be a good idea for too. This way you can buy a lot of things when they go on sale and then freeze them until they are ready to use. This is the tip that helps me the most. However, there are plenty of other tips out there and some will work for you and some won’t Don’t force the stuff that doesn’t stick.

Also, a $40- $70 upturn doesn’t seem too bad.

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Jaime • September 9, 2010 at 1:40 pm

I second (fourth? fifth?) the vote for Food Lion over Harris Teeter. HT is definitely more costly. When I lived in Durham I would get everything I could at Food Lion and anything else at Kroger.

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Debbi Does Dinner Healthy • September 9, 2010 at 1:45 pm

If you’re cooking for one person, I don’t blame you for not coupon clipping and waiting for sales. I feed like 12 people so it is ESSENTIAL for me! And worth the time and energy. You might know it already, but there are a few easy and fairly quick sites to go for coupons that you would just need to hit once a month. After awhile you get to know what coupons are usually featured on these sites. Coupons.com, pillsbury.com, redplum.com. Waiting for sales works when you are buying in bulk. If you cook with a lot of chicken, just buy a ton when it goes on sale (if you have the room), then pre-portion and you’re good to go.

Waiting for bread to go on sale would be annoying however. I go to the Tastee or Sara Lee outlet and buy 12 loaves at once, but that wouldn’t help you. Hoopefully it will balance out as the months continue.

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Jules4422 • September 9, 2010 at 3:05 pm

As a lifetime NC’er, I can definitely tell you that Food Lion (aka – The Big Food Kitty in my house) is most definitely cheaper than Harris Teeter. In a big way. Kroger is about the same as Food Lion. And, as a former UNC student, I found that almost everything is more expensive on and near a college campus. Gas is certainly more expensive in CH than around CH.

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Jackie • September 9, 2010 at 9:33 pm

Harris Teeter is a nice store but it is expensive. It’s nice for the occasional thing but if you want to save money you need to check out Kroger which is on the CH/Durham border near Home Depot and Kohl’s and Outback Steakhouse just off 15/501. Or the Super Walmart up route 86 in Hillsborough. They have a great selection, amazing prices and a surprising amount of gourmet items too. They offer a lot of healthy choices which I wasn’t expecting. I tend to buy certain items from certain stores rather than give Harris Teeter all my business. Trader Joe’s gets quite a few of my dollars too and sometimes I indulge and go to Whole Foods which has great stuff and can be relatively affordable if you choose wisely. I prefer not to shop at Food Lion if I can help it but I do run into the one in Timberlyne if I just need a couple of items. I have kids so every couple of months I go to BJs in Raleigh and stock up on lunch items and snacks and drinks for them as well as paper goods etc.

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The Merry • September 9, 2010 at 10:01 pm

As a single woman, I think the best plan is go out on lots of dates. Don’t go Dutch. Your food budget will definitely improve.

It’s so much easier solving someone else’s problems rather than my own. Anything else you’d like me to tackle? Global warming?

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Virginia • September 9, 2010 at 10:46 pm

I live in Durham and I think Kroger is the best regular grocery store in the Triangle, as far as value and variety.

That said, a lot of reasonably priced groceries can be found at SuperWalmart and SuperTarget.

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julie • September 9, 2010 at 10:53 pm

Do you have Aldi there? They’re great for staples if you cook alot.

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Quix • September 9, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Groceries just vary. Reno was about 1/2 the expense of San Diego, and Austin is just about back to what it was in Reno (probably cheaper, as that was 10 years ago). I just figure it’s not really worth my time to try and make it cheaper, so I just try to shop sales when I can.

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siv • September 10, 2010 at 1:04 am

You mentioned several times in the past on this blog that you buy a lot of processed food — LeanCuisine, sodas, etc. I think you could save a lot of money if you bought more basics: potatoes, rice, pasta, beans, lentils, fresh veggies, etc. Cooking’s no fun, I’m with you on that, but it will bring down the cost of your monthly food bill. I buy almost all my groceries at organic supermarkets, yet my monthly food bill isn’t higher than that of my best friend who buys a lot of crap (=processed stuff, sodas, etc.) at regular supermarkets.

