The Thrifty Whole Foods Challenge Begins!

I’m writing this after eating breakfast on Day 2.  The evening hours of New Year’s Eve were spent going out to dinner for a “last meal” (I had a lovely locally-farmed, humanely-raised roast chicken) followed by 90 minutes in Whole Foods trying to figure out what to buy for the first week.  It was actually better than I thought …

The Challenge

Just a quick recap: my family of three will be eating at the USDA “Thrifty” budget level of $491.10 for 30 days.  We will be adding to the challenge by only shopping at Whole Foods (my local store is in Cambridge, MA on River Street).  We made a bet with Whole Foods: if we’re successful, they’ll reimburse us for our food for the month; if we aren’t successful, we get nothing (although probably a hug, they’ve been awesome).

(You can read complete details about the challenge and our “value tour” of the Whole Foods store as well.)

You Can Win, Too!

There’s something in it for you as well!  Folks who joined our email list in January were eligible to win a $125 gift certificate each week, courtesy of Whole Foods!  Pretty cool, no?

Frugal Grocery Strategy

Every website I’ve been reading on frugal living talks about two things: only shop once a week and always have a menu plan before you go.  We do plan to buy food only once per week, but the menu planning in advance had to go out the window.  It is possible to go online and look at specials before you shop, but my local Whole Foods might advertise 150 discounts while actually having as many as 2,000 items on sale.  My advice: have a rough plan but keep an open mind. For instance, I was planning on making a butternut squash and apple soup, but the store didn’t have any butternut squash. So that was out pretty quickly.

Our first prority was the staples, loading in flour, whole wheat flour, sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, coffee, cocoa powder, rolled oats, five-pound bags of both potatoes and brown rice, and olive oil.  Yes, I know, a lot of sugar!  The total for these was $49.50 or 43% of our budget for the week!  Yikes!

Next, we moved on to fruits and vegetables and bought spinach, carrots, onions, celery, broccoli, tomatoes, a cucumber, garlic, canned diced tomatoes (28 ounces), and bags of frozen broccoli, frozen green beans, and frozen California medley (cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots).  For fruit, we purchased five apples, three tangelos, four bananas, and a lemon.  That cost $37.70 or 38% of the budget.

With a total of $87.20 we were feeling rather chuffed.  Next in the cart was a carton of 18 medium eggs, a half gallon of orange juice, a gallon of milk, and unsalted butter ($13.36 total) and then some lunch items for our son, a box of macaroni & cheese mix and crackers for snacks ($4.08).  The meat counter was next; our store has a separate refrigerated section containing special deals.  We found 3.56 pounds of ground beef for $3.49 a pound and chicken breast on sale for $4.99 a pound (we bought two).  That, plus a box of fusili pasta ($1.19), rounded out our haul.

Whole Foods receipt, week 1

Grand Total: $126. 33. We brought it all home, cleaned out the pantry of products that are “off limits” for the month (donating the perishable items to our downstairs neighbors … ), and sat a bit stunned.  Considering all the staples we bought, we think we did pretty well.  In fact, our tally of non-staples was only $76.83.  Not bad!

How We Did It

We trolled the aisles for the items we wanted and checked prices, then we went back and made our selections.  Apples varied from $1.99 – $2.49 a pound and were in three different places in the produce section, so we walked through, found organic Red Delicious (yay! my son’s favorite) and got those.  Some sections we visited more than once.  For instance, we didn’t add  maple syrup and coffee until we knew we could afford them.

At home, I built a menu for the week from the items we bought.  I’ll admit there are going to be a couple of wonky meals in there, but my family will be fed.  As we go through the learning curve during the first week, we’ll figure out how to buy smarter, it should take less time, and I’ll be better at turning items bought into dinner ingredients in my head.

Tips for You

  1. The Whole Foods “365” brand is almost always the cheapest option, but double check.  We found three times where it wasn’t.
  2. We bought coffee at $4.99 for a 14-ounce can of whole beans.  It was unground, but the store has grinders right there, so you can grind it yourself.  And whole beans are less expensive than pre-ground.
  3. The less expensive meats might not be at the butcher counter.  Check around as there may be a discount area where you can find meat that’s about to expire (just freeze it when you get home) or “family packs,” which are larger quantities of meat at a discount.  Freeze anything you’re not going to use immediately so you don’t have to look sadly at spoiled food later in the week.

