Sunday, March 4, 2018

What to Buy Where (A Kind of Comprehensive Guide to the Best Grocery Prices in NJ)

This morning, I came across an article at Money Talks News entitled, "25 Ways to Spend Less on Food." (It appears to be a requirement now that any article published on the Internet contain at least one number in its title.) I started out just skimming through this, assuming it would just be yet another assortment of tips that I've heard dozens of times before, like "Cook at home" or "Buy generic brands." (Well, duh.) That turned out to be true for the most part, but the author actually caught my attention when she started talking about where she prefers to shop.

In one of her tips, "Consider a warehouse club membership," author Maryalene LaPonsie claims that her Costco membership is "saving me a bundle," particularly as she has a family of seven to feed, complete with two hungry teenage boys. However, she's much less enthusiastic about Aldi, saying "my experiences have only been so-so" at this store. That struck me as curious, since I've always found that of all the stores in our area, Aldi typically has the lowest prices on foods across the spectrum. Costco, by contrast, has provided only a few particularly good deals. So if I were on a tight budget and could only go to one store, Aldi would definitely be my first choice.

In real life, though, we're not under any such constraints. Rather than do all our shopping at Aldi (where the produce, in particular, is very hit-or-miss), we prefer to spread our shopping out across several stores. Instead of going to one store and buying everything we need for the week, like most people, we schedule stops at different stores every month or so and stock up on the things we know are cheapest there. That way, we always get the absolute best price on every item we buy.

So I decided that, rather than recommending one specific store as the best place for bargains, it would be much more useful to go through my price book and note which individual items we buy at different stores. That way, all of you out there in readerland can take advantage of the legwork we've already done.

Here, then, is the list of all the stores where we regularly shop, and what we buy there. (Note that it doesn't include most produce items, as those tend to vary widely in price from week to week, based on what's in season and what's on sale.)

Aldi

  • Butter: $2.99 per pound
  • Cereal (raisin bran): $1.99 for 20 ounces. (It used to be only $1.79, but it's gone up and is now at the very edge of our arbitrary, 10-cent-per-ounce limit. If it goes up any more, Brian—the cereal eater in our household—plans to switch to oatmeal for breakfast.)
  • Cheese (shredded or block): $2.49 to $3.60 per pound
  • Chocolate chips (for baking): $1.79 for 12 oz.
  • Dish detergent: $1.89 for 24 ounces.
  • "Fiber Now" snack bars (a knock-off of Fiber One): $1.89 for a box of six
  • Flour tortillas: $1.19 for a package of 20
  • Orange juice (the good stuff, not from concentrate): $1.99 for a 59-ounce bottle
  • Parmesan cheese in the can: $2.29 for 8 ounces
  • Peanut butter (organic): $3.39 per pound
  • Peanuts (for snacking): $1.89 per pound
  • String cheese: $2.79 per pound

We'll also buy produce here if it happens to be both a good price and in good condition; it varies from week to week. We also look here for items like cooking oil, salt, pasta, rice, and canned goods if we can't find them elsewhere on sale.

Costco

  • Birdseed: $13.59 for a 40-pound bag
  • Milk, nonfat: between $2.20 and $2.30 per gallon
  • Olive oil in the can: $5 per liter
  • Raisins (organic): $2.37 per pound. (Trader Joe's comes close, at $2.99 per pound.)
  • Rolled oats: 5 cents per ounce. (Aldi comes very close, at 5.45 cents per ounce.)
  • Sugar (organic): $.80 per pound, far better than any other store
  • Walnuts: $4 per pound

Raisin bran is also a good deal at Costco when it's available, at $1.53 per pound, but on our last several visits they haven't had any.

H-Mart

  • Eggs, Certified Humane: These vary in price, but we can usually find one brand that's on sale for between $2 and $3 per dozen, which is better than any other store in our area. "Cage free" eggs are sometimes cheaper, but as the Humane Society observes, this label is actually pretty meaningless.
  • Scallions: Prices vary from 20 to 80 cents per bunch—either much better or only marginally better than our local supermarket.
  • Tofu: Usually around $1 for a 20-ounce package.

We also buy other produce at the H-Mart if the prices are good. The store doesn't sell much in the way of organic produce, but its prices on conventional produce are usually better than other local stores'. Recent buys include 2 pounds of red onions for $1.49, limes for 20 cents each, and a 5-head pack of garlic for $1.29. We also shop here for other Asian staples, such as soy sauce, sesame oil, coconut milk, and rice noodles, but we don't buy these very often. This store probably has the best regular prices on fresh fish as well, but we prefer to buy it at Shop Rite on sale.

PA Dutch Farmers Market

  • Bacon ends (free-range): About $5 a pound
  • Kielbasa sausage (free-range): About $6 a pound
  • Rye flour: About $1.20 a pound
  • Turkey franks (free-range): About $4 a pound.
  • Whole-wheat flour: About 85 cents a pound

Unlike most of the stores on our regular round, the Amish market on Route 27 isn't a place we can conveniently visit in the course of our weekly routine. It's only open on Thursdays and Fridays until 6pm and Saturdays until 4pm, so we have to plan a special trip to shop there. We generally schedule a visit there every few months to buy a few pounds of free-range meat and, if we need it, some non-white flour. Prices vary from month to month, but they're lower than any other store's prices for free-range meats, and the flour is cheaper than any other store's regular price.

