Friday, July 16, 2010

How to Live Cheaply in New York: Grocery Shopping

This recent post at The Frugal Girl got me thinking. How DO we live in New York cheaply? I'm going to do a series of posts about how we live cheaply in the most expensive city in America. To start, here's how we spend less on groceries.

I did a little (completely non-scientific) research. The average grocery spending for two people in the US is about $224 per month; the average in New York appears to be $400-600. Peanut and I have averaged $288 per month over the last year, so we're spending a bit more than the average person in the US but WAY less than the average person in New York.

Here's how we do it:

Different prices at different kinds of grocery stores in different neighborhoods
Your grocery selection really varies by neighborhood. Prices were cheapest (and produce was most awful) when I lived in Harlem. Prices were most expensive (but with lots of fresh veggies!) when I lived on the Upper West Side. Where we live now, we benefit from three regional chain grocery stores, a couple mom-and-pop bodegas (what you might call a "party store" or "convenience store" in other parts of the country), an independent fruit/veggie mart, a Korean grocery store, and a natural/health food store, all within two blocks. A few blocks wider encompasses another regional chain grocery store, a 24-hour organic mart, a Costco, and a number of additional independent delis and bodegas. There's also a CSA location.

But not all of these places are created equal. One chain grocery store has consistently lower prices on mushrooms and flour tortillas -- by a couple of bucks on each! The fruit stand sometimes has the best price on stuff that's about to go off, and usually great prices on really seasonal stuff (and also 20 oz sodas). The health food place is great for buying in bulk, one store is better about coupons and loyalty card deals. We've had to learn where things are cheapest, and make a decision about whether to walk an extra block for $1.50 off mushrooms. You can create a pricebook or save and compare receipts to start figuring out where to go for staple items.

Weekly shopping with fresh produce updates
We try to go food shopping once a week (the day the sales go up), with a mid-week refresh of meat, milk, and produce as needed. When I had a car and lived in a place with a Walmart, I would go grocery shopping every two weeks. That's just a recipe for disaster here, where you have to physically carry everything home with you (and where we have little storage space in the kitchen).

Ethnic stores and brands
I confess that we haven't done a lot of grocery shopping at our local Korean mart, because I can't recognize anything in there. But when I lived in Harlem, I regularly bought a lot of my staples at a Spanish grocery store. They had much better produce than my local chain grocery store, but they also had ridiculously low prices on beans, tortillas, soda, and kool-aid.

$.99 stores
I hear this recommended for saving money on groceries but I don't prefer to shop at these places for deals. Their grocery sections are often either brand-name junk food or completely generic stuff that I've never heard of. I'm not fond of either.

Bulk shopping
Peanut and I do a lot of our grocery shopping at Costco. In addition to toilet paper, laundry detergent, and movie tickets, we get chicken (fridge-to-freezer or frozen), salsa, tortilla chips, granola, peanut butter, diced tomatoes, spices, frozen strawberries, juice, baby carrots, bananas, potatoes and other stuff that we use up quickly. (A few things that we DON'T buy there are rice and flour, because they only come in 20-pound bags, and we just don't have the space.) Bulk shopping is not for everyone, but it works really well for us. If you are single, you can share a membership with a roommate, or make friends with someone who has a membership (we're happy to take our friends shopping with us!).

Then there are a few things that work across the country:

Menu planning
We try to sit down every Sunday and plan our meals for the week, make a grocery list, and pick up as much as possible. This also helps us review our calendar together and figure out what's going on each week.

Couponing
Couponing is tricky here. A lot of stores don't accept home-printed coupons at all, and we don't have a newspaper subscription (nor am I willing to spend $4 on a paper that MIGHT give me that much in coupons). A lot of the coupons are for things we buy in bulk (Costco doesn't accept manufacturer's coupons) or stuff that we don't buy (highly processed box foods). I know that coupons work really well but the investment required here in NYC makes it not the most efficient way to save money.

Shop the walls
The biggest thing that has saved our grocery bill is starting to cook more from scratch, and we do that by "shopping the walls" of the grocery store. Most of the healthier -- and cheaper -- foods are on the walls of the grocery store: fresh produce, breads, cereals, grains, meat, fish, poultry, dairy, and frozen stuff. We dip into the aisles for canned goods and pasta stuff, but we try to avoid the chip and cookie aisles. If we want sweets, we'll make them ourselves.

What are your suggestions for cheap grocery shopping, wherever you live?

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