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 …
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 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.
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
- The Whole Foods “365” brand is almost always the cheapest option, but double check. We found three times where it wasn’t.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.