    Meat repackaged and ready for the freezer or the fridge.

  4. Whole Foods has weekly specials which they advertise on flyers (you can check online before you go), but they also have Weekend Specials, so you can save even more money if you shop on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.
  5. Remember that the store might only be advertising 10% of what’s actually on sale, so go with an open mind and a flexible menu plan to take advantage of what you find while you shop.
  6. The more labor you do yourself at home, the cheaper the food is.  Two loaves of bread I made from scratch cost only $1.25!  You couldn’t buy even one loaf at the bakery section for that little.

On Wednesday we’ll talk about what we’re eating (too much starch!), and on Friday we’ll do another quick update and announce the winner.  It’s only two days in, but this has already been an eye-opening experience!



Read ALL the 30-Day Whole Foods Thrifty Challenge posts.


  1. says

    Wow, I had no idea you could get bulk whole coffee beans for such a great price. At my grocery store it’s $10.99 per pound even for whole beans! And we have a grinder at home so that’s what we prefer. I’ll definitely keep that in mind.

    Looks like you guys did great for your first shop!

  2. says

    Thanks Jessica, we learned about the cheap coffee & the grinding machines from our Value Tour. Although I have to admit we messed it up and a store guy had to come and help us. We wound up with more coffee then we should have … lol. Also my husband is a die-hard Dunkin Donuts coffee drinker and he was very concerned that he would *hate* the store brand but he said it was actually pretty tasty. But he still wants Dunkin Donuts when the challenge is over.

  3. Markthetrigeek says

    Very interesting premise. You can also buy in “bulk” to lower the price even more. We usually hit the Providence, RI. HF at University Heights which has many different case discounts. 3lbs or more gets you a discount off of meats. 24 cans of tuna, 12 of Almond butter again gets you a case discount.

    As for the espresso beans, we’ve tried HF stuff and wasn’t impressed. We get ours “locally” in Tiverton RI at Coastal Roasters.

    I know HF is sorta running this but, BJ’s has been improving their Organic offerings as of late so things like Eggs, Annie’s Mac and Cheese, Chx Stick, etc can be had much cheaper in bulk there.

    As a gardener, pulling this off during my peak gardening months would probably be quite easy given how little produce we buy during that time.

    Lastly, 4 bananas and 5 apples??? With my family, that wouldn’t get us past Wed if we started on Sunday. We’d have to drop the sugars. 😉

    Let us know how this whole thing works out for you. Thanks.

  4. says

    Mark I needed staples, next week definitely more fruit! And thanks for mentioning other stores and other options for people. I think the idea is to start thinking about your grocery store a little differently and how to make the most out of wherever you are. I’ll also be checking out BJs for Annie’s Mac & Chz my son kinda lives on it. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. says

    I can’t wait to read more! Considering how tight my budget is going in to the new year with a new pup, I’ll need all the inspiration I can get :)

  6. says

    I like the tips Lisa. #6 is very true. We buy a lot of prepared fruit from Whole Foods, but since it usually costs 2-4 times as much as its unprepared counterpart, I think I can manage to do the slicing myself.

  7. says

    I love this idea. I’m actually following it on my blog. I somehow didn’t get that you were basically starting from ground zero. Somehow, I assumed you would be able to use what you already had on hand. That is going to be a bigger challenge than I thought!! You said you planned menus. Would you mind sharing them???

  8. says

    Hi Kimberly, yes I’ll be sharing my menu plans and there are definitely some adjustments happening … as we get used to the idea. And yes starting from pretty much ground zero is a pain. My husband insisted that we “do this right” so ironically we threw some food out and stored a few things for the month until we finish the challenge. Our downstairs neighbors got a bounty of fruits & yogurt the night before!

    Tony, yes, I honestly can’t bring myself to buy the sliced fruit anymore. It just takes a second and I’ve invested in a very good chef’s knife so it’s really very little hassle. L–

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