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Anna • September 10, 2010 at 3:31 am

Wow. There’s your answer to why America leads the way in obesity. How on earth are you meant to drag your kids past free cookies??? That just amazes me that they have these sitting out for kids to run up and help themselves to in the supermarkets.

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Lisa • September 10, 2010 at 7:15 am

Funny.. I am in the DC area and I find Harris Teeter to be the least expensive of the stores around here..
It’s a crap shoot out there.. Use coupons, buy things on sale.. Make sure you will actually eat what you purchase.
Good Luck PQ!!

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Tina • September 10, 2010 at 7:38 am

I think I still have coupons that expired in 2002 in a coupon box I purchased in 2000 in an attempt to be budget-conscious. It doesn’t typically work for me. My tradition is still to browse the supermarket sales fliers every Sunday while watching CBS Sunday Morning and planning my meals and workouts for the week, but I tend to use those fliers more as inspiration to figure out what I want to eat, especially since many of them are using them to promote their products instead of highlighting sales. I also use my Cooking Light subscription, since they tend to post recipes that use seasonal ingredients.

Overall, my weekly supermarket budget (not including meals out, which is separate), is about $50-60 for my boyfriend and I combined.

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Deanna - The Unnatural Mother • September 10, 2010 at 10:24 am

Well that sucks! I hate grocery planning too, it’s just annoying! Give yourself a break, I always spend more with “newness of things” when it wears off, you’ll that balanace again

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RG • September 10, 2010 at 11:08 am

I think all of the comments apply: Food Lion (now called Bloom in the DC area) is cheaper, you’re still stocking staples more than you realize, and you haven’t hit your stride. But, yeah, wherever I live I find it best to buy things on sale – enough for the week or two that it will stay good and maybe some for the freezer. Once I’m in the groove, there’s enough variety to keep me happy. Good ethnic markets (Grand Mart) usually cut produce costs in half, and figuring out the best way to buy chicken, fish, meat also has a large impact on the overall food budget.

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maxie • September 10, 2010 at 3:18 pm

Well, first, groceries in Chapel Hill average about 25% more than in Indianapolis.

I’ve never found coupon clipping to be worth the time and effort. However, I do read the ads each week and stock up on stuff that’s a super buy, but it has to be a really good price. After a while, you’ll see that certain things go on sale on a cycle, so if you can plan to stock up on a good sale item, you won’t have to buy that item again until it’s on sale again (laundry soap, canned tomatoes, coffee filters, chicken, etc.)

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Vicki • September 10, 2010 at 4:37 pm

I shop at Harris Teeter (aka the Teet) here in VA. I agree, it’s expensive, but they do have good quality meat & fish, and produce (for the most part). We shop at different stores nearby for different things: The Teet, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s mostly.

Someone else commented about the sales at Harris Teeter. They do have good buy-one-get-one deals and they always double coupons. Sometimes they have super double coupons and also triple coupons! Keep an eye out!

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Debby • September 10, 2010 at 4:42 pm

Hi, PQ. This is totally off the subject, but is your book still scheduled to be in the bookstores in February 2011? I loved your first book and can’t wait to read the next one. Thanks.

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PastaQueen • September 10, 2010 at 5:11 pm

@Debby – Yep, it’s still scheduled for February 2011. The UPS man dropped off a copyedited version of the manuscript for me to review today.

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Denise • September 10, 2010 at 8:18 pm

I was going to suggest just getting most of your staples at Aldi, but I see the nearest one to you is in Raleigh. Probably not a good way to save.