Shop Rite

  • Milk, nonfat: $2.50 to $3 per gallon. (It's cheaper at Costco, but it's not worth going to Costco if all we need is milk, so if that's all we need we'll stop by the Shop Rite instead.)
  • Milk, powdered: $14.99 for a box that makes 20 quarts. (We mostly use fresh milk ever since we found that it was actually cheaper, but we always keep some of the dry stuff on hand in case we run out and can't make it to the store right away.)
  • Whipped cream: $3 for a 14-ounce can.

These are the only items we regularly buy at Shop Rite, but the store also has good weekly sales, so on most of our trips there we also pick up several items that are on special. Recent buys included 5 pounds of whole-wheat flour for $2.99, a 20-ounce can of diced tomatoes for $1.19, and a pound of asparagus for $1.56.

Trader Joe's

  • Brussels Sprouts: $2.49 per pound
  • Chicken legs (free-range): $1.99 a pound
  • Chocolate chips (vegan): $1.99 for 12 ounces. (We use the slightly cheaper chocolate chips from Aldi for most things and save these for feeding our vegan friends.)
  • Cocoa powder (organic, Fair Trade): $3.99 for 8 ounces. (This is labeled "cacao powder," but it's not labeled "raw cacao," so we're assuming it's the same as cocoa. We haven't actually tried it yet because we're still working our way through our last 5-pound bag of cocoa from from Dean's Beans, which cost $10.65 a pound with shipping. So we're hoping this stuff from TJ's will prove to be a usable, cheaper alternative.)
  • Frozen peas (organic): $1.99 a pound
  • Frozen spinach (organic): $1.99 a pound
  • Gnocchi: $1.69 per pound
  • Greeting cards: 99 cents apiece
  • Popcorn (organic): $2.29 for 28 ounces
  • Raisins (organic): $2.99 a pound (if we don't have a chance to get to Costco)
  • Soap: $1.69 for 2 bars
  • Tawny Port: $5.99 for a 750-mL bottle
  • Toilet paper (recycled, 80% post-consumer material): $4.99 for 12 rolls
  • Toothpaste (cruelty-free and SLS-free): $2.49 for 0.6 ounces 
We also look here for bargains on organic produce, though we don't always find them.

Whole Earth Center
  • Bananas (organic): About 89 cents a pound
  • Chocolate (organic, Fair Trade): Usually we can find one brand that's on sale for about $2.50 for a 3-ounce bar. (Most recently it's been the Endangered Species rhino bar, with cranberries and almonds, which is really good.)
  • Mung beans (for sprouting): $2.12 per pound
  • Mushrooms (organic): $2.49 a pound. (Occasionally these are cheaper at Aldi, but not usually.)
  • Wheat bran (for baking): $1.28 per pound
  • Wheat gluten (for baking): $5.46 per pound
  • Yeast (bulk): $4.59 per pound

As for our local Stop & Shop, there's nothing that we consistently buy there, but we still both stop and shop there frequently—sometimes to pick up something we need in a hurry and are willing to pay a little extra for, other times to stock up on something that's on sale that week. Last Friday, for instance, Brian bought a jar of mayonnaise (which probably would have been cheaper at Aldi, but we happened to need it that night), a pound of penne that was on sale for 88 cents, and a box of matzo ball soup mix on sale for $1.

So there you have it: a comprehensive list of where to find the very best prices on groceries in central New Jersey. Of course, if you don't happen to live in central New Jersey, or if your list of staple items differs from ours, your mileage may vary. But our list should at least give you a good jumping-off point for finding bargains on the kind of grocery items ecofrugal individuals are likely to buy.

One final note: You'll notice that one item conspicuously absent from all the above lists is coffee. I used to buy UTZ-certified coffee (which isn't exactly the same as organic or Fair Trade, but meets strict standards for sustainability and fair pricing) at IKEA, which was quite flavorful and less than $7 a pound. However, IKEA has now let me down by discontinuing its UTZ-Certified line in favor of a new, Fair Trade-certified line called PÅTÅR, which does not include a decaf coffee. Neither Costco nor Trader Joe's carries any coffees that are both organic and decaffeinated, and the best price I've found at any regular supermarket is $12 a pound. I can still buy the beans in bulk from Dean's Beans, but it now costs $12.60 per pound with shipping—not to mention that I have to buy 5 pounds at a time, and at the rate I drink coffee, it will lose its flavor long before I've consumed all of it. So if anyone out there knows a good place to buy organic, Fair Trade, decaf coffee at a more reasonable price, please mention it in the comments. I may not drink coffee as often as I used to, but I'd still like to have a decent brew available when I want it.
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