If there’s one thing more than I love food, it’s saving money. To some, grocery shopping is a mundane task. But to me, it’s a guilty pleasure. I love scouring the aisles for good food and great deals. Trader Joe’s is one of my favorite places on the planet (next to IKEA.) But it’s easy to walk out of there with a full cart and an empty wallet. While the prices are nothing compared to Whole Foods, it’s not the ideal place for twenty somethings to do their full grocery shopping if they’re balling on a budget. Learn how to save money on groceries at Trader Joe’s.
First things first…be a realist.
Before you begin your grocery haul, there are three things you should keep in mind.
- How many people you’re shopping for. It’s easy to get carried away at Trader Joe’s, especially if you’re hungry. They have so many interesting items, it’s hard to keep your basket from overflowing with 3 different breakfast carbs. If you’re shopping for one, you don’t need a bag of bagels, bread, and English muffins. Pick one for the week. Not because carbs are bad for you, but because food waste is bad for the environment.
- Your budget. Do you ever play the game of “how much will my stuff cost?” as you wait in the checkout line? I dare you to do some mental math as you add stuff to your cart. Do you really need that $3 jar of salsa this week? Stick to your budget and your grocery list.
- Other grocery store prices. I’m graced with the super power of knowing my prices. Perhaps it’s because I’m gifted at The Price is Right minigames, growing up in a frugal household, or working at a grocery store for 5 years. My guess is the latter. While Trader Joe’s has some decent prices, there are dozens of diet staples you can get elsewhere for cheaper.
Skip the produce.
I know you to shop the perimeter, but I’m telling you that you’re allowed to skip it just this once. In my experience, the quality of their produce leaves much to be desired. Not to mention you often are purchasing per item, rather than per pound at regular grocery stores. Pick up some items if you’re in a pinch (e.g. bananas, lettuce, carrots) but save your produce shopping for another day.
Stock up on some pantry staples.
- Canned beans. Believe it or not, they’re cheaper than Goya, not to mention they don’t contain nasty preservatives. You can even go organic for less than a dollar. Not only do you save money vs. other grocery stores, but beans add bulk (and nutrition!) without a hefty price tag.
- Nuts. But skip the nut butters, I promise you can get similar quality elsewhere. Most Trader Joe’s have an expansive selection of dried fruits and nuts, for a decent price. Stock up and make your own trail mix or Larabars at home.
- Broth. Whether you’re into chicken or veggies, you’ll be interested to know that you can stock up on stock much cheaper here than other grocery stores. You can get 32 oz. for $2, which is even cheaper than store brand boxes (often $2.50+)
- Ketchup. It’s organic and tastes out of this world. Seriously, you’ll become a ketchup snob after sampling this summer staple for only $1.99.
- Spices. Aesthetic is important to me, as well as prices. Sure you can stock up basics like Italian seasoning for 99 cents, but for a dollar more, you can have matching spices in pretty glass bottles. They also have some interesting blends, such as Everything But the Bagel.
Don’t mind the meat.
I’ve noticed that since living alone, I consume a lot less meat than I used to. Guilty conscious? Not entirely. I’m too lazy to cook it, not to mention it’s expensive at Trader Joe’s. You get two chicken breasts for $10. You’d think that it’s be antibiotic-free, raised like a prized possession. But no, it’s just normal chicken you can get at Stop & Shop down the street but twice the price. Save your money and skip the meat, especially the ground turkey. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s stringy when you cook it. The only meat I ever bother buying (because I’m too lazy to go to the actual store) is their ground chicken. I give that two thumbs up.
Check out the cheese.
It pays to invest in quality ingredients because you’ll save money in the long run. Have you ever bought low-fat cheddar cheese? You probably used half the bag on your taco to get even a hint of flavor. While Trader Joe’s cheese is on the pricier side, each ounce is jam-packed with flavor. If your diet includes dairy, I recommend checking out their cheddar with caramelized onions. Trust me, wine and cheese night with the girls will never be the same.
Favor the frozen aisle.
If there’s one place that Trader Joe’s shines, it’s in their frozen section. I’m fairly confident that one of my old manager’s actually met his wife in the frozen aisle at Trader Joe’s. Do you believe in love at first site? Then check out what their freezers have to offer. While some items may be pricier (e.g. frozen veggies and fruit), you’ll find some great freezer staples. If you’re looking for a quick weeknight meal, their frozen section is the epitome of Sandra Lee’s Semi Homemade Cooking.
Some of my personal favorites…
- Sweet potato fries
- Cha siu bao (Chinese BBQ pork buns)
- Mashed cauliflower
- Tandoori naan (the perfect personal pizza crust!)
Seek out specialty items.
One of the most intriguing things about Trader Joe’s is that at least 90% of the products on their shelves are store brand. As someone who grew up on Toasted Oats instead of Cheerios, you’d think I’d be turned off by that. But after working at Market Basket for many years, I realized that some store brand stuff is as good as the original. Especially if it’s made with quality ingredients. According to their website, their products don’t contain…
- Artificial flavors
- Artificial preservatives
- Hydrogenated oils
So go ahead, splurge a little on items you haven’t seen anywhere else. I personally can’t wait to get my hands on Matcha-flavored Joe Joe’s.
- What are your Trader Joe’s must-haves?
- How do you save money while grocery shopping?