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KittyLuvr • September 11, 2010 at 9:40 am

I shop at HT and use coupons because they double every day….some weeks, they offer triple coupons or Super Doubles which means they double coupons worth $1 to $2….their coupon policy makes me shop there. Otherwise,I hit up FL for regular stocking up. Pick up a Wednesday paper, check out the grocery store flyers and plan your meals around what is on sale. This week HT has boneless chicken breasts on sale~buy 1 package get 2 packages free…yes, it was $4.99 a lb but calculating the cost of each package, I got 14 boneless breasts for $8.96….then the cash register spit out a $3 off coupon on my next purchase so I walked to the back of the store and bought another 3 packages which now cost $5.88 for another 13 boneless breasts…I packaged each one individually and froze them in my above the fridge freezer to use later….you can also check out the following websites…Sue Stock’s blog, Taking Stock on the N and O website, Faye Prosser’s columns on wral.com-smart shopper or visit http://www.savvydollar.com which will tell you when the best deals are for whatever you want to buy. My grocery bill also increased initially when I moved here but now it’s less than ever for a family of 4….

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Suz • September 12, 2010 at 5:53 am

I am not working, living off my 401k now…yeah yeah I know….
Anyhow I spend so little now on food, I buy at the 99cents store fresh produce(corn torillas 99,potatoes 99, lettuce 99,plums 99, carrots 99….and Trader Joes bag of frozen boneless skinless chick breasts ($7.49), froz green beans 1.99
box of Kashi cereal(2.50) & gallon of milk(3.99) and I am good for a week almost. This is down from my highest month of eating out 3 meals a day $758 in ONE month in the good old days…Orowheat outlet is cheap for stuff too.

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Megan • September 12, 2010 at 11:17 am

If you’re ever near an Aldi’s, stock up. They are the absolute cheapest for canned goods (black beans, diced tomatoe: $0.49 a can!).

Also, I second the comment that recommended Trader Joe’s for certain products. I know from my own price tracking that Whole Foods is the cheapest source for any tofu or fake meat product. Also, they have a store brand (feta cheese, edamame) that is way cheaper than any other “regular” grocery store.

Also, I found that making my own “snack packs” saved a ton of money. I buy the regular sized bag of almonds, then portion them out in baggies for the week. Then, they’re ready to go, and I can reuse the baggies. I also do this with low-fat cheese. I cut off a portion and put it in a little tupperware. So much cheaper than a pre-wrapped stick!

Good luck with cutting your bills!

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Jack of Jax Music Supply • September 12, 2010 at 1:15 pm

As the father of 3 teenagers and the adult who does most of the grocery shopping, I find Wal Mart (who I detest) to be the least expensive. However, their fresh vegetables suck. I find their meats ok. We plan a weekly menu and by our stuff according to that. It works well for us. We tend to go to Kroger for vegetables or farmer’s markets if we feel like it. Unfortunately there is not much to get around the drudgery of this.

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Laura • September 12, 2010 at 6:52 pm

@siv – This is what I was going to suggest. Most of the stuff that you can buy with coupons is over priced in the first place.

Rice, oatmeal, pasta, flour (make your own bread), veggies (are there farmer’s markets near you?), local meats that you can buy in bulk and freeze – all are much cheaper than “ready made” foods.

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Kari • September 16, 2010 at 9:20 am

If you don’t want to clip coupons or use The Grocery Game (your best option, IMO…lots of people on GG LOVE their Harris Teeter lists), Aldi is probably your best option. Trader Joe’s wouldn’t be bad either. Buying more “basics” and cooking more (it doesn’t have to be complicated) will also save you a lot of money. Processed foods are expensive and eating healthy is actually pretty cheap. I can get a bag of apples at Aldi for about $2-3. They also have a variety pack of fruit with apples and oranges for $4. Their spaghetti sauce is 99 cents and a huge box of pasta is $1.29. Buy the huge family pack of el cheapo ground beef and cook it all at once and rinse it, giving it even less calories than expensive extra-lean ground beef, then divide into individual servings and freeze it. I use it to make spaghetti and chili and taco soup, or anything else that calls for lean ground beef, browned and crumbled. You can get 5 lbs of beef for less than $10, and by cooking it all at once, you save yourself a lot of time. Makes a meal you can throw together quickly.

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Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, weight-loss inspiration, chronic headache sufferer, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She does this at JenFul now, but you can still have fun perusing her past here.

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